The news is filled these days with an endless array of exciting new transportation technologies. Companies around the globe are spending billions of dollars and researching new technologies and procedures for moving people and goods, including drones, wheeled robots, autonomous vehicles, connected vehicles, ride-sharing and new vehicle ownership models, to name a few.
All of these technologies are geared toward one thing: Improving transportation efficiency. And a great deal of the impediments today that slow down transportation, logistics and just plain driving to the store for a gallon of milk is traffic congestion.
It strikes me that all of these technologies today are focused on improving vehicle efficiencies in our current, congested cities and roads. But, at least in the United States, we have yet to hear many serious proposals for getting to the root of the congestion problem – taking people and vehicles off of our roads and moving them around cities and the country in some other fashion.
To be fair, Tesla seer Elon Musk, among others, are developing hyperloops – basically a series of vacuum tubes designed to shoot people around the country at extreme speeds in what is often touted as the mass transit system of the future. And the concept certainly sounds very cool.
But what about the mass transit technology of today?
How come nobody is talking about light- and high-speed rail services as a way to get drivers off our glutted roadways?
Americans have never taken to the concept of mass transit the way other parts of the world have. Partly this is cultural: No country embraced the automobile as a way of life the way Americans did and our vast geography bolstered this mindset. Americans still love the idea of getting in the car and touring the country. And we drive everywhere. All the time.
That’s not the case in other parts of the world – where cars are among the many transportation options available to people, based on where they’re going and what they’re going to do once they reach their destination. The rail network in many developed countries is so good, many families opt to not buy a car and just rent one if the need arises. They can get around their towns, into the larger cities and even travel across the country just fine using the rail network. Here in the United States, the list of cities with no light rail service whatsoever is stunning. In fact, not having any light rail service at all is default for the vast majority of American communities.
And don’t even think about high-speed rail service. You’d think that there are great swathes of the country that would be ideal for high-speed train service. But there’s nothing at all on par with the famous Japanese “Bullet Trains” and the stunningly-fast-but-smooth ICE trains that race across Germany.
Sadly, this state of affairs isn’t likely to change any time soon. On top of everything else working against the concept, Americans have decided over the past 25 years or so that they don’t want to pay for anything anymore. Politicians in Washington can’t get together and propose even a modest measure to repair our rapidly faltering 1950s road and highway network. Everyone agrees we need to get to work repairing our infrastructure. But no one has the courage to tell the American people they’ll have to raise taxes in order to do so.
And so nothing will happen here. Meanwhile, the rest of the world continues to fund and build modern, “smart” transportation networks. Here at home, our outdated roads and bridges keep collapsing and we can’t even get motivated to bring even basic commuter rail services to major cities with major congestion problems like Nashville, Little Rock, Birmingham or Indianapolis.
The latest transportation technology in development is fascinating and holds tremendous promise for enhancing automotive transportation in the United States. But it’s not going to be enough to solve our massive congestion problem on its own. Sooner or later, like it or not, we’re all going to have to step up to the plate and fund major investments in our roads and bridges. Simply building them back to 1950s standards isn’t going to cut it. We need a modern highway system in this country and a vibrant, effective commuter rail network should be a mandatory part of that initiative.