How Will We Get Around When the Automobile Age Is Over?

Erie Canal

When we think about the future of transportation, electric and self-driving cars are the flavor of the month. But what if we think about a new transportation era that leaves the car behind? Writing in the Boston Globe, Jeffrey D. Sachs notes that we have been through transportation revolutions before, first with the canal systems of the early 19th century which connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes and opened up the midwest. Then the rail revolution put the canals out of business and of course, post World War II, the interstate highway and jet plane put the passenger railways on the ropes. Sachs writes that change might be coming down the road again.

Each new wave of infrastructure underpinned a half-century of economic growth. Yet each wave of infrastructure also reached its inherent limits, in part by causing adverse side effects and in part by being overtaken by a new technological revolution. And so it will be with our generation. The Automobile Age has run its course; our job is to renew our infrastructure in line with new needs, especially climate safety, and new opportunities, especially ubiquitous online information and smart machines.

Second Wave: Train infrastructure/Public DomainSachs is not quite sure what is going to follow, although he appears to be fond of the flavor of the month, the electric self-driving cars, with apps on our phones instead of two cars in the garage. For some reason he figures that they will benefit everyone, that “low-income households will likely reap enormous advantages in improved access to transport services, similar to the gains in access to low-cost mobile phone services.” Just like Uber has.

But then he calls for us to sit down, think and figure out what we need instead of rushing into it.

The first infrastructure task, therefore, is one of imagination. What kind of cities and rural areas do we seek in the future? What kind of infrastructure should underpin that vision? And who should plan, develop, build, finance, and operate the systems? These are the real choices facing us, though they’ve hardly been considered in our political debates to date.

Sachs notes that we need a mix of transport alternatives, including walking, cycling and public transport. He also gets that “Infrastructure requires fundamental choices on land use.”- our current land use choices all favor the car. Unfortunately he then goes back to: favoring the car, the autonomous one. He notes again that they will provide "high social access through the sharing economy", which is a worrisome turn of phrase, given how many politicians believe that self-driving shared cars could be used to kill public transit that currently provides "high social access."

credit: Wisconsin Historical society

Wisconsin Historical society/Public Domain

He calls for a National Commission to ask the big questions:

Will we partner with Canada on more hydropower? Will we shift decisively to electric vehicles? Will we reinvest in nuclear energy or close the industry? Will we invest in new interstate power transmission lines to bring low-cost renewable energy to population centers? Will we finally build high-speed intercity rail? Will we rebuild the infrastructure to promote high-density, socially inclusive, low-carbon urban living? Will we build smart grids to support autonomous vehicles, energy efficiency, and the like?

Good questions all, and really important questions. Whether we really need a National Commission to figure it out is another question altogether. It would also be a better article without the implicit bias toward the autonomous car. Read it all in the Boston Globe.