To respond to this increasing complexity, current technologies, organizational structures, and educational practices will have to change. We need to move away from simple notions of physical mobility to recognize how transportation technologies and functions will be increasingly intertwined with other services, and increasingly managed by software.
As a result, our definitions of transportation, many of which are rooted in today’s context, are likely to be upended. The artificial separations that we’ve historically used to manage infrastructure (e.g., transportation, water, information and communication technology, and power as independent from each other) are becoming increasingly obsolete. In the Anthropocene, is transportation really a separate system from, say, the fiber optic cables that run under streets facilitating information connectivity and enabling virtual workspaces to exist? As we integrate solar power into our roads and electric vehicles into our transportation system, and use such vehicles as power storage assets in a smart grid, should we treat the energy system as separate or should we co-design transportation and energy infrastructure with the climate in mind? As transportation systems become more tightly interwoven with other systems, we must adapt how we design and manage them.
From the Complicated to the Complex
Increasing uncertainty, rising volatility, and accelerating conditions suggest that complexity will dominate the Anthropocene. As unpredictable demand, more frequent extreme events, and disruptive technologies emerge, instability will come to define the landscapes that transportation systems function within. Furthermore, systems are poised to be managed by a greater diversity of stakeholders, including new companies and computer algorithms. Legacy technologies, governance processes, and educational norms will all require restructuring to address the rapidly shifting nature of transportation toward cyberphysical systems, where information can be used by many parties to affect services, and learning systems operate independently of human observation and analysis. For example, Android phones push transportation data to Google, which then uses that to power navigation apps like Google Maps and Waze.
In a more volatile future, our assumptions about long-term stability and predictability will be increasingly at odds with reality. That’s why resilience efforts increasingly require new approaches that are capable of adapting to ever-changing environments, by embracing instability and surprise. Our transportation systems are not likely to adapt quickly in response to changing environments, even if we want them to; the technologies are rigid, often decades old, and the bureaucracies that govern them show no signs of restructuring for future challenges. Given the long lead times for achieving results, we must create the conditions today for technologies, bureaucracies, and educational practices to evolve.
Transportation for the Anthropocene
When it comes to the future of transportation needs and challenges, is there anything we can know for certain? From climate change and COVID-19 to green energy sources to political leadership, geopolitical conflict targeting transportation systems, and digital communication, it’s difficult to envision the changes a few decades could bring. And if we accept the premise of rapid evolution in the Anthropocene, the answer is a definite no. As we describe below, in the transportation sector, technology, governance, and education will need to progress, along with most conventions about moving people and goods from Point A to Point B. As the rigid thinking of our industrial past becomes less relevant, conceptualizing the future of transportation hinges on our ability to anticipate sustained and increasingly variable shifts while leaving room for continuous adaptation.
Agile and Flexible Technologies
The rigid frameworks that have traditionally informed transportation planning tend to result in systems that can withstand only a small range of disturbances. Going forward, the characteristics of agility and flexibility must be at the heart of what we design and build. We define agility to mean that assets can rapidly be redirected to maintain functionality in the face of uncertainty. Flexibility, on the other hand, describes a system’s potential to meet demands unforeseen by its designers. Consider, for example, smart traffic lights that adjust timing based on traffic, reversible lane systems, intelligent lighting, and modular (and removal) paving systems.
Agility and flexibility are not tied to any particular mode of transportation. Instead, these terms describe a set of capabilities that are necessary for systems to adapt, including modularity, connectivity, compatibility, multifunctionality, and software-for-hardware substitution. An example of a project that incorporates both agility and flexibility is Kuala Lumpur’s Stormwater Management and Road Tunnel (SMART), a hybrid structure designed to move both automobile traffic and floodwater to reduce congestion while simultaneously preventing flash floods from disrupting traffic.
Changing how we design and build won’t be enough to develop transportation for the Anthropocene. We must also question the systems of governance that surround transportation. To understand what a transportation system can and cannot do, it’s necessary to better understand how its organizations function and why. Many transportation departments operate through separate divisions controlled by small leadership teams with few incentives to drive transformative change. While division directors are often imbued with considerable autonomy and authority, there are relatively few mechanisms for cross-division problem-solving when major issues arise and diverse expertise becomes critical. This is true both within transportation management structures and between transportation and other infrastructure modalities such as energy, information and communications.
This business model, which emerged with the railroads at the dawn of the 20th century and was later exported to other infrastructure, was remarkably effective for its time. It excelled in meeting fixed goals within fairly stable environments where outputs are standardized: miles of pavement maintained, vehicle miles of travel affected, or trips shifted to active transport. However, when the goals are more complex, like creating a resilient transportation system that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to reduce the systems’ carbon footprint, while also improving social equity and providing space for AI software driven by pervasive mobile devices to manage traffic flows, our current practices are unprepared.
The sophistication of decision-making in transportation agencies must match the complexity of the environment. Most transportation agencies still operate in a top-down fashion: assessing shifting business conditions and making major decisions at the highest levels of leadership, far from the on-the-ground workers who are best equipped to sense change and fashion solutions. Industries that successfully respond to chaos do so by creating flexible leadership models. This leadership flexibility requires shifts in how we train transportation professionals, away from highly specialized technologists, toward graduates with the capabilities to work in complex social, economic and regulatory environments.
Education for Complexity
When it comes to education and job training for future transportation leaders, we must emphasize skill sets that address consensus-building, engaging with diverse stakeholders, and cybersecurity. Fundamentally, educators must recognize that the competencies needed to thrive in predictable environments are fundamentally different from those needed for complex environments. Traditional skills in transportation engineering and planning will continue to be needed (e.g., pavement design, traffic operations, integrated transportation, and land use planning, to name a few), but they may become secondary and increasingly the domain of software. The competent transportation planner or manager of the next century will also have to be able to manage complexity, where unpredictability and rapid change require a sustained focus on flexibility and adaptation.
Cyberphysical Systems and Security
Cybertechnologies are already being deployed across transportation systems, often without a comprehension of their implications as agencies embrace the efficiencies of smart infrastructure. Vehicles are now efficiently routed by Google and Apple, considering network-wide conditions that are informed by smartphones. Third-party apps deliver remarkable insight about conditions and routes of public transportation. And with thousands of onboard microprocessors, vehicles can analyze driving behavior to calibrate engine performance with onboard software now deciding how to accelerate and when to shift from gasoline use to battery consumption. For example, hybrid Lincoln cars learn your travel patterns and seamlessly switch to electric mode when the vehicle determines that you’re close to home. At the same time, few players in the transportation sector have demonstrated a comprehensive understanding of the implications these technologies pose for cybersecurity. This leaves our systems vulnerable to attack.
Asymmetric warfare and sophisticated forms of attack such as ransomware, logic bombs, and cyberespionage incidents are on the rise. Recent cyberattacks on the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), and the Colorado Department of Transportation have affected operations from scheduling to payment systems to email. Modern adversaries target the whole of our society, and, in particular, our national infrastructure. Thanks to the acceleration of artificial intelligence — a set of software capabilities that have the potential to make it easier to manage complex systems — the data and connectivity revolution may steer transportation services in ways that we never planned or imagined. Transportation managers need to become cybersecurity experts or at least be able to communicate with the experts. All transportation agencies should have cross-cutting cybertechnology teams capable of securing systems, designing systems for better human interaction, and responding to cyber threats. And when it comes to the future of education for the transit field, university-level and continuing education programs must make cyber proficiencies part of the curriculum.
Transportation organizations that have traditionally viewed themselves as mere providers of physical mobility for people and goods must now recognize that the key to their survival will be making sense of and adapting to unforeseen changes in the environment, technology, and human behavior. Improving how agencies make sense of changing environments will require a realignment of the types of information they take in and the knowledge they generate. There are many facets to this reprioritization including leveraging emerging data streams like smartphones, building climate change expertise, and generating knowledge across diverse stakeholders.
If they don’t respond to these challenges, agencies will likely find themselves losing customers to new players who are better able to recognize and meet changing conditions. Already, Google’s ability to make sense of urban traffic using mobile data streams gives the company a cognition advantage over most public transit providers. Although it may not be apparent to travelers, Google’s algorithms are increasingly responsible for the flow of traffic in cities around the globe. Meanwhile, Amazon’s investments in drone delivery are building brand new transportation infrastructure, one free of the delays due to traffic congestion and the risks of relying on uncertain public investment in the existing road system.
Because professional and bureaucratic transportation planning continues to assume fairly stable conditions, the outcomes can be catastrophic when things go wrong. For example, demand assumptions and fixed resources worked just fine for airlines until COVID-19 hit, leaving multiple companies desperate for bailouts. One thing the pandemic has made clear is how ill-prepared the transportation sector is for the kinds of systemic shocks that will be bigger and more frequent in the Anthropocene. But given our entrenched practices and power structures, we shouldn’t expect a meaningful response to this new reality anytime soon. Instead, we can only brace for the inevitable disasters.