The Future of Transportation

"When America began moving west, we didn't add more wagon trains, we built railroads." -Bill Ford, Executive Chairman, Ford Motor Company

"It's not about bikes over cars over buses over pedestrians. It's about providing the options people need." -Janette Sadik-Khan, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation from 2007-2013

How do you move from Point A to Point B? 

This question seems small, but it's not. It's not trivial because for the first time in human history, more people live in cities than outside of them. And those people need to get from Point A to Point B in a confined space, alongside potentially millions of other people. As developing countries bring their populations out of poverty, forms of transportation previously unavailable, like cars, become more common. And cities can grind to a halt, turning into a traffic jam that snakes for more than 60 miles and takes more than a week to clear. 

The TED Radio Hour covered transportation this week and all of the speakers address how issues around transportation are inextricably linked to the future of urban life. And urban life is the future of humanity as the trend of urban relocation continues. 

So how do you move from Point A to Point B? In America, most trips are done by car. In 2009, more than 80% of trips were taken in a private vehicle. Our current infrastructure basically demands it. Many people live far away from work, errands, and recreation. Even ignoring distance, our roads are built for, well, cars. It's still an exciting and novel thing to have paths dedicated to biking. Many streets are not oriented for pedestrians either, without crosswalks or pleasant walking paths. And adequate and reliable public transit is concentrated in major cities (but not even all of them) and many mid-sized cities do without.

But if we're going to adapt to an increasingly urban world, our cities need to plan for and fund dramatic changes in transportation. 

As Janette Sadik-Khan, the former Commissioner of the Department of Transportation in New York, covers in her talk: It's not about one single mode of transit, but rather promoting the different options available to the best extent possible. Our cities were built in the last century on the presumption that cars were the only viable choice. We don't need to get rid of cars, but we need to reduce the necessity of cars dramatically. When a private vehicle is no longer required for every trip, many people will choose alternatives.

Or let's take the economic perspective. How much does owning a car cost you? I have a car, it's--*cough*-- a necessity in St. Louis. But it usually sits outside until I run some errands on the weekend. One or two trips a week, that's it. The rest of the time that it sits there I still pay insurance, it still loses value. What if the full cost of each car trip was really factored in? Robin Chase, the founder of Zipcar, makes that argument. Priced at $8-$12 an hour, Zipcars can replace 15 private vehicles and cut individual driving 80%. When the full costs are realized on an hourly basis, it's easier to see how expensive car transportation really is. It's harder to complain about a $2.50 light rail ticket. 

I've been biking to work lately. It's 12 miles round trip. I don't want to pay for a parking pass, the Metro takes longer, and I get a daily dose of exercise. But it's not always easy (my crappy little bike aside). I'm navigating the precarious world of bike commuting in a city that's only somewhat prepared for it. In fact, I'm pretty lucky for a St. Louis resident. Most of the route has markings for shared bike paths, and part of it even has dedicated bike lanes. But I still grapple with the ongoing question of passing on the right or staying behind? What do I do at stop signs? Can people see me, are they looking for bikes before turning? Our culture is unsure of itself with how to handle cyclists who aren't just out for a tour through the park. 

And St. Louis has a pretty good public transit system. The light rail is fantastic, wherever it goes at least. The buses are pretty good too. But the #70 bus has yet to be within 10 minutes of its scheduled time since I've tried taking it in my new neighborhood. (Bigger buses just went on this packed route this week). And the metro's population is so spread out, a lot of people have to drive to get to a MetroLink stop. 

All of our cities need to grapple with the issues of transporting their populations. Not just in the United States, but around the world. Especially around the world. As billions continue to rise out of poverty, the issues surrounding transportation will define quality of life in many major cities. And as our society addresses global climate change head on (and we sure as hell better), transportation needs to be in the cross-hairs. In the US, transportation accounts for 27% of all greenhouse gas emissions. 

So how you get from Point A to Point B will help define the future of our cities and the future of our climate. Not a small question after all. 

Bike St. Louis