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Envisioning transport in the 21st century

Envisioning transport in the 21st century

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What should transportation look like in the 21st century? Multi-modal, sustainable, IT-enhanced and door-to-door, according to experts at The Economist's Intelligent Infrastructure conference.

NEW YORK -- What should transportation look like in the 21st century?

A panel of experts took on this weighty question at The Economist's Intelligent Infrastructure conference at Pace University, agreeing that it wasn't one singular vision that would solve the world's mobility problems -- rather, it was a combination of modes of transport that would best serve a rapidly growing global population.

Larry Burns, director of sustainable mobility at The Earth Institute at Columbia University, kicked off the discussion with a bold suggestion: what if you could converge electrically-driven vehicles with connected vehicles so that you couldn't crash?

It's not such a farfetched idea, the former General Motors research and development chief said.

"Standards are going to be required to make this work," he said. "We're talking about safety and critical systems here. We're probably going to need some mechanisms to make sure we deliver on a level of safety, so the government's going to have to be involved in some way. But you have to engage consumers. The technology is there. It's converging."

What's more, there's plenty of room for energy efficiency along the way, Burns said.

"Just one percent of that energy is moving the person," he said. "The rest is moving the 3,000 lbs. of vehicle, and loss to heat and friction."

Susan Zielinski, managing director of the SMART program at the University of Michigan, demurred and said that focus should really be on an end-to-end systems approach.

"I don't see the transformation in cars, I see it in transportation and transportation infrastructure," she said. "We think of that as roads, but we're beginning to think about multi-modal, sustainable, IT-enhanced, door-to-door transportation trip.

"The electric vehicle fits beautifully within this multi-modal system. And it's the system of the future."

GE Energy vice president Bob Gilligan said the transformation also requires drastic change in two largely conservative industries: the automotive and energy industries.

"Both of these old industries are responding to changes in society," he said. ""It's very hard to project what the world will look like 30 years from now, but what we know is that Henry Ford and Thomas Edison won't be able to recognize the world as well as they can today."

That kind of change must come from within, cleantech entrepreneur Jack Hidary said.

"About 10 years ago, a lot of us thought innovation would come from Silicon Valley," he said. "It's actually been a lot of other companies that have verticalized the supply chain and squeezed out costs."

It may also require a change in thinking, he said.

"Traditionally, a lot of us asked, 'How many of these will be on the road?' " he said. "What I'd rather say is, what's the percent of passenger miles traveled? That's a very different percentage."

Why that matters: because it changes our approach to transportation. Instead of outlaying a high initial cost for a personal car and justifying its existence by using it all the time, new flexible ownership models such as car-sharing may be of greater appeal to consumers and companies alike, he said.

America 2050 director Petra Todorovich explained how that changes development in a region.

"Whether they're electric or shared, cars have a decentralizing effect on a region," she said. "Cars are what allowed us to leave cities. That has energy and climate implications beyond the car: larger, detached homes, a wider area to ship goods and deliver services."

The majority of long-distance trips in the U.S. still take place by car, Todorovich said. But the transport gap for distances between 60 and 100 miles -- where air travel once ruled -- could be addressed with rail networks.

"Rail has a centralizing affect on regions," she said. "High-speed rail can serve the highest-value, most-densely populated and productive mega-regions of our country."

In a Q&A session, one audience member asked how this vision of the future incorporates a major, unspoken part of the rail network: freight rail. Will commuter infrastructure build-out adversely affect logistics for this highly efficient part of the industry?

"Goods movement is so relevant to a systems point a view. It is multi-modal, IT-enhanced, door-to-door transportation," Zielinski said. "If we could move people just as well…if we have to share the space, that means we have to optimize goods and people movement so that there can be more space and that they can interact with each other."

Zielinski said change is ultimately coming as part of a new generation's outlook on mobility.

"We've got this whole systems approach that the younger generation, they get it," she said. "Having to own five cars is so last millennium."

People rely on public transportation where it makes sense -- but it's unavailable in too many locations, Todorovich said.

"Every time there is an uptick in gasoline prices, there is an uptick in Amtrak ridership," she said. "Most Americans don't have access to convenient public transportation."

It's not just high-speed rail, either.

"Regional rail systems have to be in place for high-speed rail to work best," she said. "We are going to add 100 million people to this country by 2050. We need more capacity."

Hidary said there are things that can be done now to increase usage of multi-modal transportation systems.

One example: information flow.

"Not just having in the subway system a little LED system telling you when the train is coming, but also having an app on my BlackBerry telling me a train is coming," he said. "That information exists. It's in the system. We must free the information."

More from the Intelligent Infrastructure conference:

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure