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4 Scenarios For The Future Of Transportation

Self-driving cars manage to backfire on Los Angeles and cause even more traffic. Meanwhile, New Jersey has invested in public transit and become a commuters’ paradise.

It’s 2030. Google has taken over Atlanta’s transportation system. Automated cars have failed to solve Los Angeles’s traffic problems (driving is hands-free, but still a nightmare). New Jersey has a fleet of smart buses and on-demand “jitneys.” And Boston is hyper-dense: People live in downtown micro-apartments and get around mostly by walking and cycling.

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In 15 years, innovations like Uber and self-driving cars will “re-invent how our roads, transit systems, and freight and logistics networks function,” says a new report from New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management. The consequences could be strange and far-reaching.


The forces driving these changes aren’t governments and tax dollars, it says. They’re smartphones and private enterprise, which will remake transportation to the same degree the expansion of the interstate highway system did in the 1950s and ’60s.

“We call this process re-programming mobility,” the study, which was written by NYU’s Anthony Townsend, says. “In lieu of large civil infrastructure projects, transportation systems are increasingly being augmented with a range of information technologies that make them smarter, safer, more efficient, more integrated.”

Here’s more on the scenarios the report sketches out:

Atlanta: Google’s plaything

Predictions for the future normally see cities becoming more compact. But Atlanta could do the opposite. The report’s authors foresee it sprawling even more. One reason: Solar panels that let people in the suburbs charge electric vehicles cheaply and provide power for the city’s center. It turns out that sprawl is perfect for distributed power generation.

Another reason is the influence of Google, which makes Atlanta a testbed for self-driving cars and integrated products like Waze, Nest, Fiber and Maps. It strikes a public-private partnership with the Georgia Department of Transportation to run “G-Roads” for its self-driving pods. Then, it pushes for the automation of other transport, starting with freight, which adopts “platooning” that’s more efficient than human driving.

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After that, it’s a short hop to building suburban parking garages that let you “hail” a ride with a phone (it drives over to meet you). Until, gradually, people come to see the G-Roads as superior to the public network, and tax revenues, already low, plummet. And that’s only the start:

By 2022, consensus was building in Washington around a bold plan being pitched by Google to rebuild the nation’s entire surface transportation network around three technologies: solar power, electric propulsion, and autonomous operation.

Los Angeles: Self-Driving Gone Bad

Driving, always difficult in L.A. during rush hours, has become a round-the-clock disaster. Self-driving cars, which were supposed to make roads more efficient, haven’t helped. Actually they’ve made things worse. There’s a range of competing standards that stops cars co-operating. The worst drivers, like the elderly, don’t want to be “assisted” and continue manual driving. And drivers, because they rarely have to do it, forget how to drive. The result is chaos.

By 2030, L.A. is rethinking self-driving and prompting the rest of the country to do the same:

No one had ever considered the risks of incomplete automation and now planners everywhere are trying to figure out ways to accelerate the adoption of these technologies and avoid getting stuck in transition like LA.

New Jersey: Transit paradise

In the early 2020s, New Jersey is hit with five successive seasons of extreme weather that makes Hurricane Sandy look like a light gale. Its road infrastructure is destroyed, so it reinvests in public services. By 2030, its smart buses are the talk of transit advocates everywhere.

The report:

Alongside the existing rail system, a new network of fully-autonomous buses would be deployed, with e-hailed local jitneys ferrying riders into regional high-speed bus rapid transit corridors built along existing highways and arterial roads.

The system runs on a “prediction scheduler” that allocates seats to those who need them most and adjusts prices according to how early passengers book. The buses are platooned, of course, and employers discourage commuting, to cut congestion. Weather isn’t the only factor in the shift to buses. Young suburbanites don’t own cars, have little money, and love social transit.

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Boston: where walking is king

Unlike Atlanta, Boston becomes more compact. People in their twenties and thirties flock to micro-apartments downtown, embrace the sharing economy, and walking becomes the default way to get around. Much of the city’s streets are pedestrianized or converted to bike lanes, and all deliveries are made at night, when people are asleep.

To outsiders, the whole arrangement was unsettling, a kind of bourgeois evolution of the Occupy movement. The city seemed to be operating as a giant encampment with the consumer economy replaced by a giant lending library. Yet while much of America looked on in derision, young Bostonians were living better and more sustainably than anyone anywhere else in the nation.

Read the full report here. It’s full of ideas. While many of them certainly won’t come true, they might help you think about the possibilities. That, rather than actual prediction, is the point, Townsend says.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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