President Trump has called for a $1 trillion investment in America’s crumbling infrastructure. There is common agreement that the country’s transportation systems are in dire need of attention, but before we start pouring investment dollars into construction projects, can we figure out what infrastructure the country will actually need over the next several decades?
This might seem like an obvious question, but the debate over road and rail building involves substantial, long-term investments. As Wayne Gretzky, the legendary hockey player said: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” Similarly, today’s transportation investment should serve the mobility landscape of the future, not the past. The demand for specific transportation modes and technologies is undergoing fundamental change.
We need new infrastructure models to meet the needs of future consumers.
As I describe in my recent LinkedIn Influencer blog post Not Your Father’s High Street, suburban shopping and Main Street are being reshaped by the growth of e-commerce. Bricks-and-mortar stores are closing – but this is only part of the story.
Some online retailers are opening “window-shopping” outlets to enhance consumers’ shopping experience. Also, e-commerce specialists are bringing fresh ideas to bricks-and-mortar retailing, such as Amazon’s innovative Go store concept and stores that serve as fulfillment centers for online orders. The mix of retail outlets is changing to cater for shifting demand for food and leisure products.
The growth of vehicle automation – ultimately leading to self-drive cars and trucks – impacts road design. For example, will we need dedicated highways or lanes for automated trucks, and hi-tech road systems embedded with sensors that provide the data needed for vehicle automation systems to operate to their full potential?
Traffic patterns are changing. My MIT colleague Professor Charles Fine has co-written a book due to be published later this year* about the dramatic changes in mobility strategies that will change the face of cities.
“The twentieth century was the century of the automobile; the twenty-first must be the century of re-envisioning mobility,” the authors argue.
They envision a future where sustainable and highly flexible modes of transportation replace traditional conveyances. Car ownership is likely to decline as car-sharing services become the norm. The social status that a car has traditionally bestowed on its owner is in decline, they maintain, redefining the way automobiles are perceived and used.
These changes will affect cities of all sizes at a time when more people are living in urban centers. The United Nations estimates that 70% of the world’s population will live in cities by the year 2050. Megacities – generally defined as having more than 10 million inhabitants – are growing both in number and size.
Research carried out at the MIT Megacity Logistics Lab indicates that new distribution strategies will be required to support the delivery of goods to the inhabitants of large, congested cities. For example, the use of specialized vehicles that are “warehouses on wheels” to distribute goods to smaller delivery vehicles such as bikes at customized drop off points in cities.
Innovative approaches to the way urban supply chains are designed and planned also are needed. At MIT CTL, we are building the Visual Analytics Lab, which will use advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality to help companies develop better ways to deliver goods. For example, it will be possible for a multi-disciplinary team of executives to “move” distribution centers in a simulated 3-D model of a city and see the impact on cost and performance.
But even the most well-designed supply chains require efficient physical infrastructure to achieve the performance levels that markets demand. As we prepare to invest in new and improved road and rail systems, it is critically important that we pay attention to the changing nature of transportation.
In some cases, we might not need roads; in others, a different type of route that accommodates multiple transportation choices could be the answer. As autonomous cars and ride sharing proliferate, the need for parking structures will diminish.
Given all these changes as well as those yet to emerge, designers of the new infrastructure must incorporate real-options thinking into their designs. They must ensure that the country’s infrastructure can meet future mobility needs regardless of how these needs are manifested.
A report on infrastructure challenges published recently by the Committee for Economic Development describes why this gap should be addressed.
“Without government action, we may face the scenario of private technology gurus working at the cutting edge of the computer communications and vehicle interface, using space-age science and materials, only to have the resulting technologies operate on antiquated infrastructure that cannot talk back and cannot accommodate such rapid progress. The public sector’s glacial speed in adopting emerging technologies may limit the US economy’s ability to capture the value of private-sector innovation,” the report states.
We can avoid such outcomes with proper planning based on a thorough analysis of future demand and flexible designs.
Let’s not squander $1 trillion of infrastructure investment dollars on projects that are based on outmoded ideas.