5 Innovations Shaping the Future of Transportation

We’ve all been told, “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” But, as transportation technology rapidly advances, our journeys are starting to look a whole lot different... 

The future is increasingly bright for innovation in transportation technology, as we find ever faster and ever smarter solutions for paring down our flights, drives, and rides. Many of these solutions have the potential to shake up current economic development strategies, which means it is perennially important to be on the lookout for new transportation technologies and their potential for influencing economic development. Here are 5 emerging technologies that get our vote for having some serious potential. 

1. The Autonomous Revolution

Autonomous Air Taxi

At the tail end of 2017, it is uncanny seeing just how far autonomous transportation technology has come. It was only eight years ago that the autonomous car developer and Alphabet subsidiary Waymo was founded. Near its introduction, the thought of autonomous vehicles as a part of our daily lives within 30 or even 50 years was considered laughable. Six years later, however, Tesla rolled out Autopilot capability. Three years after that, the company claimed that a Tesla vehicle will be able to drive from New York to Los Angeles on its own. The potential applications have been stated and restated over the last decade, but they remain no less exciting.

Autonomous vehicles have already made a splash in pop culture and mass media, but it is hard to downplay just how integral autonomous navigation may be for the next generation. Just last week, the German company Volocopter tested its first autonomous air taxi in Dubai. As autonomous tracking equipment and software come into maturity and continue to seep into commercial and consumer applications, it will be nigh impossible to avoid its implications. Further refinements to technology for the Internet of Things (IoT) that will allow autonomous vehicles to communicate with our other devices will further enhance the autonomous transportation experience.

2. Taking Passenger Rail to the Next Level

Siemens High Speed Rail

As of 2014, there were 182,000 miles (234,000 km) of railway in the United States. Of these, the only route to be considered “high-speed” is roughly 28 miles (45 km) of the Acela Express line connecting South Station in Boston and Union Station in Washington, D.C. The United States currently ranks 22nd in the world for high-speed rail infrastructure, and is likely to fall further behind

In 2009, the Federal Railroad Administration laid down plans to establish 10 high-speed railway corridors across the US. These proposed corridors are detailed in the map below. These corridors are currently in various states of planning, with the earliest completion (The California Corridor) currently scheduled for 2029. 

High Speed Rail Map

High-speed rail in the US remains a lofty goal in the face of initiatives that have stalled repeatedly over the past few decades. High-speed rail was first proposed in response to the unveiling of the Shinkansen (aka bullet train) high-speed rail network back in the 60’s, and not much has occurred in the generations following. Since then, high-speed rail has seen massive investment in areas like China, Europe, and the Middle East, which has promoted ease of transport across the globe. In fact, this may be one new technology where America has every need to play catch-up. Pending the success of current efforts in the US, ease of travel throughout the country could change significantly. Then again, if the Boring Company has anything to say about it, the US could be ready to leapfrog high-speed rail into something different altogether...

3. Taking Transportation Underground

In Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factor, the reclusive candy maker Willy Wonka described his method for hiding a massive candy production operation in such a small and nondescript facility: by building down rather than up. Instead of expanding to new real estate or constructing ever taller new buildings, Mr. Wonka simply dug new rooms out from the earth beneath him. “There wouldn't be nearly enough space for them up on top!” he says. “...But down here, underneath the ground, I've got all the space I want. There's no limit — so long as I hollow it out.”

Thinking like this was the impetus behind Elon Musk’s investment in underground construction through The Boring Company. His aim is to spur the development of a three-dimensional public transit network between metropolitan areas, made feasible by significantly reducing the costs of excavating underground tunnel systems. Such systems (modifications of the famous Hyperloop) would allow passengers and cars to travel from origin to destination at speeds of roughly 125 miles per hour on a hydraulic sled. Musk posted a video of such a sled traveling along a test track back in May 2017, shown below:

The result could provide trips between New York City and Washington DC in less than half an hour, turning journeys that would require a weekend trip into daily commutes. This has massive implications for worker mobility and housing, as workers could live hundreds of miles away from their place of work and still be present every day. 

4. Adapting to the Waze Wars

Don't Trust Your Apps Sign

The days of secret navigational shortcuts that only “the locals” know about are long behind us. Mobile applications like Waze, Google Maps, and Apple Maps allow drivers to quickly adapt to changing traffic conditions by rerouting away from congested roadways toward side roads with extra capacity. The result? A sudden uptick in traffic cutting through otherwise quiet side streets, as drivers opt for detours that provide them an easier route around gridlock.

Reactions to these sudden deluges of app-focused motorists have been mixed to negative, as the rerouted roadways rarely offer significant additional capacity and instead spread additional gridlock to neighborhoods that would have otherwise remained open. In the San Fernando Valley, for example, residents of the West Los Angeles suburbs must now contend with the overflow of the 405 highway. In the Bay Area, Wazers managing to escape traffic on Highway 101 were often found to be driving through side streets at highway speed. In Atlanta, GA, an estimated 45,000 cars a day take to the suburbs to avoid traffic surrounding Interstate 85 thanks to Waze. 

These stories represent a growing reality in a society where descriptive traffic data is plentiful and easily accessed and analyzed. In cases where growing vehicle usage outpaces infrastructure capacity, this rerouting (and the sudden changes in traffic patterns it can cause) presents a list of complications, hazards, and even opportunities that must be taken into consideration when planning for future development. In addition to incorporating the emerging practices of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) that were discussed in another Navigator article for this month, future planners will need to identify, mitigate, and potentially leverage residential neighborhoods that could be susceptible to spikes in traffic during peak travel times.


5. Redefining Biking with Bikeshares and E-bikes


Even ignoring the environmental and health benefits of biking over driving, it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify the use of a motor vehicle over a bicycle for short-range commuting and errand-running. Following on proven success in Europe and Asia, bikeshares are seeing increased prevalence in North America. A bikeshare works by establishing multiple hubs throughout an area where bikes can be easily rented, used, and returned. Because hubs are installed near town centers or the urban core of a downtown area, users can quickly pick up a bike at their origin and leave it at their destination without issue.

These bikeshares aim to tackle a lack of “first mile” and “last mile” transportation, a problem where residents and visitors have difficulty getting from a major transportation hub (like a bus or train station) to their final destination (like a shop or their own home).  Often these first mile and last mile locations are in close enough proximity that a car is unnecessary, but are far enough away that walking is inconvenient or hazardous. Bikeshares that are reasonably priced and situated in accessible public locations provide a cheap and simple solution to this dilemma—for example, a commuter in Albany who purchases a yearly subscription to the new CDPHP Ride! Bikeshare intending to commute two miles to work and back each day will likely end up spending roughly $0.07 per mile with zero additional maintenance or storage costs. By comparison, most motor vehicles would cost nearly twice as much to use in fuel alone. These bikeshares also feature numerous features to enhance rideability, security, and convenience.

Some bikeshares even feature electric bikes, or e-bikes, which have been outfitted with a battery and electric motor. E-bikes have similar potential to bikeshares (perhaps even moreso) as they are capable of bridging the feature gap between a traditional bike and a commuter car. E-bikes offer a more all-inclusive experience: the speed and ease of use of a car, coupled with the size and maneuverability of a bike.

Dominos Electric Bike

And when we say speed, we mean speed. A typical cyclist can travel at a rate of roughly 12 mph (19 km/h) along a flat stretch of roadway for extended periods of time. On an e-bike, however, a cyclist can maintain speeds as high as 20 mph (32 km/h), which otherwise could not be sustained over a lengthy commute. When coupled with infrastructure and roadways that can support bike traffic, travelling through downtown areas using an e-bike can be as fast or even faster than travelling by car. This is why, in many cities, companies like Domino’s have begun to take advantage of the increased ease and speed that e-bikes provide. Delivery workers that use e-bikes experience less strain from pedaling, can quickly maneuver around gridlock, and are able to reach their delivery locations far more quickly and safely. 



Image Credit

  1. Volocopter. Link: https://www.volocopter.com/en/
  2. The Seattle Times. Link: https://www.seattletimes.com/life/travel/popular-elsewhere-high-speed-rail-remains-elusive-in-the-u-s/
  3. USA Today. Link: https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2017/03/06/mapping-software-routing-waze-google-traffic-calming-algorithmsi/98588980/
  4. Zagster. Link: https://www.zagster.com/sponsor-rochester/
  5. Dominos Australia. Link: http://jobs.dominos.com.au/media/10372/Loading-up-the-box-on-a-bike.jpg

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