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What Will a 21st Century Transportation System Look Like?

Last week, President Obama had this to say about the future of transportation at his final State of the Union Address: “Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future — especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels. That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet. That way, we put money back into those communities and put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a 21st century transportation system.”

We wanted to know—what will this 21st century transportation system look like? We turned to some of our authors to find out:

Ray Tomalty, co-author of America's Urban Future (forthcoming February 2016)
The president was of course alluding to a carbon tax, which he is known to favor over cap-and-trade systems. Economists estimate a carbon tax could raise $1.2 to $1.5 trillion per year in the US, and if even a small part of this were spent on developing innovative transportation technology, a 21st century transportation system would be a real possibility in the US. At present, only about $2.3 billion in federal spending is devoted to transportation research. This is helping to test new technologies such as vehicle-to-vehicle communication, which has great potential to avoid accidents and improve traffic flow, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve travel times, and obviate the need for road infrastructure expansion. This technology is being tested on small stretches of urban highways across the country, but at the present rate of investment, it will be decades before fully automative vehicles are widespread in the US.

Many transportation experts believe the most pressing application of driverless technology is in driverless buses, which can greatly reduce the cost of public transit and vastly improve service. Unfortunately, little research and development is being dedicated to this purpose, something that could be addressed with funding from a carbon tax. Drone technology is another research and development area in need of greater public investment, a technology that is bringing the driverless movement to aviation and creating new possibilities for personal and goods transportation. Beyond research, new investment is needed in innovative transportation infrastructure. High-speed train service is a proven technology all over the developed world but in its infancy in the US (only one high-speed route in the country, the Acela Express linking Boston to Washington).

More thinking and research is also needed to explore the link between new transportation technologies, behavioral responses, and land use planning. This will require greater cooperation among local, regional and state planning authorities and cross-sectional cooperation among planning and transportation agencies. As the soon-to-be-released book, America’s Urban Future, written by Alan Mallach and myself shows, this is a field in which Canadian metropolitan areas have a long history of experimentation, so there may be something to be learned by looking north of the border for ideas on moving forward on this front.

Photo credit: Shutterstock
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Grady Gammage, author of The Future of the Suburban City (forthcoming April 2016)
By about 2050, driving your own vehicle will be a recreational activity like off-road four wheeling.  Routine travel in autonomous, mostly electric vehicles will be commonplace.  The cars will be smaller, lighter and often shared use but mostly they will still have only one or two people in them at a time.  Transit in all forms will dramatically increase, but in most cities people will still be living in houses with driveways and garages and they’ll use personal mobility vehicles to get around. 

Carlton Reid, author of Roads Were Not Built for Cars 
Cars? Where we’re going we won’t need cars. The past can tell us a lot about the future, and the past tells us that we’re very poor at predicting the next transport revolution.

18th-century folk thought canals would last forever. Early 19th-century folk thought the same about turnpike roads. And for those who grew up in the "railway age," the only future imagined was of steel rails and steam trains. Few predicted the motor car’s eventual dominance, and it’s reasonable to assume that the same inability to accurately predict the future afflicts us, too. As "car age" people, we tend to extrapolate into the future of transport using what we know, and that’s car-shaped objects on roads. The Tesla is a wonderful thing but the technology that underpins it is hardly new – electric cars were more popular in the 1890s than gasoline cars. And electric cars may appear to be “cleaner,” but this is only true if they’re replenished by solar power – all other recharging methods involve traditional power sources so, really, most electric cars are coal-powered cars.

And what of autonomous cars? Again, this is hardly the disruptive technology that many think it is. I’ve been using driverless cars for 50 years, cars which scuttle away and hide when not needed. Taxis. I can summon one with an app when in a meeting and it will appear outside and whisk me to wherever I want to go. When I use taxis, including Uber, I can kick back and let the driver – a silent automaton if I so will it – worry about the road ahead. I fiddle on my smartphone without even raising my eyes. Where autonomous vehicles might change the world – if we let them, and I’d rather we didn't – is over who has priority on roads. Currently, driverless cars are programmed to avoid cyclists and pedestrians. In a city full of cars driven by onboard computers it will be a great game to ride or step in front of them, safe in the knowledge they’re programmed not to touch you.

Because cities are expected to fill with more and more people I don’t see how driverless cars will be able to navigate around these empowered pedestrians or emboldened bicyclists, at least not in central business districts. It’s far more likely that there’s another technology waiting in the wings that we can scarcely even imagine. That is certainly what happened to our forebears. Until then (and, if I’m allowed to, even after then) I’ll continue to ride my bicycle. A driverless car has clear user benefits, but an autonomous bicycle would be rather dull and pointless.

Richard Willson, author of Parking Management for Smart Growth
Just as we need to stop subsidizing the past in energy policy, we need to stop subsidizing the past by favoring driving and parking over more appropriate transportation modes. Parking should be priced to cover both its actual cost and the costs it imposes on others and the planet. This is rarely the case in US cities, where the dual legacies of excessive minimum parking requirements and parking subsidies have distorted vehicle ownership and travel choices. These distortions have in turn, undermined land use efficiency, design, social equity, and livability. The 21st century transportation system will have fewer privately-owned cars and less parking. New technologies will ensure that we have all the mobility we want with fewer cars. Car companies know this – that’s why they are redefining themselves as mobility companies.

Photo credit: Shutterstock
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Jeffrey Kenworthy, co-author of The End of Automobile Dependence 
New technologies will clearly be part of any 21st century transportation system, including autonomous cars, but they should not be embraced in the way they are currently envisaged. A car is a car and takes up space with roads and parking, as well as helping to facilitate the continued destruction of agricultural land and natural areas through sprawl. This can be said of autonomous cars as well as electric cars, so ideally a 21st century transportation system will not look like the current automobile-dependent system in the USA, where cars are still responsible for around 96% of all the motorized passenger travel in cities. 

A 21st century urban transportation system will have a multitude of modes (walking, bikes, car-sharing, transit, car-on-demand, private cars and probably other innovative technologies such as pedelecs, Yikes, etc.) seamlessly linked together. This will be achieved increasingly through the use of smart communications technologies, which will give people instant access via smart phones and tablet computers, for the best combination of modes for any trip.

In all the excitement over autonomous cars, we must not forget that electrically powered conventional transit modes such as light rail (LRT) and metro systems are still vastly under-provided for in US cities, due to being starved of adequate funding over the last 80 years. With advances in design, materials, comfort, on-board facilities, wireless networks and many other improvements, especially more protected rights-of-way, using transit in the future will be very different from what we know today. 21st century transportation systems should not only see more transit, but much more non-motorised movement, such as walking and cycling, leading to a less obese nation. This change alone will see billions shaved off US health care costs, not to mention the cost savings of a "road diet.”

John Renne, co-author of Transport Beyond Oil 
Rapid changes in technology, such as self-driving electric cars and trucks, hold promise that the transportation industry will continue to innovate during the 21st century. Combined with a societal move towards an information and sharing-economy there is no doubt that marginal efficiencies will allow for a less carbon-intensive transportation system. However, the scale and intensity of weather impacts due to climate change necessitate a more drastic approach to achieve the key goal of limiting global temperature rise. The good news is that the path is simple. Anything we can do to promote walkable and bikeable communities will have the greatest impact. Therefore, we need to prioritize mass transit, which is the only transportation technology that has been proven to create walkable communities at the local level and deliver regional connectivity with the lowest consumption on carbon and emissions.