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Re-Programming Mobility: The Digital Transformation of Transportation in the United States

Posted by Content Coordinator on Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

RUDIN CENTER FOR TRANSPORTATION & POLICY MANAGEMENT

Introduction

The Need for Better Transportation Futures

For decades, transportation experts have anticipated a sweeping technological transformation of the way Americans travel, and the transportation system they use to do so. That transformation has arrived, as the same digital technologies that have reshaped other sectors of the economy, from finance to retailing, are rapidly re-wiring the networks that provide mobility to hundreds of millions of Americans. The changes associated with these innovations are being felt at all scales – from individual trip planning to the design and management of regional mass transit systems. 

In a distinct shift from the last 50 years, when transportation innovation in the United States was shaped by big public infrastructure projects like the Interstate Highway System, this transformation is being driven by the private sector. These companies are investing in infrastructure for mobility on a similar scale, but using very different technology. For instance, by 2014 mobile carriers have spent over $500 billion building out the nation’s cellular communications grid – about the same cost of the Interstates. All but invisible to planners and citizens alike, this new communications network is the most important transportation infrastructure of our era, enabling us to re-invent the how our roads, transit systems, and freight and logistics networks function.

We call this process re-programming mobility. 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. Over the next twenty years, the hints of change that we see today will accumulate, challenging our assumptions about how Americans travel – where they go and why, how they get there, and how the answers to both change the way we use land, the way we plan our communities, and in so doing the very role of government itself in shaping infrastructure and land use. 

The hidden nature of these new mobility infrastructures – tiny devices in our pockets communicating over invisible radio waves with algorithms running on servers in the cloud – has conspired to conceal the important public policy and planning issues that their mass adoption raises. While we now recognize the critical importance of understanding how new information technologies will change transportation, there is great uncertainty about how this process will play out. 

Key questions facing transportation research include:

  • What new technologies and services will have the broadest impact on mobility? Which will have more focused, but transformative, impacts on niche markets? 
  • How will new mobility technologies and services impact land use patterns? 
  • What kinds of organizational changes will transportation regulators, funding agencies, and planning institutions need to begin preparing for now, and what kinds of skills and practices will transportation planners need in the future? 

To shed light on these questions, over the last year, our research team conducted a comprehensive horizon scan of current debates about the nature and impact of these new technological innovations. Our analysis draws on more than 150 documents – research articles, case studies, news reports, and opinions and essays – produced by transportation experts, technology experts, journalists, and amateur observers. (A complete source bibliography can be found at on our website at www.reprogrammingmobility.org/sources). From these source materials we have identified hundreds of new technologies, new scientific discoveries, forecasts and speculation, and indicators of emerging conflicts. Some of these documents helped us identify patterns in the emerging discourse and speculation around trends in transportation, others provided expert insights and recent research findings with major implications for the future. 

As a body of foresight, these sources offer a stunning diversity of expectations – hundreds of compelling and plausible explanations for how certain technologies may develop, and the impact they could have on transportation in the United States. However, many fall short due to a variety of shortcomings: 

  • Too short of a time frame: Even overnight successes take time to develop. Much of the discourse about the impact of new technologies is overly optimistic about rates of adoption, market size, and the potential to displace existing market players or public institutions. Often, these types of forecasts rely on assumptions of inevitability that ignore or dismiss public policy choices that would push towards a different future. 
  • Too long of a time frame: Conversely, many scenarios set 20 or more years in the future are so disconnected from the present and any action we might take today, that anything outcome is possible. They often rely upon technological breakthroughs for which no clear path exists today, but is assumed to be solved over the long run.
  • Too dependent on a single technology or actor: Many perspectives on the future of transportation are built around the impact of a single dominant technology or actor But the business opportunity in transportation, the vast variety of legacy infrastructure, and the sheer range of technologies that are being applied to exploit it, suggests that in the near-to-mid-range future of 15-20 years, the transportation landscape is likely to become more heterogeneous, not less. So while it can be useful to construct a straw man scenario where a single player or technology pulls all the levers, the most interesting ones will be the ones without a clear winner, where tensions are amplified, not resolved. These scenarios may in fact be the ones where policy and planning can play the most valuable function – in helping to choose winners, or create the conditions for certain kinds of technologies to win out, or to actually encourage heterogeneity in the interest of resilience – having multiple redundant transportation networks might actually be a better strategy than a single, ruthlessly efficient one.

There is an urgent need to move beyond the techno-determinism that surrounds discussions about innovation in transportation, that have become bogged down in a Silicon Valley versus City Hall narrative, the innovative upstart versus hidebound local regulator. But how?

We believe that a more realistic, nuanced, yet equally transformative set of stories about the future of transportation are desperately needed. In this report, we present a set of four alternative scenarios set in major American metropolitan areas in the year 2030. These stories are neither too close to our present day (so that there is sufficient time for change to occur on a large scale), too far out in the future (so that they stem logically from actions taken today), too focused on a single technology or event (so that they capture the richness of technological and social co-evolution), nor too binary (so that we can consider a range of actions and outcomes). While this is by nature a speculative exercise, it is not fiction. Rather we have collected the most interesting and insightful forecasts in the public record, and woven them together into a set of coherent stories.

As the private sector takes the lead in setting the transportation agenda, the response from public sector has been largely reactionary and decidely short-sighted. We intend that these scenarios can be used to spur and inform discussions about the key issues that the nation’s transportation planners and policymakers need to anticipate in the coming decade.

10 scenario highlights

Download full version (PDF): Re-Programming Mobility

About the Rudin Center for Transportation & Policy Management
wagner.nyu.edu/rudincenter
The Rudin Center for Transportation at NYU’s Wagner School aims to strengthen our understanding of all modes of transportation through research, public forums, and educational programs. The Center draws upon faculty, students, and visiting scholars at NYU. Current areas of inquiry include: the flow of people, goods and information in and through New York City; information technology and transportation systems; inequality and access to employment; urban bike share systems; and the future of supercommuting.

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One Response to “Re-Programming Mobility: The Digital Transformation of Transportation in the United States”

  1. jerry schneider says:

    At first, I though that this article would be quite similar to the effort in Helsinki to create an “urban mesh” that would feature the use of communication technologies to connect a large number of mobility possibilities. But that is not the case. Moreover, the thinking completely ignores a large number of emerging modes that if developed and deployed would produce very different results from those described. Some examples may be seen at http://www.tevproject.com and http://www.ruf.dk and http://www.cybertran.com. There are numerous others descsribed at the Innovative Transportation Technologies website at http://faculty.washington.edu/jbs/itrans

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