A Tale of Two Cities: Transformation of Transportation From Today to 2050

BY BONNIE CHA

With approximately 70 percent of the world’s population expected to live in cities by 2050, transportation needs will change dramatically in the next 30 years. Here’s what an intersection looks like today and a glimpse of seven pieces of transportation technology that may drastically change how it appears in the future.

Autonomous Vehicle Parking Lots

With the wider adoption of car-sharing services and self-driving cars, the need for large parking structures in city centers will shrink. Autonomous vehicles—private or shared—can drop off passengers at their destination and then park themselves in a lot located farther away, leaving the prime real estate open for more parks and other public spaces.

Delivery Drones

Amazon, UPS, Google, and other businesses are already taking to the skies to test drones for package delivery. And it’s not just for last-minute Christmas presents. Companies are also testing drones for humanitarian missions, such as transporting vaccines and other medical supplies to rural areas.

Scores of Sensors

Analysts predict there will be 21 billion connected things by 2020. Sensors embedded in vehicles, buildings, traffic lights, and roads can provide real-time data to improve the flow of traffic and monitor usage patterns. They may even prevent accidents and save lives.

Electric Charging Stations

Another step forward in transportation transformation is decreasing dependence on fossil fuels. Fourteen percent of climate-changing greenhouse gases come from the transportation sector, and 90 percent of urban air pollution is generated by motor vehicles. According to a study by the US–based National Resource Defense Council and the Electric Power Research Institute, widespread electric-vehicle use could cut carbon pollution by 550 million metric tons annually in 2050—equivalent to the emissions from 100 million of today’s passenger cars.

Last-Kilometer Stations

A network of lightweight electric vehicles can provide another option for traveling short distances. Beyond current bike-share programs, companies are creating new modes of transportation to cover the last kilometers people need to travel from mass-transit stations to their final destinations. VeloMetro, for example, has created an enclosed electric vehicle that protects users from the elements and doesn’t require a driver’s license to operate.

Self-Repairing Roads

Researchers at the University of Cambridge, University of Bath, and Cardiff University are experimenting with “self-healing” material that could be applied to roads and make potholes a thing of the past. Meanwhile, companies like Scania and Solar Roadways are testing solar panel roads to generate energy for power grids or to charge electric vehicles.

On-Demand Public Transportation

Public transportation will evolve beyond fixed routes and timed schedules. Instead, connected devices and Big Data will help dynamically route the right number of trains, buses, or ferries based on user demand. New South Wales, Australia is set to do a trial of such a system this year, and the University of Tokyo has developed on-demand buses where users can summon rides via smartphones. These solutions could improve operational efficiency—and alleviate commuter headaches like long wait times and crowded trains.

Images and Animations Courtesy Max Erhlich.

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