The Future of Transportation Is the Bus, the Bike and the Elevator

CC BY 2.0. On the York Mills Bus 6:50 PM Oct 30/ Lloyd Alter

Henry Grabar writes a really wonderful article that shows how "a better world is possible."

It was a dark and stormy night and I had a meeting in the suburbs that Google said would take 50 minutes to get to by car, and 66 minutes by streetcar, subway and bus. I really have forgotten how to drive at night in rain during rush hour so I took option B, and spent the time reading Henry Grabar's article in Slate, titled The Hyperloop and the Self-Driving Car Are Not the Future of Transportation and subbed The bus, the bike, and the elevator are. Then I read it again.

The article is adapted from a new book, The Future of Transportation, and it is the best thing I have read on the subject since a tweet by Taras Grescoe in 2012:


Taras Grescoe/Screen capture

Grabar starts by highlighting the difference between the USA and the rest of the world, which has rolled out high speed trains, congestion charges and serious bike infrastructure. "In the U.S., by contrast, travel by plane, train, bus, and foot is undoubtedly less pleasant than it was 50 years ago."

Driving is, more than ever, the American way of life. It’s there, not surprisingly, that U.S. transportation has shown its greatest technological advances: Elon Musk’s electric car company Tesla, Alphabet’s self-driving project Waymo, the instant-hail taxi revolution of Uber and Lyft. Personal transport is looking up, with Alphabet, Bell Helicopter, Uber, and Boeing all chasing after the promise of autonomous flying taxis.

Grabar calls this the Hyperloop Group, " for their pattern of bold promises and missed deadlines." After complaining about the silliness of 3D printed housing, a reader called it Hyperloopism, which I co-opted as "the perfect word to define a crazy new and unproven technology which nobody is sure will work, that probably isn't better or cheaper than the way things are done now, and is often counterproductive and used as an excuse to actually do nothing at all." Because we know what works. We just don't want to do it. Or as Grabar puts it,

It’s not for want of “innovation” that we aren’t turning parking into parks, or traffic-clogged arterial roads like New York’s smoggy crosstown arteries into multimodal streets. It’s not the deferred promise of automation that stops us from charging people for the full, ice cap–melting cost of driving. The future of transportation is not about inventions. It’s about choices.


US PIRG/Screen capture

Grabar also gets Taras Grescoe's point about the importance of new technologies like the smart phone, which I used to decide on the route to my meeting and to read his article.

Arguably, the smartphone is the most fundamental transportation technology of the 21st century. Our constant companion has changed the way we experience travel, connecting commuters to new information, to nearby vehicles, and, perhaps most importantly, to anyone going their way.

When I was on the bus last night, everyone was looking at their phones. Nobody was sitting or standing there, being bored. I got an hour's worth of reading in, whereas had I driven, I would have had 50 minutes of staring out the window. It became useful time.


© ThyssenKrupp

But perhaps the most interesting part of the story is Grabar's inclusion of the elevator. I have written a lot about elevators, especially about new technologies, and a lot about how we get around dictates what we build, but never quite made the direct and obvious connection that Grabar does:

The elevator is perhaps the foremost example of a relatively ancient transportation technology that could allow people to live and work in closer proximity, reducing the length of commutes and fostering commercial and social vitality. Unfortunately, in most American communities the elevator has been functionally outlawed because zoning requirements will permit no building taller than a small tree.

credit: Cycling in Stockholm

Cycling in Stockholm/Public Domain

Perhaps the reason I love Henry Grabar's article so much is because it's like a mirror of what we have been banging on about here. Grabar concludes, as we have on TreeHugger, that "a better world is possible" using the technology that we have had all our lives – the bike, the bus, the elevator. It is the argument I have made for radical sufficiency: "What do we actually need? What is the least that will do the job? What is enough?" It is the argument we have made about Hyperloopism: "We actually do know how to fix things. We know how to make streets safe for pedestrians and stop murdering children; we know how to reduce carbon emissions to almost zero."

But Henry Grabar puts it all in one place, in one article, and written so well. Read it on Slate. Twice.