Mobility 2050: A Vision for Transportation Infrastructure

Posted by Content Coordinator on Wednesday, May 25th, 2016


Supported by a grant from the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, Northwestern University’s Transportation Center undertook an exploration of the factors, needs, and opportunities facing U.S. transportation infrastructure in the next 35 years. The objective of the study was not to forecast the future, but to frame the possibilities and thus to inform the public and policy makers about future needs for transportation infrastructure.

The project began with an assessment of the condition, performance, and funding for the various modes based on publicly available data. Condition deficiencies of various degrees exist across all of the publicly supported modes – highways, public transit, inland waterways, and, to a lesser extent, airports and airways. While a general transportation infrastructure disaster is not imminent, and the condition of some elements is stable or slowly improving, the deteriorating condition of transportation infrastructure is degrading system performance – producing long travel times, reduced reliability, higher user costs, and larger externalities. Long term degradation of transportation system condition and performance is producing a subtle but important drag on the economy, and some critical bottlenecks are causing quite specific problems. Aging infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable to unexpected disruptions from natural phenomena and component failures.

These outcomes can largely be attributed to two factors: insufficient and unsustainable funding for public investment and reinvestment in transportation, and inefficient deployment of those funds that are available.

Modes operated by the private sector, notably railroads and pipelines, are generally in better condition than the public modes. In the private sector, the links between condition, performance, revenues, and profits are explicit and more closely managed than on the public side, where it is easier to ignore or defer needs because the impact on revenues and the economy is less apparent, though not less important.

The remainder of this study identified important, changing aspects of the economy, technology and society, considering the kinds of developments and trends likely to occur in the next 35 years and then assessing their likely impacts on the demand for and supply of transportation infrastructure.

The future is framed in terms of three overlapping scenarios: business as usual, particularly in terms of transportation infrastructure funding and investment policies; sustainable and resilient cities, a result of a concerted national effort combining public policies and market forces to reinvest in cities; and competitive success, a market-driven path that prioritizes economic gain over long term sustainability.

The chapter on transportation infrastructure and the economy addresses the effects of transportation technology and costs on the location and efficacy of economic activities and the structure of cities. Changing resource costs, innovative technologies such as vehicle automation, and new delivery mechanisms such as ride sharing, may be game changers that affect future settlement patterns and determine competitive advantage. Pricing the use of transportation infrastructure may become both a source of funds for renewal and a way to allocate scarce capacity. Both theory and history suggest that efficient transportation services, ceteris paribus, can drive economic development and global competitiveness, delivering some measure of success under any scenario.

Technological advances and value changes are creating a revolution in the way people travel, particularly in cities. The chapter on technologies for urban personal travel shows that information technology and market innovations are expanding the variety of options available to travelers, and young people are increasingly benefiting from that variety. The demand for variety includes preferences for non-motorized travel and increased density and diversity of cities. Planners and policy makers have new kinds and vast quantities of information with which to guide the future of transportation infrastructure and services. That future needs to include renewal and rebuilding of infrastructure to accommodate new ways of living and innovative mobility options. To respond to market opportunities, that infrastructure must be built on not only an understanding of the variety of mobility options, but also a strategy for designing smart cities and smart transportation services, sensor- and communications-based designs that will make cities and their transportation systems a central part of the Internet of Things, functioning seamlessly together.

Rapid changes in technologies and markets are already stretching the capacity of the public sector to respond, facilitate, and finance innovations, and it will be important to grow that capacity so that public policy is not a brake on system progress. In response, private businesses, which are showing increasing interest in transportation markets and innovation, are likely to take even stronger leadership roles in mobility services. The need for transportation infrastructure will change but it will not decrease, and the challenge will be to find ways to assure that infrastructure for the future.

Information and communications technologies (ICT) have become essential for managing, operating and using mobility services in both the freight and passenger sectors. While the promise of ICT sometimes gets ahead of the reality, as in the case of the substitution of communication for travel, history suggests that barriers related to the technologies themselves, skilled personnel, and attachment to old behaviors usually erode, and the benefits of ICT catch up – sometimes very quickly, as in the case of smart mobile devices.

The future is likely to be one of ubiquitous and high capacity broadband services, augmented reality tools that will affect work, shopping, system management and information dissemination, and cloud computing that will massively increase computing capacity using only modest mobile devices. That future is one in which almost everything and everybody will be connected, introducing a broader variety of integrated, coordinated service options and delivery mechanisms for passengers and freight, and very soon, high levels of automation in the transportation system.

The transformative power of ICT may, on one hand, relieve some of the capacity constraints on fixed networks, at least for personal travel, but will also demand investments in infrastructure renewal and updating to take advantage of new technologies for sensing, assessing, communicating and managing transportation systems. The risk of inaction is losing ground in the global movement to boost transportation performance using ICT as its nerve system.

Figure 1: Factors Influencing Transportation System Performance

Download full version (PDF): Mobility 2050 – A Vision for Transportation Infrastructure

About the Association of Equipment Manufacturers
Advancing equipment manufacturers in the global marketplace; our passion is to not only see your business succeed, but to create a community where we, as an industry, can make positive and lasting change. AEM is 900+ members strong and growing, representing 200+ product lines.

About the Northwestern University Transportation Center
Established in 1954 by industry representatives, the Northwestern University Transportation Center (NUTC) was the first U.S. university transportation center & has been recognized as a leading interdisciplinary education & research institution since.

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