It’s a common talking point of politicians around the world: Our roads are not good enough. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, road traffic injuries are a global public health concern. Well over 1.25 million people die each year in road traffic collisions — a statistic that is bolstered by dysfunctional roads, inadequate mass transit options, and malfunctioning or too few traffic signals.
This isn’t a new problem. One of the most important investments a nation can make is in its own infrastructure, but many nations are struggling to maintain safe roads. While it would be hyperbolic to say that the infrastructure in countries like the U.S. is outright “broken,” there needs to be a national consensus on priorities. Governments often struggle to find or allocate the funds necessary to meet the transportation needs of their people.
We have problems, and technological innovators are looking to provide the answers. Through cutting-edge technology, they aim to streamline transportation through automation, improved materials, and user-friendly services.
The Future of Transportation
Recent years have seen enormous leaps forward in transportation technology, including the interconnectivity of the internet of things and autonomous cars. Let’s break down each of these innovations and examine how they might positively or negatively impact the future of transportation:
- Smart cities: The internet of things has changed the face of the modern city. It connects countless devices and generates big data — information that can be used to inform urban planning and development. This could result in smarter investments in infrastructure and faster response times to traffic accidents, resulting in improved traffic safety. On the downside, there are serious privacy and security concerns inherent in the concept of a smart city. Big data is fueled by surveillance, and data breaches could leave citizens at risk for identity theft.
- Autonomous cars: Autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles are capable of transporting users without supervision. As they become more commonly used, they will streamline transportation by working synchronously. For example, as a vehicle learns about traffic jams, it can automatically reroute. These new models of cars rely on internet connectivity, though that opens the door to new risks; cybercriminals may be capable of remotely seizing control of a vehicle, which could put users at risk. Furthermore, unless the technology is perfected, there is no telling when the A.I. powering this innovation may make a poor judgement, leading to fatal consequences.
- Lightweight vehicle materials: With lightweight materials, automobile manufacturers can make a big impact on fuel consumption and reduce road damage. We’ve started to see a shift away from traditional cast iron and steel and toward magnesium aluminum alloys and carbon fiber. Key concerns in this transition are whether these new materials will be affordable enough for manufacturers (and therefore consumers), and if they will be durable enough to withstand traffic collisions while keeping passengers safe.
- On-demand ridesharing services: A number of relatively recent services, such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar, give consumers easy access to transportation. An obvious benefit of these services is that they reduce the number of vehicles on the road, reducing traffic congestion, traffic accidents, and wear on infrastructure. They also reduce the need for the development of additional parking in urban areas, which is more problematic than you might think. Parking fees constitutes a significant stream of revenue for government buildings and airports. Traditional taxi services have also seen a severe decline in recent years due to ridesharing services.
- High-speed trains: There is no doubt about it: Elon Musk is paving the way for the future of mass transit. SpaceX’s Hyperloop is a high-speed train that is designed to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco at a top speed of 760 mph; it can make the 350-mile trip in just over 30 minutes. This innovation could transform the face of public transition if it catches on. On the downside, it has proven to be an expensive venture. At $6 billion, very few cities would be able to seriously consider investing in their own “Hyperloop,” though the benefits could be enormous.
Environmental and Accessibility Concerns
Beyond looking at the financial responsibilities of municipal governments, citizens have other needs that must be considered. As the effects of climate change become increasingly apparent, it is integral that we keep environmental concerns in mind when planning and implementing new infrastructure. Furthermore, people with disabilities require improved access to transportation options. What can cities do to address sustainability and accessibility concerns?
Consumers today are aware of the causes and effects of climate change. They are compelled to buy eco-friendly products and use transportation options that limit their impact on the environment. Solar, hydrogen, and EV technology will give commuters plenty of options when it comes to reducing fuel consumption and carbon emissions. Local municipalities have already begun exploring using this technology in mass transit, and the wheels for sustainable transportation have already been set in motion.
Accessibility should guide transportation planning — especially in areas that are seeing rapid growth and development. Construction sites pose many risks to those that live and work nearby, and that danger is compounded when these areas are not designed to accommodate the elderly or those with disabilities. In the U.S. alone, nearly 5,000 construction workers and 100 pedestrians die in accidents at constructions sites each year, often due to negligence. Public transportation officials should place safety and accessibility above any other consideration.
Public transportation across the glove is in need of reform, and developers must ensure that they take appropriate action. The needs and desires of the public are being met with radical technological innovation. While time will separate the substanceless hype and practical advancements, there is no doubt that the face of public transportation is changing.
*Avery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.