The Agenda

Transportation Trends and the American Future

David Levinson, a transportation economist at the University of Minnesota, recently identified 14 trends that will shape the future of commuting, e.g.: 

1. as state and local governments take on more responsibility for surface transportation, they will tend to make better decisions on capital and operating and maintenance costs, as they will be less skewed by the prospect of “free” or cheap federal financing;

2. because the U.S. surface transportation network is fairly mature, the emphasis will shift from new construction to “fix it first“;

3. the rise of electric vehicles will contribute to the collapse in motor fuel tax revenues, thus necessitating alternatives like VMT (vehicle-miled traveled) taxes or increases in retail sales taxes;

4. the spread of sensors will facilitate traffic management in a variety of ways, reducing the burdens of congestion;

5. the continuing “dematerialization” of the economy will tend to reduce the number of automobile trips;

6. delivery will increasingly substitute for fetching, i.e., firms like Fresh Direct and Amazon will continue to train U.S. consumers to rely on e-commerce rather than trips to the supermarket;

7. though car-sharing and bike-sharing won’t become extremely common outside of dense cities, their market share will likely grow — and the rise of autonomous vehicles may well lead to explosive growth in car-sharing;

8. as people rely more on virtual social networks and less on local social networks, local travel might decline as long-distance travel increases, i.e., I’ll make fewer trips around the neighborhood, but more trips to visit relatives 2-3 hours away by plane;

9. choice in education will tend to mean that more parents will ferry their children beyond their neighborhoods to send them to school, or to afterschool enrichment programs;

10. real-time information transmitted by smartphone will further encourage spur-of-the-moment planning and novelty-seeking (“let’s try this new place that gets X stars on OpenTable”);

11. big boxes will get bigger, and when families to make trips to physical outlets for groceries, they will be more inclined to buy in bulk and to buy less often;

12. as work weeks shrink, so will the number of vehicles on the road during rush hour — though off-peak travel will increase somewhat;

13. and most interestingly, the “end of driving,” i.e., the rise of autonomous vehicles, will lead to more mobility for children, the elderly, and the disabled and it will facilitate exurbanization, which Levinson touches on elsewhere:

Self-driving vehicles hold the promise of radically altering urban transportation. Their effects on intercity transportation are less clear. On the one-hand they will extend people’s willingness to travel by auto, as they lower the cost to the driver of travel (in terms of their need to exert energy driving and attending to the road), and enable them to engage in other in-vehicle activities. In that regard, they might change the boundary between the “drive or rail” and “drive or fly” decision (e.g. moving the threshold from 300 miles to 400 miles). Thus, they are more likely to affect rail than flying.

On the other hand, self-driving vehicles will likely decrease auto-ownership and increase various types of on-demand car rental, which I have called “cloud commuting”, such as car-sharing (Zipcar, Car2Go, etc.). This is because one of the major difficulties with car rental, especially in less dense areas, having to travel to get the rental car, will be obviated. People with fewer cars on hand are more likely to use shared transportation modes (transit, intercity rail, airplanes), since they will be paying more per trip (they will have to pay to rent the car, while if they owned, they would not attribute ownership costs to a particular trip).

Robert Bruegemann, an art historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has suggested that self-driving cars could impact urban geography in lots of different ways at the same time:

If the driverless car reduces congestion by maximizing the use of existing highways and taking passengers farther and faster with greater comfort, it could lead to even more dispersed cities. But it could also have the opposite effect.

Given the large amount of space devoted to roads and parking in American cities, even minor increases in collective use of vehicles could lead to less need for new pavement and parking and to higher residential and commercial densities. This would reinforce a trend that is already visible, as new development at the far suburban edge of most urban regions is currently being created at higher densities than in the past and there is a great deal of infill in city centers and close-in suburbs.

Although the driverless automobile, like almost every technological advance, will undoubtedly bring on a great many new problems, it could also help ease several existing problems caused by the automobile, notably traffic fatalities and congestion. An important prerequisite for increasing the benefits and reducing the negative side effects is to abandon some of the reflex thinking that currently hobbles transportation planning.

A place to start is the widely held, but dubious, assumption that we should plan our cities around some particular transportation system. To facilitate buses and trains, many people advocate turning the clock backward and creating a denser urban fabric of the kind that was necessary for 19th-century industrial cities. There is nothing wrong with living in this way if it is what most people choose to do. The arrival of the automobile, however, gave urban dwellers a great deal more mobility and flexibility in how they lived, and a large number opted for more dispersed settlements.

The driverless car could well extend that flexibility in dramatic fashion, combining some characteristics of automobiles and public transportation and allowing people more choice in the way they live, whether it involves more compact, high-density cities, more dispersed low-density settlements — call it sprawl if you like — or, perhaps most likely, all of the above.

Bruegemann’s analysis is a reminder of how various technological innovations are facilitating the sorting process through which like-minded Americans cluster, and grow further and further apart from non-like-minded individuals. There is obviously much more to say, but I’ll leave you to speculate. 


The Latest