Transportation 2030: Study Envisions Autonomous Car Hell, Autonomous Bus Heaven, No Flying Cars

October 9, 2014

Look out the window. Are the roads in your city/town/hamlet clogged with traffic? Have they been that way for the past several decades? Do you wonder if things ever get better?

New York University's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management knows the answers to the first two questions, and it wanted to make some predictions about the third. So, researchers put on their thinking caps, talked to some of the best minds in the transportation field, and envisioned what our highways and byways might look like in 2030, a mere decade and a half from now. The result is called Re-Programming Mobility: The Digital Transformation of Transportation in the United States.

READ: Seattle, Boston, Washington, D.C. Ranked Safest Cities For Pedestrians

To craft that study, researchers looked at four areas of the U.S. where traffic is particularly heavy: Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles, and the state of New Jersey. They then crafted possible scenarios for each area, based on terrain, population density, infrastructure, and even climate.

Ultimately, any of the four scenarios could play out in any of the four study areas. They represent extreme cases and show what hell -- or heaven -- we could be heading for.

THE SCENARIOS 

Atlanta: Georgia's capital city could be a bright spot in America's transportation landscape by 2030. That's due a number of factors including topography (unbounded by water or mountains, Atlanta is capable of expansion in all directions, easing density), its location (it sits at a relatively low latitude, making solar power viable all year round), and its close ties to Google (which has an outpost there). That creates a perfect storm for Google's autonomous cars, which can use city infrastructure and apps like Waze to help travelers navigate around traffic snarls. Researchers envision the creation of special transit lanes for autonomous vehicles, which, in turn, boosts adoption of the vehicles, easing traffic along the way.    

Boston: Unlike Atlanta, Boston is on the coast. It's also an old city, with a well-defined downtown. In the Rudin Center's scenario, downtown Boston becomes a magnet for young people who want to live in a compact, walkable city. Like Times Square in New York, much of the city is converted to pedestrian thoroughfares and bike lanes. And in an interesting twist, deliveries are made at night, while residents sleep, keeping carriers (and their large vehicles) off city streets at the busiest hours of the day.

Los Angeles: Los Angeles has a reputation for hellish commutes, and in the Rudin Center's scenario, things only get worse. Like Atlanta, Los Angeles becomes a hotspot for autonomous cars. Unlike Atlanta, however, those cars come from a range of automakers, all of which use competing communications standards, which prevents them from "talking" to one another. (This is a real concern, given the lack of standards that's already begun playing out in other corners of the auto world.) That -- combined with the fact that many older drivers want to continue driving themselves around instead of relying on a computer -- leads to complete chaos. And probably a lot of road rage.

New Jersey: The Rudin Center study gives the Garden State the "mixed bag" treatment. On the one hand, New Jersey is imagined as a place wracked by intense storms over the next few years, which destroy much of the state's roadway infrastructure. On the other hand, that adversity forces New Jersey to reevaluate its transportation policy, and in doing so, the state chooses to invest heavily in mass transit -- namely, trains and autonomous buses. This catches on quickly with New Jersey's younger residents, who prefer not to own vehicles.

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