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U.S. Department of Transport warns of dystopian future for transport

Wed 4 Feb 2015

The U.S. Department of Transport has issued a 300-page report [PDF] and accompanying microsite to launch its provocative ‘Beyond Traffic’ initiative, which depicts a grim 2045 for American travellers, with airports underwater, unmaintained bridges and roads in catastrophic decay, bursting trains unable to stop at most stations and LA-style traffic-jams in Nebraska.

The initiative, which moots car-sharing, ride-sourcing and driverless vehicles such as those in development by Google (currently head-to-head with Uber in the race to providing ride-sourced robot cars), was launched by Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt together with U.S. transportation secretary Anthony Foxx.

The hefty missive notes that America’s longer-lived and fertile population will increase by 70 million in the next thirty years in an economic climate that is not investing enough even to maintain existing infrastructure. It’s a catalogue of disaster practically ready to pitch to Roland Emmerich: congestion on The United States National Highway Systems will rise from 11% to 37%; climate change will see a slew of airports submerge below sea-level; and over-burdened public transport systems will ignore commuters.

‘Beyond Traffic’ presents itself as an ‘invitation to discussion’ both in the detailed report and the highly-pictorial presentation [PDF] which introduces the report. USDOT has no answers, but it knows it has problems, and throws some possible solutions on the table without explicitly endorsing them. As if to off-set the association of Schmidt with the launch of an initiative which moots driverless cars, the report gives a tolerable shout-out to Uber’s rise to $40bn valuation five years from launch, and says:

“Ride sourcing and ridesharing business models could help to speed the adoption of automated vehicles, as they become available, by lowering costs of ownership and expanding their accessibility. They can also help to supplement transit service in urban areas by providing efficient, direct service for short trips and providing service during transit system off-hours.”

Describing the new ride-sourcing wars as ‘a key challenge for governments’, ‘Beyond Traffic’ nonetheless sees potential in the ‘sharing economy’, both in the voluntary and for-profit sectors. The report opines that “Over the next 30 years, our legal and regulatory system may be increasingly challenged by emerging forms of business and travel that transcend traditional legal and planning concepts.”

In putting forward autonomous vehicles as part of the solution, USDOT’s report shows some excitement over emerging vehicle-to-vehicle (V2I) crash-avoidance technologies, which give guided or driverless cars the capacity to avoid potential collisions that sensors are unable to detect – or to intelligently identify or categorise as a threat – such as a moving vehicle at a blind intersection. Statistics quoted claim that 81% of current motor vehicle accidents could be eliminated by investment and development in crash avoidance systems.

Interestingly the central focus of the new initiative is about supporting the existing 19thC models of society, where workers travel into highly-priced urban conurbations; its vision of currently barren areas of the U.S. becoming traffic-clogged has more to do with the spread of the urban epicentre than any genuine move towards geography-neutral digital working, or ‘telecommuting’. The report does however mention that the number of Americans home-working at least one day a week increased by 43 per cent between 1997 and 2010 (which is arguably a simple parallel with the increase in network capability, and not demonstrative of the recent trend), and admits that ‘The fastest growing “mode” for commuting is, in fact, telecommuting,’

It continues: ‘Many employers now have much more flexibility in how their workers can commute and interact with their co-workers.’ The report notes. ‘Well over one-third of workers have the ability to set or change their arrival time at work—including nearly half of those in professional, managerial, and technical occupations. Increases in telecommuting and flexible work schedules could help to reduce congestion in large metropolitan areas by reducing rush-hour travel.’


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