Thoughts on The Future of Transportation
By Mark Safford, September 2006
The first version of this paper was drafted in 2000 when I was employed by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although several agencies – notably the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) — paid my salary during this time, I want to emphasize that the comments and opinions reflected in this paper solely reflect those of the author and not of any US government agency or organization. Any mistakes or errors are solely the responsibility of the author as well.
– Mark Safford
“Transportation is one of the most important, yet also one of the most overlooked activities within modern society.”
Transportation is one of the most important, yet also one of the most overlooked activities within modern society. The efficient, affordable and rapid movement of people and goods from origin to destination is necessary to support many aspects of modern life; yet often it seems little thought is given to this topic until something breaks down. On the one hand, this can be taken as a positive sign of the success of our transportation system and its managers in meeting the daily needs of individuals and society as a whole in an unobtrusive manner. On the other hand, it can also mean that people are both unnecessarily surprised and befuddled when there are problems. And there will be problems; of that one can be confident.
In reality, millions of people across the globe spend a great deal of time, effort, expense and concern every day assuring that our transportation system functions as best as it can. Recent estimate suggest that, depending on how one defines the term, ‘transportation’ can account for as much as 10% of both the nation’s workforce and total expenditures. Transportation by its very nature has a profound impact on, and in turn is impacted by, a variety of other major societal and economic activities. These include energy supplies, costs and usage; environmental topics such as air and water pollution, global warming, and carbon emissions; local, national and international trade and employment patterns; land use decisions such as the placement of factories, warehouses, offices, shopping centers and residential communities; infrastructure investment; the development and application of technologies; and demographics. Thus, studying transportation and thinking about its current and future role in our society is in many respects a microcosm for thinking about our society and way of life as a whole.
This paper is written for those interested in thinking comprehensively about transportation, the role it plays and will continue to play in our life, and how this role may both change and be changed by the future. It provides a common starting point for a broad discussion of the topic of the future and transportation’s constantly transforming role within it and points to a number of public policy issues that will need to be addressed. Section II of this paper discusses the general characteristics of future demographic and economic trends. Section III relates these trends to the safety, energy, environmental and economic aspects of transportation. Section IV describes how these trends will impact the major transportation market segments. Section V reviews the major technologies that hold the greatest promise for improving future transportation. Finally, section VI suggests some key questions to ponder on the future of transportation.
This paper was assembled from a wide variety of published sources and discussions with a number of individuals focusing on the major social, political, economic, and technological factors that affect global systems such as transportation. Noted futurists were consulted and provided valuable insights and ideas. It should be pointed out that this paper projects what could be called a ‘plausible’ or ‘probable’ view of the future. Catastrophic events that could significant alter the possibility of life on the planet or normal human evolution (i.e., World War III, famine, pandemic, asteroid impact, alien visitations, etc.) were deliberately excluded from consideration. There is, of course, no guarantee that these trends will actually develop as described here; or for that matter that one of these catastrophes may or may not happen. However, it does allow for the creation of a ‘straw man’ vision of the future for purposes of dialogue and discussion.
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Mark Safford (deceased, 2015) spent over three decades thinking about, studying and planning public policy for national security, international relations and global transportation and logistics for three U.S. Government agencies: the Navy, the State Department and most recently the Department of Transportation. As an independent consultant, speaker and futurist, he continued to ponder these and related topics, the major factors that drive them, what their futures may turn out to be, and how best to position ourselves to make them what we want them to be, rather than let them make us. He contributed to scenario-based planning exercises to assist more than a dozen U.S. Government agencies plan for a future marked by a bewildering variety of uncertainties.