By Eric Jaffe, October 10, 2014
We've had the future of transportation wrong since the final scene of Back to the Future. When Doc Brown tells Marty that "where we're going, we don't need roads," then lifts the DeLorean right off the ground, we all took him to mean the next big thing in mobility was the flying car. Well it's October 10, 2014, just a year and a couple weeks shy of the futuristic date Doc punched into the dashboard, and delivery drones aside, we don't really have flying cars. (Though wouldn't you know, we might be getting automatic shoelaces.)
But if we'd taken Doc's words a bit more metaphorically, we might have been right all along. American cities have started a gigantic pivot away from complete car-reliance toward multi-modal transportation systems that balance the needs of drivers alongside those of bus and train riders, pedestrians, cyclists, and taxi users. Instead of only a car key in our pocket or purse we have a metro card and a bike-share fob and a smartphone with an e-hail app. We're going to need roads where we're going, but we don't need just roads, and we don't need to use them the way we use them now.
That's the clearest lesson to emerge from our Future of Transportation series, which began nine months ago and wraps up today, some 85 stories later. Writers reported from pretty much every big city across the country: from Boston down to Miami in the east, Minneapolis to Chicago in the Midwest, New Orleans and Houston in the South, Salt Lake City and Denver in the mountains, and Seattle to Los Angeles in the west. Meantime, experts and planners and officials shared their thoughts and local lessons that can apply to cities of all shapes and sizes. In both a physical and intellectual sense, we covered a lot of ground.
Much of that travel came by modes other than automobiles. The trends in public transportation range from mobile ticketing to all-day service demand to quicker project completion to fully automated systems. The related rise in transit-oriented development is both promising from a mobility standpoint and potentially troubling from an equity one. Bus-rapid transit and light rail will both play big roles in our multi-modal future, and if they're designed right, streetcars can, too. High-speed passenger rail—some of it privately funded—has been slow going for now but remains potentially transformative. Bike-share has arrived in a major way, and electric bikes may soon follow. Even the oldest form of human transportation will also get a fresh start with new sidewalk and shoe technology (power laces notwithstanding).
Reader interest further confirms the crush on alternative modes. Some of the most-shared articles in the series—at least to date—touch on Portland's new multi-modal bridge that bans cars, Denver's multi-billion-dollar push to become the leading transit city in the West, how to make cycling more popular among low-income city residents, and whether the best way to end drunk driving would be to end driving altogether. Judging by reader comments, the pieces that sparked the most discussion include Nate Berg's adventures in a Tesla electric vehicle; Yonah Freemark's analyses of light rail systems and the federal government's failed high-speed rail plan; and Emily Badger's clear case for raising the cost of driving. Jeff Speck's triumphant look at why urban roads should be 10-feet wide instead of 12 is hot on these heels despite coming late to the game.
This interest in alternative modes doesn't deny that highways and cars will still play a dominant role in the future of city mobility. But the edges of that domination are inching inward. Some cities are pushing against increasing traffic congestion with new forms of road pricing. Others are attacking the problem with wholesale shifts in land use and grand new plans for densification. Parking will become greener, odd as that sounds, and potentially less plentiful. Roads and traffic lights alike will become more intelligent. Most urban interstates are here to stay, but some will be torn down in an effort to return cities to the people. Those Millennials that do eventually buy cars may be able to snap a dashboard selfie to celebrate the occasion.
The biggest wild card in tomorrow's transportation, of course, are driverless cars. They're pretty much here—we learned that much up close when we got the first live look at how Google's autonomous car is learning to navigate city streets. Cities and states are already preparing for the not-so-distant day when these cars will hit the market and the roads. But enormous questions remain about the ultimate impact they'll have on urban mobility. In the brightest scenario, driverless technology combines with smartphone-based, on-demand taxi service to all but eliminate car-ownership within the city and complement transit access in the suburbs. In the dimmest, the ceaseless flow of driverless traffic might grind our streets to a halt, and we'll be wishing for flying cars after all.
So thanks again to those of you who joined us on this trip, and our deep appreciation also goes out once more to The Rockefeller Foundation for its support for the series. Those of you who enjoyed the Future of Transportation can look forward to an e-book we're compiling of the best stories, which we'll make available to readers in the coming months. And rest assured our regular CityLab coverage will extend and expand the themes we hit on here. The journey continues.