The End of Traffic and the Future of Access
A Roadmap to the New Transport Landscape
David M. Levinson
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Less than two decades into the new millennium, transport is becoming interesting (again?). Such resurgence is why we initiated this book in 2015. Revolutionary technical advances are taking root; evolutionary social forces are responding; together, these phenomena are changing how people access and exchange goods. Transport and planning discussions are now being reshaped, prompting even seasoned transport professionals to appear as neophytes. Our aim with this work is straightforward: to reframe the evolving nature of debates about transport and to shape perspectives about the future of transport in cities.
Each person’s perspective is shaped by their own experiences. Both of us have sat in Minnesota car dealerships on gray and snowy April days while our so-called “tickets to freedom” received their 15,000 mile (25,000 km) checkup. In these times, we have each contemplated the volume of salt that the car was exposed to over the past year and incremental quantities of rust our car accrued. We are not alone in these experiences. They are familiar for those who have lived north of the US’s Mason-Dixon line. In such gloomy environs, one feels little joy associated with auto-mobility. One surprising reflection on all of this is that little has changed in these respects (or significantly improved) for as long as most people can remember.
The 1950s created the institutions and the financing tools needed to greatly expand transport infrastructure. After the onset of the US Interstate Highway System, the 1970s version of the Clean Air Act aimed to address the environmental costs of cars, and subsequent policies have had noticeable success in improving air quality. Public transport, mired in ‘crisis’ since the 1950s, received a large infusion of federal capital. Not surprisingly, transport planners in the 1980s were vexed with suburban ‘gridlock.’ They subsequently spent time chasing inexpensive strategies based on transport system and travel demand management as the roll-out of the highway network slowed. Planning buzzwords in the 1990s focused on growth management and concurrency (between development of land and the provision of infrastructure), so that public facilities were ‘adequate.’
Proclaimed as largest public works project in the world since the Pyramids, there are good reasons the Interstate Highway Act left many legacies. An oft unrealized impact, however, is that for the next half-century, transport centered on the themes of deployment (rolling out the highway network), and management (better operating the system). Transport planning in the Interstate Era focused on more roads here, removing bottlenecks there, better managing capacity over yonder. Innovation (technological or policy), took a back seat. So did doing anything exciting in transport.
The 1992 Highway Bill, more formally the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (refreshingly abbreviated ISTEA (and pronounced Iced Tea)), mildly deflected the highway-centric trajectory of US transport investments. Reducing the negative externalities attributed to auto use received increased attention; other modes received a boost of funding and acknowledgement. The reaction against auto-mobility gained steam with the warning whistle of rising greenhouse gas emissions and the observations of climate change. In some cities, initiatives might center less around reducing car use and more around enhancing other transport options. Either way, less has changed than one would expect given the revolution in information technologies over the same period.
But now, rapidly transforming transport systems in communities of all sizes are experiencing creative innovation, and discussions about how to best plan for people’s travel now makes new assumptions. Globally, cities are witnessing new forms of information and communication technologies synergizing with new approaches to share resources and new forms of data availability. These changes are invoking fresh flows of goods and information and allow people to achieve activities in different ways unavailable just a few years ago. Borrowing from Thomas Kuhn’s popular 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, discussions ring of a paradigm shift. Transport practitioners are encountering anomalies for which the historically accepted paradigms now have difficulty explaining.
What is certain in the future is that humans will maintain desires. Whether for stuff, skills, smarts, esteem, solace, security, salvation, spirituality, space, scenery, love, or socializing, these desires and the way they are accessed change with the times. Most desires have historically been satisfied by moving stuff while traversing distances across physical geographies. People transport themselves to collect some things; they expect other things to come to them. Moving forward, there is heightened uncertainty about how they will seek to access (or possess) things they care about it. What is paramount for the transport business is to uncover ways to ease how these desires are achieved in ways that comport with goals for which cities claim to be aspiring (e.g., livability, environmental preservation, social cohesion).
In this book we first explore the welcome notion that traffic — as most people have come to know it — is ending and why. We depict a transport context in most communities where new opportunities are prompted by the collision of slow, medium, and fast moving technologies. Fast moving technologies include computers and communication technologies, especially adopted by younger travelers. With an average life span of 11 years, cars would represent medium-moving technologies. The topology of the road network itself is the slowest moving of all, having been in place for years and unlikely to change much in the future. We juxtapose other changes likely to have a near-term impact, including a range of emerging technologies, such as autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, transit improvements, and better networking of car and cab sharing, referred to as mobility-as-a-service (MaaS).
We develop a framework to conceptualize transport and accessibility more broadly. In this framework, transport systems are being augmented with a range of information technologies.
More specifically, the first part paints a picture about the End of Traffic: data, history, and trends. We focus on what has actually happened (Chapter 1), why what is happening is a good thing (C. 2), the underlying causes (C. 3), how the inevitable conflicts between the timeframes of change keep transportation practice lagging far behind imagined transportation potential (C. 4).
The second part examines upcoming processes that are shaping the future of transport, and their consequences: Electrification (C. 5), Autonomy (C. 6), Connectivity (C. 7), Mobility-as-a-Service (C. 8), Demassification (C. 9), Dematerialization (C. 10), Delivery (C. 11). While these changes are still mostly too small have been measured in the system statistics. We have begun to see the tip of the iceberg in their transformative potential. We look at how even the laggard transit modes will be affected (C. 12). Then, we consider changes to land use (C. 13).
In the third part, the book builds to prescribe planning, finance, and design strategies for communities themselves and more specifically, those responsible for shaping the provision and use of infrastructure in such communities to embrace that better reflect changes. We prescribe new design aspects and priorities for rights-of-way consistent with the end of traffic (C. 14). We recommend pricing strategies to accelerate the end of traffic (C. 15). These might happen, but they cannot happen without active public direction (unlike the technology changes of dematerialization, electrification, automation, sharing, and cloud commuting, which are on trajectories if not entirely independent of public policy interventions, mostly so). Our last chapter (C. 16) charts paths forward for how transport will redeem itself.
There are things that might happen on their own (with a minimal amount of public policy interference). There are things the public can make happen through directed policies. There are things the public can prevent from happening with policy. We think the culmination of results presents an optimistic perspective, though some have referred to the ideas stated herein as “refreshingly unromantic.” This scenario has causes and effects, and can be compared with a status quo scenario (where traffic neither rises nor falls much) and one where traffic resumes its once seemingly remorseless march upward. We then offer priorities to accelerate these trends. Why delay positive outcomes like the end of traffic congestion, the end of tailpipe emissions, the end of car crashes, and the end of having to pay attention while driving?
This work is far from the first book on the future of transport issues, and we hope not the last. A similar work appeared almost two decades ago by the person to whom this work is dedicated (Bill Garrison); he offered observations back then which remain on-point today, if slow to take root. The content herein derives from our personal observations of and reflections on transport practice and scholarship. The text grew largely out of David’s Transportist blog which he has been writing since 2006; far fewer ideas may have sprouted in Kevin’s blog, Vehicle for a Small Planet.
Our purview admittedly has three limitations. First, most references and supporting data are United States focused. International readers may appreciate the changing dynamics, but will need to apply the concepts appropriately (easier done in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and in many parts of Europe). Many of the trends are unfolding globally, albeit at different rates. Second, the phenomena that we describe mostly apply to urban transport systems from the developed world (sometimes referred to as the West or the Global North, though it encompasses very east and south places like Australia and New Zealand). Third, our assessment and projections for several phenomena risk being a bit cavalier in the interests of brevity and readability. This is not a journal article. We would like it to be read. Some conjectures might be unsettling for a few people. We mitigate such ‘brushing off’ by documenting assumptions and relevant citations in the Pop-up Notes.
This third edition has some enhancements while still following the format of the first two. We grew tired of coming up with excuses for why we could not deliver copies to our parents or to offer you a physical, signed copy. So we are pleased to partner with the Network Design Lab and now offer a physical print edition; the first two editions were released in e-versions only. Second, we inserted revisions throughout reflecting updates to data charts and further graphics that support many of our arguments. Third, we changed the order of some text and combined other parts to ensure greater readability and streamlining of ideas. Reviews of past editions of this work appreciated the lively and personal nature of the writing. We retained this feature.
Even if transport is not your bailiwick, there is something interesting for you here. We aim for a quick read — and to encourage you to think outside your immediate realm. By the end of this book (this evening, if you so choose) you will appreciate the changing times in which you live. You will, we hope, appreciate what is new about transport discussions and how definitions of accessibility are being reframed. You will be provided with new ways to think about transport that syncs with a radically changing landscape. Even if transport is not your bailiwick, we think there is something interesting for you here because we conjecture about the places where at least two-thirds of the global population will live by 2050 and how they will satisfy their daily needs. We hope you enjoy reading our prospects.
What's New in Version 3
The book is updated and reorganized, with new chapters on Connectivity, Demassification, and Delivery, new and updated graphics, and new trends documented in the existing chapters.