Imagine Los Angeles-like traffic in Omaha, Nebraska, or getting passed by train after train as you wait at a Long Island Rail Road stop because the cars are too full, or shipments of food unable to get where it needs to go thanks to endless highway gridlock.
This is how the U.S. Department of Transportation envisions America's transportation infrastructure 30 years from today, unless drastic action is taken. What should that drastic action be?
Well, they don't know yet, exactly. They could use some help there.
Today DOT officials unveiled "Beyond Traffic: The Blue Paper," a report that looks at future transportation trends with regards to traffic, demographics, roads, the environment and numerous other factors.
The report also addresses some possible solutions to America's future transit woes; it puts a lot of emphasis on automated systems, like driverless cars and robot-controlled shipping and transit. That's what needs to happen, they say.
"We need to focus less on the country we had 20 or 30 years ago," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said this evening at Google headquarters in a livestreamed interview with the company's executive chairman Eric Schmidt. "This country has really slowed down its planning process."
If I could sum up DOT's view of the American transit system in 30 years, the exact term I'd use would be "fucking bleak." That's not hyperbole — they say that unless significant investments are made into our infrastructure, starting now, then America in 2045 will not be a nice place to get around.
Here are some examples. By 2045, barring our ranks getting thinned out by the zombie plague and/or a war against The Machines, our population will increase by 70 million people — more than the populations of Texas, New York and Florida combined.
People are living longer and don't fall victim to the diseases that once lowered our population numbers. At the same time, we're seeing more of a shift in living away from rural areas and suburbs toward "megaregions" and large city centers. We're also seeing a shift toward the South and West.
When you think of the traffic you have to deal with in LA, or New York, or even here in Austin where I live, our current infrastructure doesn't bode well for such a population explosion.
Don't forget there are more than just passenger cars on our roadways. The report addresses how congestion, as well as oil consumption, will affect the transportation of road freight — as well as the impact that will have on the environment. (Hint: Not great.)
Those, along with climate change and its effects, are the problems. The report also proposes some solutions, though it's big on nebulous concepts and sparse on details.
As I mentioned earlier DOT is placing a lot of faith in automation to be the cure for our future woes — autonomous cars that eliminate road deaths and traffic, robots managing our shipping systems, and more efficient commercial air travel with GPS and other new technologies.
Maybe it's too much faith. It's clear now that autonomous cars will probably be ready to go before regulators and the insurance industry will agree on how they'll work from a legal standpoint. This could be seen as a call for lawmakers to get it together when it comes to making sure these systems are safe, reliable and legal to use.
There's something else we're going to have to do to avoid a future crisis with our transportation system, and that's spend money on it. Foxx said that we basically called it a day with our highways around 1992 or so; investment in transportation continues to decline.
The report says that we need to spend $120 billion on highways and bridges between 2015 and 2020, while spending at all levels of government is just $83 billion; we need $43 billion for public transit, while it's currently at a dismal $17 billion. Today, our road system scores a mere "D+" grade when compared to the rest of the world. Surely, America can do better.
Foxx said that the Highway Trust Fund is set to expire in May, but while it's budgeted to dollar amounts, it's not budgeted to outcomes; these are the outcomes he'd like to set it set for.
The goal with this report, Foxx said, is to start a conversation. "The idea is to define the problem, and let the solutions evolve organically," Foxx said at Google, which to me is somewhere between a cop-out and a call for ordinary citizens and private industry to pitch in to fix the problems of the future. He's right, though; this isn't something government alone can fix.
It's clear that while we've managed to scrape by with a transit system that is hilariously inferior to ones in Europe and Asia, that system will not cut it in the coming decades.
Read the whole report here.