Transportation Planning Is Stuck in the Past. Here's What Needs to Be Done.

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"Fixed-guideway systems will still be around, public streets and personal cars will still be around... Now transportation planners need to learn from the software industry and be more iterative. How can we accommodate different modes within the old networks?" (Getty Images)

This is an excerpt from City of the Future: Technology & Mobility, and the second in our “Viewpoints on the Future” blog series. Read the first one here.

Peter Torrellas has been working at the intersection of infrastructure and technology for almost twenty years, and currently serves as National Business Manager for State and Local Government at Siemens. Today, he believes there are several critical limitations in municipal transportation planning, and in many ways these limitations are worsening. “The window of opportunity to solve problems is moving faster than the planning process,” says Torrellas. “Planning, capital allocation, politics, even innovations like TIGER with the notion of ‘shovel-ready projects,’ are all built for a different time.”

So far, these limitations haven’t been too problematic. For all of the media buzz surrounding cities and the ‘disruption’ caused by transportation innovations, most people in most cities still only commute via car. But the true disruption may be right around the corner. “We’re going to have autonomous vehicles in 10-15 years. It isn’t a question.”

While denser cities like San Francisco, Chicago, Washington and New York will likely continue their trends toward multi-modalism, on-demand fleets of autonomous vehicles could be much more significant for the rest of the nation. Making trips to the store for bulk purchases, getting children to events or enabling seniors to live independently can all be accomplished without actually owning multiple personal vehicles.

Mr. Torrellas notes that “In the last 10 years, independent app developers taking advantage of public data was obvious and inevitable, but the next big thing will be centered around the automation and digitization of these systems.” Taking this step would be much more efficient and would remove significant amounts of traffic during peak hours. Particularly for freight and delivery services, “data centers will begin optimizing and directing the whole transportation network,” says Torrellas. “Algorithms make 60-70 percent of the trades on Wall St. and the same trend is happening in transportation.”

So how can cities prepare for the future and still be responsive to these unknown changes? For most cities, it will actually be important to think small. His advice: “You can’t just throw out the old way. Fixed-guideway systems will still be around, public streets and personal cars will still be around, but it will be one of many options. Now transportation planners need to learn from the software industry and be more iterative. How can we accommodate different modes, or driverless vehicles, within the old networks? San Francisco started with bike lanes and complete streets pilots, and they scaled. The city nailed pay-for-parking because they scaled and had vision.”

About the Author: Cooper Martin is the Program Director for the Sustainable Cities Institute at NLC. Follow the program on twitter @sustcitiesinst.

Program Director, Sustainable Cities Institute