By Tim Lane
The next 15 years promises to bring a sea change in how we commute as a society. We may very well look back on this moment in history as the transition point between static and fluid public transit. Today, under the established, static model, the public largely adheres to set schedules to commute around our cities. We travel within the constraints of the system. Tomorrow’s fluid model may look drastically different. Traditional modes like buses and light rail will be partnered with new advancements like autonomous car fleets and the Hyperloop. Stitched together, the transportation experience will be catered to the individual’s commuting needs.
“Broadly speaking it’s exciting that the mix is happening,” said Brooks Rainwater, senior executive and director of the National League of Cities’ Center for City Solutions. “These things that for so long were science fiction are now becoming fact.”
Perhaps one of the most exciting developments is the fast-approaching reality of autonomous car fleets. A recent report from the independent think tank ReThinkX found that by the year 2030, 95% of passenger miles in the US will be serviced by fleets of autonomous, electric vehicles. The biggest question, perhaps, is whether this advancement will progress in the public or private sector.
“Uber is pretty clearly reducing public transit use,” said Dave Chandler, Director of Economic Development at the Center for Neighborhood Technology. “The trend of public transport went up from 2008 until two years ago and has declined since. People look at it and think it’s probably Uber. It’s a competing model currently.”
This competing model could only become more formative if private companies perfect and invest in autonomous fleets that don’t value their public transport counterparts. However, there is a brighter possibility. One where cities step in with fleets of their own.
“I think there could be autonomous fleets at the municipal level,” Rainwater said. “It might be hard to conceptualize right now, but London is already trying to create a co-op. It is a model where cities act much like car rental agencies. They already have a ton of experience with fleet management. It’s a skill that could be used.”
Another alternative to protecting and promoting public transit would be to forge tight, reciprocal relationships between cities and public transportation. This could improve the overall commuting experience and ensure ridership equity.
“I think as we move to autonomous models we are starting to see some of those private/public partnerships pop up,” Rainwater said. “I think we’ll only see that relationship deepen.”
With increased sharing of transit and rider information, commuters will be able to depend on accurate travel times. Meanwhile, if approached correctly, private companies could be pressured to be a complement, not a competitor, to public transportation as a whole. “I have some optimism about things like Uber building in more equity that could change the equation,” Chandler said.
Hyperloop, though grander in scale and seemingly further out than autonomous cars, could also instigate a huge change in public transportation. By slashing commute times and freeing up highway space, the Hyperloop would be a boon on multiple fronts.
“Hyperloop could be a game changer for places like Baltimore and D.C.,” Rainwater said. “I think that if the private sector can prove the concept, then the public municipalities could follow.”
Smart City Planning
Even with all of the exciting technological advancements around transportation, without a considered, encompassing vision by cities, public transit won’t advance to its full potential.
“I think there are two basic paths that we could go down,” Chandler said. “The bright path is based on the consideration that more and more people are living in cities. Public transit is the most efficient way to move around in a compressed, compact environment. And the really neat thing is what has happened in last 20 years. There have been examples of people — combinations of architects, developers, and local government — designing transit-oriented developments.”
By planning cities around basic public transit needs, people can be easily connected with jobs in the city. With more and more manufacturing and information-based jobs created each year, the demand for flexible, creative workspaces will only rise. The importance of getting people to and from these dense, urban environments quickly and efficiently will be huge.
“The interactive nature of urban design and transit is underappreciated,” Chandler said. “Transit needs that design in order to function well.”
There have also recently been encouraging advancements in cities with historically low-functioning public transit systems.
“It’s really cool to see Denver and LA, which were built as very different cities, now trying to stitch it together,” Rainwater said. “It’s exciting to see the cultural pressures pushing people in this direction.”
The Morning Commute in 15 Years
A typical morning commute might begin by leaving your apartment located in the new development by the river. This and other areas are now designed with efficient transportation in mind, as well as the usual amenities.
From there, you hop into an autonomous transit car that’s been pre-scheduled, via your phone, to arrive at your doorstep at 7:30 AM. On any given morning, different neighbors might also share the ride, depending on time, day, route, and destination. The city’s transit system will take into account traffic patterns, commute time, and overall system efficiencies to decide the next stage in your journey.
The car drops you at a bus stop along a main thoroughfare, and a minute later the bus arrives. There’s no need to pay to board — your progress is tracked anonymously using the latest in blockchain tech, and your account debited automatically. The bus glides down streets in a dedicated lane, making great time thanks to less congestion. But also, thanks to the city’s convenient new on-demand services, which means bus stops can now be spread farther apart, requiring fewer stops.
Then maybe you realize you’re running late for a meeting you forgot — across town from the office. You tap the new coordinates into your phone and are given new options in real time: Either pay for a private service to meet you at the next stop (unfortunately, all on-demand city cars are tied up in rush hour traffic), or have the city’s transit app reroute your commute. You’re instantly given an exact time of arrival and can alert your coworkers if you’ll be late, or rest assured knowing that you’ll make it on time.
While there may be big technological jumps in the next 15 years, the biggest change will be to the overall experience as a whole. We’ll still rely on modes of transit like buses and light and heavy rail, but utilized in concert with newer advancements like autonomous fleets and the hyperloop. The city of tomorrow will feature a fluid transit menu of options, working together for quick, efficient travel.
Will we still hate our daily commutes? Maybe. It will always be more difficult to rewire human nature than technology. But with the right planning, tracking and mix of smart systems, we’ll have to work a lot harder to complain about such an easy ride.