How Should the Infrastructure Sector Cope with Radical Uncertainties?

By José Gómez-Ibáñez and Zhi Liu, June 6, 2022


Several major sources of radical uncertainty are currently affecting the performance of infrastructure and will likely shape infrastructure in the future: climate change, automation, the sharing economy, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Our book, Infrastructure Economics and Policy: International Perspectives, recently published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, attempts to determine how the infrastructure sector should cope with these radical uncertainties. 

Three chapters of the book assess the impacts of climate change, automation, and the sharing economy, respectively, and discuss how public policies should respond to these challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic erupted while we were preparing the book, and little evidence was available on which to assess its impacts on infrastructure. These impacts are becoming increasingly clear now as data and empirical studies are emerging, and we have included our thoughts on them below.  

Climate Change 

Severe weather conditions and natural disasters due to climate change can seriously disrupt infrastructure services and damage or destroy infrastructure facilities, from transit lines to power lines. These impacts typically vary from one locality to another. For example, forest fires are a major concern in California, while rising sea levels are more important to Miami. As a result, Henry Lee, the author of chapter 18 of the book and a faculty member at the Harvard Kennedy School, argues that effective adaptation policies will mainly emerge at lower levels of government, in a bottom-up process.  

Lee predicts that the magnitude of investments in climate-resilient infrastructure over the next few decades will be unprecedented. He discusses the characteristics of these investments and the scope of the transitions that will be required in the transportation, electricity, and water sectors. After identifying the governance challenges that underlie all climate mitigation and adaptation options, Lee proposes changes in governance to enable more effective planning, delivery, and management of infrastructure. His main messages are as follows: 

  • Honoring the commitments made by many nations to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 will require unprecedented investments in infrastructure.  
  • Local governments are likely to lead in developing adaptive policies, since the nature and extent of climate damages vary so much by location. 
  • The electricity sector will be by far the most affected by efforts to mitigate emissions as electricity replaces direct burning of fossil fuels for mobility, heating, cooling, and manufacturing and as countries shift to solar, wind, and other renewable sources that require more sophisticated and extensive grids and standby capacity to remain reliable. 
  • In the water sector, changes in precipitation will require some areas to import water, increase desalinization, or encourage conservation by raising prices. 
  • Transportation infrastructure will be the least affected, although many vehicles are likely to be powered by electricity or hydrogen.  
  • For these investments to succeed, four changes in the governance of infrastructure are needed: (1) reduce the number of agencies and levels of government with overlapping responsibilities; (2) streamline the process for siting facilities; (3) address stranded financial and human assets; and (4) reduce the bias for spending on disaster relief rather than disaster prevention. 

Autonomous Vehicles 

The second radical uncertainty examined in the book is automation and other new technologies that have emerged rapidly in recent years, thanks to advancements in information technologies such as cloud computing, the internet of things, and artificial intelligence. Whether these new technologies will revolutionize the infrastructure sector is the central question examined in chapter 19 by Shashi Verma, director of strategy and chief technology officer at Transport for London (TfL). Verma reminds us that fundamental infrastructure change typically comes only very slowly. Then, using autonomous vehicles (AV) as a case study, he discusses the economics of AVs, the likely impacts of automation on other modes and consumer behavior, and the institutional challenges it faces before its widespread acceptance. He offers the following advice: 

  • AVs may prove to be among the rare fundamental changes in infrastructure technology, on par with the invention of the internal combustion engine, and especially disruptive to our cities. 
  • Policy makers should take actions to prepare for the arrival of the technology, including licensing, allocation of road space, economic support to public transportation, and control over pricing structure. 
  • Between one-half and three-quarters of the cost of a taxi ride covers hiring the driver. If AVs could save on driver cost, this would stimulate an increase in travel and pose an existential threat to public transportation. The latter would be competitive with AVs only during peak hours and even then, only where it is protected from traffic congestion. 
  • Road congestion would likely increase greatly with the rising use of AVs unless there is a large increase in ride-sharing. The only unmitigated benefit would be a large reduction in the land required for parking. 

The Sharing Economy 

The third radical uncertainty examined in the book is the sharing economy. Sharing is an economic model of acquiring, providing, or sharing access to goods and services using online platforms. What impacts might the sharing economy have on infrastructure services and assets? In chapter 20, authors Andrew Salzberg and O.P. Agarwal explore this question using a case study of urban transportation. Salzberg is responsible for public policy at Transit, a leading public transportation app in North America, and before that worked as an executive at Uber. Agarwal served in the Indian Administrative Service and the World Bank and is currently chief executive officer of World Resources Institute India.  

Over the last decade, new methods of sharing motor vehicles (Zipcar, Car2Go, Uber, Lyft, DiDi, Ola, and others) and smaller motorized electric vehicles like e-bikes and scooters (Bird, Lime, Gojek, etc.) have grown rapidly around the globe. Salzberg and Agarwal discuss the potential benefits, costs, and risks of shared vehicles, and argue that the sharing economy model has the potential to improve the use of fixed assets and thereby allow wider access to services. However, the current experience of shared vehicles in the U.S. indicates that the market penetration remains tiny, as most people still prefer individualized mobility services. Therefore, whether the service will grow to a significant size remains uncertain. The authors predict that new regulations will emerge to address the disruptive impact of this model on traditional businesses. More important, public policies related to road and parking pricing and congestion charges will be crucial to the future of the sharing economy in the urban transportation sector. Their chapter also delivers the following specific messages: 

  • The sharing economy is not an altruistic neighbor-to-neighbor exchange, but a digital transaction connecting asset owners with users by taking advantage of improvements in technology. 
  • In theory, car sharing could greatly increase asset utilization, since personal cars are used only about five percent of the time. Simulations have shown that a ubiquitous shared vehicle network—using right-sized vehicles, potentially including AVs, and moving 100 percent of motorized travel—could dramatically reduce peak-hour congestion, the number of vehicles on the road, and the roadway and parking infrastructure needed to accommodate a given quantity of passenger travel. These model results are optimistic, however, in that they assume that travelers will shift to a sharing mode that is highly efficient from a systemic perspective. In reality, the long-term decline in carpooling suggests how difficult it is to convince two or more people to ride together in the back of a car. 
  • Infrastructure managers could encourage sharing by imposing per-vehicle congestion charges or by designating priority lanes for carpools. 
  • The future of micromobility services, such as electric scooters and bikes, seems especially dependent on designating street space where the vehicles could be safely operated by people with different levels of skill. 

The COVID-19 Pandemic 

During the production of the book, researchers were actively studying both the effects of infrastructure on pandemic severity as well as the effects of the pandemic on infrastructure. One of the first studies of the former appears in chapter 3, in which the World Bank’s Sameh Wahba, Somik Lall, and Hyunji Lee argue that infrastructure shortages and affordability challenges have exacerbated exposure and community contagion risk from COVID-19 across poor neighborhoods in developing cities around the world. Many other cities, including some of the major cities in China and Europe, adopted the opposite policy of attempting to reduce contagion by deliberately limiting access to infrastructure through lockdowns, quarantines, and other similar measures. How successful these measures have been in reducing the spread of disease and whether those reductions are worth their often-substantial economic costs is a matter of continuing and intense debate. Other emerging takeaways include: 

  • Public transit systems around the world lost much of their ridership and passenger revenues. Moreover, these systems seem unlikely to be able to fully bounce back even after the pandemic is over. Former riders are now more used to working at home and meeting online, and are more inclined to view riding on crowded public transportation as a health hazard.  
  • The consequences of a long-term shift from public transit to driving would be a financial disaster for public transit operators and traffic gridlock in our largest and most congested cities. It is important to consider what public policies are required to revitalize public transit systems, and to enable them to cope with future pandemics. 
  • A likely increase in public infrastructure spending is an important part of post-pandemic economic recovery programs. The primary objectives of these programs are to increase employment and revitalize the economy, and this funding can speed up the delayed construction of public infrastructure works, clear maintenance backlogs, and perhaps finance some “shovel-ready” projects. The key question is whether this is the right time for increased public investment for new mega-infrastructure projects. 

Policy makers often assume that infrastructure investment would have significant multiplier effects on other parts of the economy. However, a review of empirical analyses of economic stimulus programs, presented in chapter 2—authored by Gregory Ingram (former president of the Lincoln Institute) and Zhi Liu—suggests that in developed economies, infrastructure spending has little stimulus effect in the first several years, after which the economy is likely to have begun growing again anyway. These analyses find little to no short-term economic impacts, even when the long-term economic impacts are clearly positive. The small short-term impacts are due in part to the substantial time required to prepare and construct a project and in part to the crowding out of private investment by public investment. Therefore, it is important to select and include the most valuable and shovel-ready projects in the stimulus programs.  



José A. Gómez-Ibáñez is the Derek C. Bok Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning and Public Policy at Harvard University. Zhi Liu is senior fellow and director of the China Program at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. 

Image: A woman in the back seat of a rideshare. Credit: halbergman via GettyImages.