You can’t get the right answers if you’re asking the wrong questions. So to get the answers our cities need to plan their roadways’ futures, those of us involved in transportation planning must start asking different questions.
Namely, we need to start asking if more lanes, roads or interchanges are the best solution to accommodate future growth. More infrastructure is not always the better option, and it’s rarely the least costly one.
Given today’s cash-strapped city and state transportation departments, the better question is: Do we have the right infrastructure in the right place for the future we want?
This question leads planners in different directions.
“The future we want,” for example, is likely to include automated vehicles that drive themselves, and they’ll do it more safely than the humans behind the wheel today. Soon will come the day when planners will be able to recalculate — and decrease — the distance needed between these vehicles on a roadway to operate safely. With the addition of automated vehicles, in other words, today’s roads may be able to accommodate more capacity without adding more pavement.
“The future we want” will probably also include a more flexible workplace and transportation mode choices. Today’s transportation systems were designed with the capacity to move high volumes of cars into a city’s downtown each morning, and then return them home to the suburbs each evening. Work patterns, however, are shifting, with more people working from home, negotiating flexible hours and reverse commuting. New generations are also embracing transit, bikes, scooters and walking as ways to arrive at their destination. Rush hour, in other words, will not be what it once was.
With changing behaviors and better technology to understand how people travel, planners and engineers are considering better ways to provide value to commuters. Here in Kansas City where I live, the average commute is only 22 minutes, but on a bad day, it’s just a few minutes more. Instead of focusing on traditional capacity metrics, like average travel time, we should consider system reliability and predictive travel time tools to allow commuters to more accurately forecast their daily commute.
We have long invested heavily in additional capacity to provide relatively small decreases in delay and travel time. The public’s priorities are different than they were 50 years ago. Investment decisions should reflect that change. A cost-benefit analysis suggests communities could save a lot of money if we adjust our expectations for speed during rush hour.
Slowing down traffic has other benefits that might also complement “the future we want.” Highway speed, distracted driving and accident fatality rates, for example, are all related. Roadway design features that reduce speed or limit potential conflict points may not be universally embraced by drivers focused on speed, but they can save lives. If we play our cards right, these designs can also encourage drivers to spend more time outside their cars exploring downtown before rushing home.
Sometimes transportation problems will require massive investments. But in the context of the “future we want,” the solution may not always be another billion-dollar megaproject. We must grow comfortable with the thought of narrowing choices and put decisions in a larger community context — especially when you consider the cost of the alternative.
We will likely also need to rethink how we fund our roads. Today, 18.4 cents of each gallon of gas you buy goes to the federal highway system. You pay state and other taxes at the pump as well.
In “the future we want,” cars will be more fuel-efficient and powered by electricity, rather than gas. In this future, gas taxes will generate far less revenue.
Rather than fund transportation based on how much gas you use, we may one day take a cue from the electric industry and base charges on how much roadway you use. GPS and other technologies make it possible to measure how far each of us travels each month, making it possible to create a road use bill — similar to our electric bill — for each of us each month.
To get the right infrastructure in the right places for the future we want, these are the kinds of questions we must ask. And then we must be open to where the answers lead us.