14 Trends Shaping Transportation

Percentage of Congested Miles on Twin Cities Freeway System
Percentage of Congested Miles on Twin Cities Freeway System

A trend is a technology which has increasing uptake. In the US, transportation is just getting interesting again, about 55 years after the interstate highway act. Using inductive reasoning, below are 14 Trends Shaping Transportation. Feel free to add and discuss in the comments.

  1. End of driving – Vehicle automation is coming. After six decades of technological slumber, the automakers are responding the DARPA Urban Challenge and Google and making serious investments in taking the driver out of the loop for vehicle control. The miles driven driverlessly are increasing annually. This will take some time to perfect, but one day we will awake, give a voice command to our car, and never touch the steering wheel, gears, accelerator, or brakes — and so will everyone else. We should remind ourselves that automated vehicles are probably already legal, so the burden of proof is on those who want to slow them down. Net: More vehicle miles traveled. More exurbanization. Mobility for children, disabled. Greater safety. Less surface parking.
  2. “Four-hour” work week – All of the gains in productivity from information and automation technologies should produce more free time, even if few of us achieve the touted four-hour work week of Tim Ferriss. We still work fewer hours than our grand-parents, and probably our parents, over our life-cycle. We take this not necessarily while working (vacation time has not changed much), but at the start and end of our working lives, extending the pre-work period into our twenties (taking advantage of productivity gains of parents and ancestors, and borrowing against future productivity) and our post-work retirement into our fifties (reaping the rewards of our productivity). Travel patterns differ by age group, but those who do not work daily do not make work commutes daily. While some of the now available non-work time is made up with out-of-home activities requiring travel, that does not require peak hour travel, and so has fewer consequences on the transportation system. Even recent increases in unemployment are a consequence of productivity gains of those remaining. Society can afford more unemployment rather than matching people to jobs they may be less than optimally suited for. Net: More free time available, more off-peak travel but not enough to offset less peak-period travel.
  3. Bigger Boxes – The supermarket economy that has seen an increase in the size, and decrease in the number of grocery stores, which is about economies of scales, price, division of labor, and choice. Fewer but longer shopping trips. The bigger boxes are not just stores, it is the entire supply chain from producer to consumer that is enlarging. Container ships are getting larger, trucks and trains are getting longer. Capacity utilization is increasing. Net: The ability to efficiently operate at greater scale is a trend that portends larger (and fewer) vehicles, stores, airports, cities, and so on.
  4. Know on the go – Real time information is available everywhere. Plans can be changed on the go. GPS systems have real-time traffic, construction alerts, and crash information. I can look at my cell phone and see when the next bus is coming to this stop. We are still putting this all together to make it useful, but it is in the process of transforming a world of uncertainty to one where we can plan (and re-plan) travel on the fly with confidence. Net: Plans will become increasing dynamic. People will venture farther afield, away from the familiar haunts, in search of the novel.
  5. Consumer sovereignty – There is a long standing trend of fostering consumer sovereignty in publicly supported goods and services, switching public subsidy from the service provider to the service consumer. We have done this in health and housing and are beginning in education. The rise of school choice, and especially charter schools, is further changing how children get to their place of education. Assuming we don’t replace the school house with home schooling and virtual classrooms, we are now sending students well beyond walking distance to school. The advantages of this are debated, and the costs bemoaned in the transportation community, but the reality is parents prefer what they believe is the best education for their child, and will spend more on transportation to achieve that. Net: Less neighborhood travel, more out-of-neighborhood travel for goods and services.
  6. Community without PropinquityMel Webber first coined this phrase some fifty years ago, but it is continuing to strengthen. While some bemoan this, and certainly there is an increase in the “return to local” as well, electronic social networks substitute for virtual ones. This implies fewer short-distance visits with people in your neighborhood, and more longer-distance visits either in the Metro area or beyond.Net: Less neighborhood travel to visit friends, more out-of-neighborhood and long-distance travel.
  7. The sharing economy – Dubbed collaborative consumption, the basic idea is that we can share things rather than own them. We already rent hotel rooms and cars rather than buying condos and vehicles in cities we visit, but we can do that more. I personally am dubious of carsharing being a widespread phenomenon (certainly not before vehicle automation), but it has its market niche. Bikesharing similarly has a niche, and fortunately is comparatively low cost (but not as low as you would think, compared to the relative costs of cars vs. bikes). Net: Less vehicle ownership. More vehicle choices.
  8. Markets in Everything – (as Tyler Cowan and Alex Taborrok would put it) If AirBnB or Casual Carpooling are the model of the future, my spare bedroom and the spare seats in my vehicle are no longer just my property, I become a mini-capitalist and turn those assets into money-making commodities. My guest room, or my couch, when it is unused is capital wasted. It is excess bedding. (And most guest bedrooms are underused). If someone traveling to my city needs a place to rest, why not there? If my car holds six, and it is carrying one, then I am wasting capacity. Net: Less vehicle ownership. More vehicle choices.
  9. The World on Time – We are increasingly outsourcing goods movement during the last mile. As we substitute online shopping for the real world (I would say bricks are mortar, but really more like cinder blocks and glue), we similarly substitute delivery for fetching. The infrastructure is slowly being installed to enable this, and there are lots of middle grounds, a reinvention of the old-fashioned post-office box. Net: Fewer trips, one of several factors leading to peak travel, but a technology enabling just-in-time consumption with optimally scaled stores.
  10. Nothing matters – Out with the analog in with the digital. This trend has been ongoing for decades, but we are now at the point that all of our sensors are digital, all of our data is digital, our analysis can now be distributed paperlessly. I can tele-work, tele-shop, and tele-conference, all of which substitute for some amount of travel. We get things that can be delivered virtually delivered virtually. You don’t pick up your daily copy of Streets.MN or Minnpost on your front step, they are, and (for their short lives) always have been, delivered online. Newspapers, like your music, your books, your mail, and your videos have been dematerialized. With the advent of 3-D printing, many more objects will be reduced to information. Net: Less road traffic. More internet traffic.
  11. Sensory Overload – We now have sensors everywhere, and we are just beginning to exploit this information. We have long had loop detectors in the road to help count cars and provide information to traffic signals. Now travelers themselves are the probes with GPS units and wireless communication enabling not just the analyst but everyone to know (in principle) real-time speeds, traffic conditions, and transit schedule adherence. This is producing what the hype machine is calling “big data”, but is really just “more data”. We want to know more about what we consume: generic “commodities” are being replaced with identity preserved goods. We no longer lump like things together without knowing where they came from or where they are going. This is important to achieve finer gradations in quality, or to track back potential disease outbreaks, or just to ensure legitimacy to the back-story about the conditions of production of coffee or clothing. Net: We will be able to better monitor conditions and make better short-term predictions. Congestion and late buses will be less of a surprise. Freight will be delivered on-time, and we will know exactly what it is being hauled.
  12. The Revenge of the Electric Car – The rise of the electric car has been long projected (and hoped for due to both environmental and energy reasons), yet the relatively low price of liquid fuel and its advantageous energy density (giving it a longer range than batteries) has deferred widespread adoption. But technologies are finally converging to enable electric vehicles to be competitive, and eventually surpass, liquid fuels. The price of electricity is dropping, and will continue to drop as solar gains efficiency. The price of batteries will drop as mass production kicks in. The efficiency of batteries will make slow increases. More importantly, the network of charging stations and the ability to recharge quickly will become standard. Tesla is already profitable, and sales are going up. Net: Complaints about tailpipe emissions of vehicles will eventually decline, to be replaced about the environmental effects of mega-solar plants. The financing mechanism of transportation, long built around the motor fuel tax will have to change. Cities will become quieter.
  13. American Association of Retired Infrastructure – The surface transportation network is mature and aging in place. This implies the focus needs to be more geared to maintenance and preservation than new construction. This been summarized in the slogan “Fix it First“. This need contrasts with the needs of politicians for ribbon cuttings. Along with infrastructure maturity sadly comes wasteful mega-projects. That is, if you are a politician, the only thing that seems to make a difference are large constructs; but unfortunately, since the network is mature, nothing actually makes a difference. People are caring more about not just average outcomes, but variance in those outcomes and extreme outcomes. With wealth comes risk aversion. People want not only a fast average time but also reliable commutes, they not only want bridges, but bridges that don’t fall down. All of these add costs to the system, as do any additional standards that needs to be met. Net: Infrastructure failures will become a bit more common, but not enough to reach critical mass. New construction will continue to be rare, and controversial, and costly. More attention will be paid to maintaining and operating traffic and transit systems to ensure reliability, and to the health of infrastructure to ensure it remains stable.
  14. Laboratories of Democracy – The real drop in federal funding for transportation makes what states, counties, cities, and townships do increasingly important. The federal fuel tax has not increased since 1993 (and the amount dedicated to transportation since 1998), so its share of total influence on decisions has been declining. It is still an important source, but in this game you have to pay to play, and lack of payment from the feds will lead to more local decision-making. This is a good thing, most surface transportation is local, and that is where decisions should be made. But this requires each state step up and decide for itself the type and quality of service it wants. Net: Communities will make better decisions considering both capital and operating and maintenance costs rather than being skewed by federal funding priorities.

There are many good ideas not on the list: road pricing being foremost. It has too few examples to be given trend status (i.e. it is not significantly increasing in share).

One thought on “14 Trends Shaping Transportation

  1. A good set of trends. I do have two quibbles. First, truly autonomous vehicles, where no driver ready to take over, usable by kids, blind citizens, etc., are still a long ways off. Even Google’s vehicle can’t handle all situations and requires a driver able to take over. It is also my understanding that such fully autonomous vehicles are NOT currently legal in most localities (Google’s vehicles have a licensed driver available). Having said that, the trend is clearly there. We’ll be seeing partial autonomy in the near future, and the societal changes brought by full autonomy, when it comes, will be dramatic. My one fear is that the partial autonomy that will be available within the next few years falls into a valley where there’s too little for the human driver to do, so the driver will be inattentive, which will lead to accidents when the automation system can’t handle the situation, which will give autonomous vehicles a bad reputation it may be difficult to recover from.

    Second, I’m not sure about the “four hour week.” Aren’t we seeing a trend away from early retirement to later? Society may be able to afford more unemployment, but the unemployed and under-employed are not, in general, happy to be in that state. And, personally, when I log on and do work on the weekend or at 10 at night, a surprising number of my colleagues are also logged in and working. Productivity increases have provided the opportunity for less work, but we are, as a society, not taking that path, I believe (at least in the U.S.).


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