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Re-Programming Mobility 2030: Scenarios of Digital Transformation in Metropolitan America

Thursday, June 25, 2020

For those who live in a nonstop swirl of Internet connectivity, decisions on where to go and how to get there are often based on reams of data, delivered electronically to mobile devices, that inform the best travel choices for nearly any situation.

“Every week, I hear about a different app that allows you to plan your route through your city on some other criteria that has nothing to do with what transportation modelers think people use to make decisions: cost, speed, mode,” said Anthony Townsend, senior research scientist at New York University’s Rudin Center, who spoke as part of Volpe’s Reimagining Transportation series. “There are apps that let you have the highest calorie count burned if you’re trying to be healthy, or the lowest carbon output if you’re trying to be sustainable.”

Markets are also becoming programmable: instead of major cities struggling to find the political will to implement congestion pricing, ridesharing services outside the government sphere use surge pricing to largely the same effect, Townsend said.

Amid the Signals, Four Futures

Townsend identified signals of an increasingly programmable world to create Re-Programming Mobility: The Digital Transformation of Transportation in the United States. This report examines mobility in an age of programmability and identifies four broad scenarios for America’s transportation future: growth, collapse, constraint, and transformation.

“Our method is based on an inductive method that assumes pretty much any story that you can tell about the future falls into one of these four archetypes,” Townsend said.

Anthony Townsend speaks at Volpe. To his left is a screen displaying an image of a man on a flying carpet.
The ability to transport oneself in an automated vehicle over long distances is not a new idea, noted Anthony Townsend, senior research scientist at New York University’s Rudin Center. It takes different forms and different mythic traditions, such as the magic carpet. (Volpe photo)

Growth, Collapse, Constraint, and Transformation

Townsend applied the parameters of each scenario to an American city or state to project what the future could look like.

In the growth scenario, exponential growth persists in areas like economics, science, and technology. In Atlanta in 2028, this means that the answer to traffic congestion is, counterintuitively, more sprawl. Solar becomes the main power source for electric vehicles on automated highways. The car is still king.

In the collapse scenario, favorable conditions deteriorate. In Los Angeles in 2030, cheap automated cars make up more than one-third of the vehicle fleet. The influx of vehicles and congestion is not paralleled by regulations and standards. Some cars are programmed to be aggressive, while others are passive. Instead of parking their cars, owners send them to drive in loops, exacerbating urban congestion. The Los Angeles surface transportation system collapses from too much innovation, and too little oversight, Townsend posits.

In the constraint scenario, there is a key resource that limits growth and leads to potentially unexpected innovations. In New Jersey, physical limitations mark the end of sprawl, as the last major developable tract of land is sold in 2018. By 2029, New Jersey is a model of transit-oriented development. People live and work in dense clusters and get around by autonomous bus. Shared electric bike systems and automobile bans free up land that is used for parking to be used for other development.

Finally, in the transformation scenario, change is driven by high-tech innovation. Boston in 2032 is a tale of two cities: a city of stuff and a city of people. Boston’s large student population is drawn to small modular apartments that can be moved around the city. Goods are bought at the click of a button on a wall screen—and they are stored remotely. The small apartments receive up to a dozen shipments daily. At night, a logistics network of automated vehicles springs to life to deliver goods.

“[The transformation scenario] is one that I think people gravitate to,” Townsend said. “This is really the Silicon Valley narrative that allows us to grow even better with fewer externalities than before.”

Townsend’s scenarios are intentionally broad. They capture overarching visions whose details are not yet clarified. They are thought experiments meant to push transportation planners to start to seriously consider the challenges America will face over the next decades. 

“The purpose of these scenarios is to get people out of what we saw as very one dimensional narratives for the future,” Townsend said.

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