The benefits and risks of private-public partnerships
Potholes are the bane of any driver in climates that freeze and thaw – to the point that some citizens have resorted to using some very risqué tactics to motivate their local municipal officials to properly address the pothole problem. A few months ago, Domino’s announced a campaign called Paving for Pizzas in which they fund municipalities to fill potholes. Why? If you spend a few minutes on pavingforpizza.com you are served an interactive pizza damage report featuring a video of what happens to a pizza when driven through “mild,” “moderate,” “critical” or “catastrophic” road conditions. In short, Domino’s is paving roads to make sure their pizzas are delivered in pristine condition while using a quirky advertising campaign to diversify the public’s perception of their brand. What was interesting to me was that in this new “Pizza and Potholes Partnership” paradigm we saw a private company taking a vested interest in the benefits of providing a simple, yet high-profile municipal service.
This should be a good thing, right? Private companies, in this case, the largest pizza company in the world, accelerate the rate of repair of roadways that are useful for everyone by paying for public good improvement. The civic space often looks to “Public-Private Partnerships” to meet the goal of government for the daily lives of citizens. Over the last few years, we’ve seen an uptick in public-private partnerships that won’t slow down anytime soon. If anything, it’s likely to accelerate.
Let’s take the Pizza and Potholes concept a step further and jump to Autonomous Vehicles. How long do you think the companies that plan to employ fleets of autonomous vehicles will continue to figure out how to detect and navigate potholes when they could simply pay for better-paved roads? This is already happening outside Joliet, Illinois where a shipping company is paying for improved bridges – specifically so that the volume of freight can be increased into the hub by reducing congestion.
While Public-Private Partnerships may relieve or remove burdens for cities, especially as budgets are tightening and the infrastructure sees increased needs for maintenance and upgrades, there are some angles that cities should be concerned with if these public-private partnerships skew too heavily towards the private companies. We could see a play against the “net neutrality” and public good status of roadways. Let’s say these services – including freight, ride-hailing and delivery services that will likely all rely heavily on autonomous vehicles soon – pay for roadway improvements. What’s to stop these companies and services for also securing the right for “first access” to the roadways that they paid for in order to deliver on their promises to the consumer? While this might not sound so bad (I too would like my Domino’s pizza to be delivered to me faster and in perfect condition, along with whatever “necessary” item I paid for off Amazon) – this could have larger implications for the individual traveler. What if you couldn’t get on the highway because Uber, Amazon, and Dominos all had paid for the “fastest” roadway when you needed to commute to work? This could shift the paradigm from traffic congestion for everyone on the roadways to reduced access and slower routes for folks who can’t afford to pay for access to the upkeep roads.
Public-Private Partnerships are generally a worthwhile endeavor for all the elements involved, including government organizations, private business, and most importantly the citizenry. But as our transportation system transforms into something very new and different over the coming years, governments and municipalities of all shapes and sizes need to keep pace with these radical changes. Cities will need to monitor these public-private partnerships and ensure that the benefits, and the drawbacks, are fully considered. Some decisions and partnerships could ultimately lead to, directly and indirectly, restricting individual citizens’ free access to the roadway today, however, ridden with potholes they might be.