Public transportation is first and foremost about the public good. It is not a business, but a service. By providing mobility to their customers, transit properties at the same time mitigate traffic congestion, reduce pollution and contribute to the shape and development of their communities.
And as much as technology changes the way in which transportation is provided, their choices in the next 100 years should be guided primarily by the needs of the communities they serve. How can they move people from place to place most efficiently, providing their customers with convenient access to their homes, schools, shops and places of work and worship? What are the social, environmental and economic implications of those services?
Imagining the challenges transit will face in coming decades is a speculative game based upon some unavoidable realities. The desire for cleaner, cheaper and more sustainable forms of energy has already inspired some fleets to invest in biodiesel, hybrid electric and natural gas.
The increased visibility of special-needs and elderly passengers has spawned accessible vehicles, paratransit and dial-a-ride. And with or without the expansion of public transportation systems, cities have spread out in low-density suburbs and exurbs. These are not new situations, and they will only grow more acute as years pass. The significance of public transportation will be judged by how it responds to an even more complex world.
Customers come first
But for a few notable exceptions, public transportation today is the refuge of the transit dependent. This state of affairs makes for broad, misleading judgments about the needs of transit riders and stifles innovative thinking about how to demonstrate the dependence of successful communities on efficient, convenient and affordable forms of public transit. Most immediately, however, it has often left these “captive customers,“ largely low-income minority women, without the mobility they need.
According to Beverly Ward, program director at the University of South Florida‘s Center for Urban Transportation Research, prioritizing those customers and responding to their travel patterns should be a constant concern for properties. “We need a better understanding of how those groups travel,” she says. “We haven’t focused well on the work trip. Although these customers tend to live in central cities, public transportation doesn’t work well for them because it doesn’t work for their travel behavior.”
Ward also sees an immediate demand for flexibility in transit planning to reflect the diversity that an increasingly globalized labor market has produced. “As different groups come in, we need to understand their needs,” she says. “We have understood them in monolithic terms. It’s the ability to look at differences within groups and between groups and put them back together.”
The graying factor
Just as revolutionary as the diversification of the transit-using population is the aging of America. Both trends are present today and can be expected to increase in significance over the next quarter century. As the baby boomers go into late middle age and beyond, there will be a significant strain put on infrastructure to provide that demographic with the mobility it is accustomed to. The loss of independence that comes with age is often not adequately addressed by the transit options available in many communities today.
Julian Benjamin, professor of transportation at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, says long waits for service and indirect routes are not acceptable to seniors. A study conducted by Benjamin in Winston-Salem, N.C., found that elderly captive riders would still drive a car if they felt able, even against doctor recommendations.
As transit properties cope with the aging population in the next 25 years, dial-a-ride and other forms of special transportation that currently serve the elderly may become unworkably expensive. It’s a problem made more severe by the location of many of those aging boomers: the suburbs.
“There is going to be a need for a market in suburban areas for the elderly; however, that’s a difficult market to serve because it’s very spread out and low density. The way in which that service is being provided, door-to-door, is very expensive,” says Robert Smith, professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
It’s also a service that will be demanded, according to Scott Rutherford, professor and chairman of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington. Baby boomers want to stay in their houses in the suburbs, but they also need assistance getting around, he says. “They’re a group of people who are very vocal and always have been. And they vote.”
Partnering can solve dilemma
There are solutions to this dilemma. Ward sees an opportunity for partnering with other agencies that serve the elderly, as well as with assisted-living centers, to provide feeder service to transit trunk lines. Those same interdependencies can also support a population of aging special-needs riders, many of whom will want to work.
Ward notes the success of these types of programs in some rural areas. “Nobody has a lot of money, so whenever agencies can leverage each other it helps,” she says. “The better we do our job, the more [agencies] can get out of the business of providing transportation.”
What is key in all of these solutions for transit-dependent riders is an emphasis on convenience, which is also a crucial component of making transit attractive to discretionary riders as well. Most Americans who can drive, do, and very few of those who are professionally engaged in thinking about the future of transportation see an end to that love affair with the automobile. But an affection for and reliance on personal vehicles doesn’t mean there isn’t a bigger place for transit in the future.
Smith says this demand will not come from a shift from automobiles, but rather from specialized markets. “Vehicles [i.e., buses and railcars] are not a major issue in terms of attractiveness of public transportation,” he says. “It’s more about whether we get the service out there, frequent service to where we want to go.”
Making transit more responsive to the needs of passengers is already a possibility, thanks to software packages that design and virtually test routes, as well as those that provide travel information to customers. According to Smith, those tools make transit easier for managers and customers alike.
Meeting specific needs
The implication of all these solutions is a commitment to the particular demands of each transit district, and an understanding that in the case of public transportation, one size does not fit all.
Martin Wachs, the Roy W. Carlson distinguished professor of civil engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, says, “I’d like to see much more local control and variety. Transit is very much the same everywhere even though cities, towns, etc., are very different. I would think much more local variety would be needed if we’re going to have transit be a successful industry in 40 years.”
Wachs’ vision includes class-differentiated transit, with luxury options as well as deeply discounted fares for some customers. The bulk purchase of transit passes by institutions also increases accessibility and brings in riders who might otherwise opt to drive. Cities and universities have invested in transit passes for their communities, paying lower rates in acknowledgment that not everyone who receives this benefit will use it. It’s a way of creating fare structures that reflect the range of needs and resources both among the transit dependent and discretionary riders.
In addition, customers who are interested in green transportation may also be tempted by more user-friendly transit options, says Ward.
Flexibility, local design of transit options and an awareness of the demographics of current and potential riders are all ways to make public transportation more responsive, and thereby more successful. Creating programs that are attractive and useful extends ridership, which should be more than a bureaucratic or budgetary goal it’s a way of fully realizing transit’s mission.
The lay of the land
What further complicates the task of providing services to such a disparate group of riders is the way in which the landscape has already changed, and can be expected to change in the future. Suburbia and the growth of the exurbs has drawn people out of city centers, and created vast swaths of low-density land that need transit service. As Rutherford notes, 100 years ago streetcars made it possible for cities to grow out instead of up. Transit has had a part in shaping the way Americans live, and the shape of transit in the next 100 years will depend on how it responds to the very changes it has wrought in the past.
In addition to the challenge of providing services to aging suburban baby boomers in the next 25 years and increases in population and the number of vehicles on the roads, there will be a crisis of congestion that transit is ideally situated to address.
As much as advances in telecommunications have made it possible for people to work from home, face-to-face interaction and commuting will remain a part of our lives, says William Halal, professor of management science at George Washington University. “You can be anywhere in the world now and still be intimately connected to society,” he says. “It certainly encourages sprawl...[but] these technologies are complementary... I don’t think IT [information technology] will diminish the need for travel.”
Public transportation has a two-fold challenge in the coming years: how to provide for longer distance trips for those working remotely, and how to contend with the daily strains on infrastructure by those continuing to commute. Added to those service issues are environmental and land use concerns. Transit properties must consider the ways in which mobility is inseparable from their communities’ larger planning goals.
One scenario for the future, the extreme commute, is already technologically possible thanks to magnetic levitation (maglev). Although existing systems are rare and not cost effective, some see the expansion of maglev to replace not only short-haul air travel, but to become an integral part of the transit package offered to commuters.
Benjamin says maglev technology could create new opportunities and ways of doing business. “If you put up with a half-hour commute, you could imagine people living 350 miles from where they work,” he says. “I think it would be a totally different concept. Transit would be a pleasant way to get to your distant permanent vacation spot.”
Rutherford sees the potential for long-distance commutes, but also sees the potential for a counterweight densification in the center cities. It’s a trend that’s already visible in some areas, and one whose prominence may be accomplished in part by how well transit is planned and delivered over the next 50 years.
Back to the city
Most transportation futurists see the inevitable increase in congestion as a boon to natural redensification of center cities. Longer commutes create time tolls that may persuade some people to leave the suburbs, and good city planning can make urban areas more appealing, as well as promote transit among those who choose to remain in the suburbs.
“Center cities are going to densify around the transit stations, allowing people to only have to drive once a week,” says Rutherford. “People have this desire for the single-family house in the suburbs, but that’s because they don’t pay all the costs. We’re seeing an explosion of housing downtown. For a portion of the population, it’s really attractive.”
One way of attracting people back into the center city is by making drivers pay the real cost of their transportation choices. Rutherford sees potential for multivalent policy initiatives, such as enterprise zones around transit centers and investments in security and infrastructure, to incentivize the return to downtowns.
“It may be cheaper to say I’m going to make the schools better in the city,” Rutherford says. “That may solve our transportation problem. If the schools were the best in the region instead of the worst, that would change the dynamic. Have a gas tax for schools.”
Other options encourage public transportation more directly. Some cities, such as London, have already restricted access to their center cities during peak hours, making transit the cheaper mode. Smith says the toll not only reduced traffic and increased transit ridership, but also made public transportation cheaper to provide because buses were moving faster and more easily.
Parking fees are another way to pass along the cost of personal vehicles to drivers. Rutherford sees the current abundance of free parking, especially in suburban office parks, as a great hidden subsidy that keeps people off of, and funds away from, public transportation. Making those subsidies visible, and redirecting them to transit, would not only reduce congestion, but also make transit a more palatable alternative.
“You’d be an idiot not to take your car in the suburbs because parking’s free and transit is inadequate,” Rutherford adds. “If the driver doesn’t see the cost, they think they’re making a rational decision. There’s no such thing as free parking, we just don’t charge for it.”
One way private entities and public institutions help people think about transit is to provide allowances that can either be redeemed for transit passes or for parking. Rutherford also sees that as a way of making benefits packages more equitable, as transit riders and other non-drivers are not often compensated for their choice to not take advantage of the parking allocated to them.
Rutherford advocates subsidizing modes of transportation other than personal vehicles because they may be less convenient but provide larger-scale advantages. “We’re not going to take your choice away,” he says. “We’re just not going to pay you to do the wrong thing.”
Smith agrees. “It’s politically unpalatable, but it’s a win-win situation,” he says. “If you charge the real cost of freeways in a peak hour and use those revenues to support public transportation, you can give people an alternative and, ideally, a higher level of service. I’m very optimistic about the ability in major cities in the future to make the entire system more productive.”
Vehicle changes minor?
If policy and planning conspire to deliver any of the scenarios described by transportation watchers, what will the services delivered look like? How will exurban and center city, elderly and special-needs, discretionary and transit-dependent riders move about?
There are all kinds of pie-in-the-sky visions of the public transportation of the future, but transit in 2054 and 2104 is likely to look much like what we have now, merely variations on a theme.
We may see an influence from intelligent transportation systems (ITS), the automatic car and green propulsion systems, all developed, at least in part, for personal vehicles. Rutherford, for one, sees a serious potential contribution from ITS in the next 50 years. That may include technology already available and improved information systems. Things such as radar brakes and lane guidance are more easily applied to transit as well because there are fewer vehicles and control of the fleet, and Halal sees broad application as at least 20 to 30 years away.
Those systems might also be more useful for transit in the long term, says Rutherford. “It’s the best alternative, and the only alternative in a lot of cases,” he says. “You can automate the freeways and have a lot more cars, but where are they going to go? Automating all the freeways isn’t a solution to the problem. How much space do we want to devote to cars?”
Wachs sees information systems such as ITS as another significant part of the new multimodalism predicted. “The integration of telecommunications to know where vehicles are, to use it for pricing, for parking, will all be done electronically,” he says. “I think we’re part [of the] way there, but I think the effects in the future will be pretty dramatic.”
Some innovations that anticipate ITS and the use of IT to streamline transit, such as smart cards, are only five years from a broader roll-out, says Wachs. Those could be used across systems, as well as for parking meters and other transportation tolls. Even farther down the line, he sees information allowing for highly adjustable pricing systems.
“I would imagine that we can even get to the point where there’s very little difference between private and public transportation systems,” Wachs says. “By using electronics and telecommunications, we can get individual occupancy vehicles to pick up passengers.”
As for rolling stock, light and heavy rail, as well as some forms of bus service, look to the future and the present. Despite the attractions of maglev, it’s unlikely to replace modes other than short-haul air travel.
Says Smith, “It simply doesn’t make sense for urban areas where you have short distances between stops. It’s very expensive in both capital and operating costs, and that’s a technology that’s not viable in urban areas. There are better technologies out there. If you look at the French system, in Paris they go from one side of the city to the other at 70 miles an hour, and it’s quiet, and you can pay for it.”
Benjamin sees an expansion of mixed above- and below-ground light rail, like the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Green Line, but not to the extent that it replaces bus service.
Smith agrees that buses are unlikely to be replaced by rail. “I think that light rail has its niche and there have been a number of cities that have been successful in developing systems, such as Portland [Ore.] and San Diego, but it’s been a bit oversold and it’s not for everyone,” he says. “It’s something that needs to be looked at in medium-sized cities where rights-of-way are available. However, it’s not going to replace bus service in a major way. There’s a need for coverage, and it’s not going to provide that.”
Applying light rail principles to bus travel is also a possibility. Rutherford envisions suburban circulator buses that leave their drivers at a transit center and then continue downtown on an automated guideway. He also believes that some form of bus rapid transit may have an enlarged place in transit in the next 100 years. Buses will have to fill the breach in center cities as well, where light rail rights-of-way are impossible and cars are too numerous to efficiently move people.
As Ward asks, “Everybody wants light rail, but what do the people we are serving need?”
Whatever shape public transportation takes in the century to come, it will be clean. Transit has made a notable commitment to environmental responsibility; a compact between principle and policy that is likely to strengthen. Just as with the implementation of ITS, the resources and fleet control available make public transportation an appropriate ground for forward-looking innovation in green technologies.
According to Smith, improvements in fuel efficiency will come first from ideas and products already in the marketplace. “All of the technology for diesel has been refined and refined so that it’s basically state of the art,” he says. “Lower-floor buses reduce weight; those are the types of things we’re going to see. We’ll have incremental improvements year by year and decade by decade.”
Smith also says that fuel cells may be a viable replacement for petroleum-based energy, and others agree. Some feel that alternative fuels can be expected to replace traditional forms of energy by mid-century.
Says Wachs, “Fuel cells will be the principal source of power in 20, 25, 30 years, and gasoline and diesel will be
For Benjamin, improvements in environmentally sensitive systems will also confer customer service benefits. “I think we’ll have hydrogen-powered buses, or buses will be powered in some way so that it will be more comfortable to be on the bus,” he says. “There may be a small electric motor on each wheel which will free up floor space for passengers.”
Going green and reducing the nuisance quotient of noise and air pollution associated with transit vehicles, public transportation will be cleaner because it has to be. Transportation experts say that the affordable abundance of petroleum is coming to an end, and the development of non-carbon-based fuels is unavoidable.
The current fuel pinch can, in the long term, only worsen as demand increases and supplies dwindle. “There’s a really good possibility that oil reserves have peaked, that the production of oil is peaking right now,” Halal says. “There are these trends coalescing to a kind of critical point where we’re going to have a transition from the oil economy to something that’s sustainable.”
Car makers are investing heavily in green technologies, and there’s no reason their advances can’t be translated to public transportation. Halal predicts that fuel cells will take 30% of the auto market in the next 10 to 20 years. That kind of popularity and mass production can only mean a concurrent increase in their use among transit fleets.
Another transfer of automotive technology to the transit market is the use of composite metals in vehicle construction. “They’re planning to build these very sophisticated vehicles that are half the weight or less of present vehicles,” says Halal. “They use composite metals so they’re stronger for the same weight. So I think that’s really an interesting possibility. There’s no reason why big vehicles can’t use the same technologies.”
Although there is great promise in technology, there are still problems associated with moving to fuel cells or battery- or hydrogen-powered vehicles. But these potential drawbacks do not seriously undermine the usefulness of these clean technologies.
Rutherford wonders, “If you have a widespread use of hydrogen fuel, there’s going to be some spillage, and that might be worse but it’s certainly cleaner to burn. Maybe we should look at this more closely. What’s the risk, what’s the energy cost, what about all those batteries to be disposed of?”
Most importantly, moving to greener technologies will mean a decisive but necessary shift in the way Americans think about the cost of transportation. The full force of public policy or a protracted energy crisis may be the most effective catalyst, but current trends and the last century’s dependence on petroleum simply cannot persist.
Says Halal, “The technology is here. Nanotechnology, fuel cells, these hybrid automobiles are masterfully engineered. I think we’re going to see these transportation systems changing massively. The problem is the public.”
Asks Rutherford, “What will the future be, given all the lost promises we’ve had?”
Despite the challenges of adapting to an ever more diverse landscape, population and transportation market, the next century of transit can only see its role in society increase in importance and prominence.
Although the personal vehicle doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, more congestion will make it less useful for commuters. Simultaneous diffusion and densification will also breed a new generation of public transportation users, as will the aging of the baby boomers.
Last, but certainly not least, transparency in transportation costs, and a more equitable distribution of public funds, should significantly add to the status and visibility of transit in public and civic life.