Setting the stage: a brief history

Transportation and transportation infrastructure (heretofore referred to simply as mobility) have been around since the beginning of humans. In fact, the history of people and civilization could be told in terms of mobility. Mobility allowed our species to move out of Africa and around the world in roughly 50,000 years (starting around 60,000-80,000 years ago and completing this global journey around 15,000 years ago). Early components included walking on animal trails and along waterways (rivers, lakes, and ocean), increasingly large and sophisticated floating craft (boats, canoes, ships, and others), and animals domesticated to increase transport (horses, alpacas, camels, and others) over larger and larger expanses. The invention of the wheel (and associated axle) appears to date back to about 5,000 years ago and was a milestone that has resulted in vehicles of increasing size and capability ever since. For at least the last few thousand years virtually all of the mobility system developed based on available data, mathematics, and trial and error. Over time, these components have evolved into an increasingly sophisticated mobility system. The Apian Way allowed the Roman Empire to travel and dominate much of the known world. The Silk Road and others increasingly expanded trade and cultural exchange over vast areas of the globe.

Our forefathers had a great interest in roads, particularly in a “National Road” to connect the emerging United States of America. What eventually became the National Road (also known as the Cumberland Road, Cumberland Pike, National Pike, and Western Pike) was created by an Act of Congress in 1806 and signed into law by President Thomas Jefferson. In many ways, it was an early precursor to the Interstate Highway System. The Act was revolutionary and called for a road connecting the waters of the Atlantic with those of the Ohio River. Federal funding began in Cumberland, Maryland. The predecessors of the National Road included buffalo trails, Native American footpaths, Washington’s Road, and Braddock’s Road. The latter two were developed over part of the Nemacolin Trail, an Indian pathway, as part of the British campaign to evict the French from the forks of the Ohio River. Congress paid for the National Road, in part, by establishing a “2 percent fund” derived from the sale of public lands for the construction of roads through and to Ohio. Construction took longer than expected and the costs of maintenance were underestimated. As a result, tolls were eventually collected to pay for maintenance. To this day underestimating the cost of maintenance is likely true in many states and communities.

In 1919, Oregon was the first to develop a reliable funding mechanism—the fuel tax—which has been the primary funding mechanism for roads and bridges. By 1929, all states had a fuel tax. It was not until 1956, that the federal government created a federal fuel tax—Federal Highway Trust Fund— to pay for construction (not maintenance) of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, commonly known as the Interstate Highway System. As of December 2007 (“Peters Quick Action” in Better Roads), the U. S. Secretary of Transportation reported that 40 percent of the Federal Highway Trust Fund is used for other purposes. While much of the first half of the 20th Century was spent “getting out of the mud”, the 50 years subsequent to 1956 were spent building and maintaining the interstate highway system under the responsibility of state departments of transportation. In large part, the 21st Century appears to be ushering in an era of system preservation, due largely to inadequate funding.

As indicated earlier, data for improving mobility is not new and it is reflected in virtually every aspect of the mobility ecosystem. These include engine oil diagnostics which serve to extend engine life, data-based preventative maintenance checks and services and scheduled services for all types of vehicles, data-based structural and functional capacities of roads and bridges, data-based pavement management systems, data-based bridge management systems, data-based needs assessments and estimated costs for repair and replacement of infrastructure (roads, bridges, buildings, runways, etc), data-based asset management for determining priorities of spending within and between modes, analytic tools such as life-cycle costs, return on investments, and many others. In fact, it would be difficult to identify an element of the mobility ecosystem that is not or cannot be managed by data. Of course, this requires good data and that does not always exist. There are many examples of entities that attempt management without good data that is fairly analyzed and with actionable outputs.

In 2007, the first iPhone was fielded, and this serves to mark the beginning of a new era, one driven largely by rapidly evolving digital technology but other elements as well. These elements include other technologies and increasing demand for collaboration. While 2007 was not the beginning it is convenient to view it as an inflection point, especially for mobility. The United States is, and has been, a leader in mobility and that has been a significant multiplier in building our nation’s strong economy.

While much of the rest of the world has lagged behind the United States in the mobility space, it is rapidly catching up. Two examples are China’s “One Belt, One Road” which will result in the largest road network in the world and India’s National Highways Development Project which will result in a road network of over 30,000 miles as an element of their industrial revolution.


Transportation is the aging term. Mobility reflects the emerging mobility ecosystem and marketplace. This ecosystem is at an inflection point coupled with the Internet of Things (IoT) and new ways of thinking in the 21st Century. It is an exciting time, with more changes in the next 10 years than perhaps the previous 100, driven by increasing demand for technology and collaboration. It is not an overstatement that today’s new gadgets are tomorrow’s antiques.

While some things will remain the same, this new mobility ecosystem will move inextricably forward as it evolves. We’ll increasingly think and speak in terms of one seamless, connected, efficient, user-friendly, intuitive, multimodal mobility system. Over time we will speak less in terms of buying and owning vehicles, “hard” infrastructure without embedded technology and planning individual modes to get where we want to go. Moreover, this new emerging mobility ecosystem will better connect one global community and economy, with all of its challenges, risks, and opportunities.

In short, mobility is being reimagined.

Current Situation

The mobility ecosystem is complex if it is anything. Modes vary across the world. These modes and some components include planes, trains, automobiles, trucks, transit providers of all types, buses, bicycles, motorcycles, pedestrians, airports, marine/lake/river ships, roads, rail, bridges, marine and freshwater ports, dredging to enable navigable ports and rivers, pipelines, public safety providers, governance in both the public and private sectors, and many others. These provide us access to jobs, medical care, food, fuel, emergency response, vacations, and many others. The size and capacity of many vehicles are growing increasingly from large to gigantic in an effort to gain economies of scale in moving people and goods as much of the supporting infrastructure races to keep up.

Using the United States as a yardstick, the first half of the 20th Century was marked by increasing motorized road, rail, air, and river and blue water conveyance. The second half of the 20th Century was marked by improvements in all areas of conveyance but largely by the creation of the Interstate Highway System. Simplistically, these can be referred to as the motorized conveyance era and Interstate era, respectively. I think it is important to note that the Interstate era also increased the emphasis on safety in an effort to decrease losses in lives and property. This is critical and continues to this day, as it should.

According to historian Jonathan Kenoyer, the concept of using a valueless “technology” instrument to represent transactions dates back 5,000 years, when the Mesopotamians used clay tablets to conduct trade with the Harappan civilization. While cumbersome, a slab of clay with seals from both civilizations certainly beat the tons of copper each of which had to be melted down to produce coins. Fast forward to the mid 20th Century, the Diners Club Card was the first credit card in widespread use by 1951. American Express introduced the first plastic card in 1959. Within five years, one million American Express cards were in use. In the 1950s-1960s my father, who worked for DX Oil Company, talked about them working on a card that could be used to pay for gas and enable self-service dispensing of fuel. The card became one of the ubiquitous credit cards. While credit cards have been upgraded over time to include passwords, security codes, and chips, today’s technology changes at increasingly rapid rates (the iPhone with its camera, GPS, apps and other associated technologies is just one example).

With the rapid advances in technology in the early 21st Century, the opportunities for mobility to be reimagined has never been greater and this has only just begun.

New technologies do not have to function on their own and frequently do not. For example, Iteris and Lindsay Corporation recently announced a smart work zone collaboration, leveraging the existing Lindsay Road Zipper for placing concrete jersey barriers and the industry-leading technology of Iteris. This collaboration promises to improve safety while getting more capacity at a lower cost with existing infrastructure. This also holds promise, on a temporary or permanent basis, for real-time lane reconfiguration in separating today’s traffic from autonomous and connected vehicles.

Currently, much of the mobility ecosystem is siloed to protect proprietary interests, growth, and profits. Silos must be broken down to achieve one efficient, connected, and seamless mobility system focused on the movement of people and goods, not vehicles alone. This can require a significant change in mindset.

New models and methodologies are developing. The emerging 5G coming out in 2019 is estimated to be 100 times faster than current mobile technologies, have more capacity, and dramatically reduce power consumption and communication response times. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is advancing, driven partly by more effectively “mining data” such as IBM’s Watson. Use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones) has undergone dramatic growth in recent years in an increasing number of markets. Fully autonomous vehicles have arrived although it will likely take longer to have a significant impact than many have projected. Semiautonomous vehicles are increasingly mainstream as manufacturers add new technologies. Final destination methodologies are increasingly deployed whether through mobility as a service, Amazon, FedEx, ridesharing (Uber, Lyft, and others), high-speed transport such as high-speed rail, Hyperloop, and others. Finally, we are on the cusp of technology providing “one-stop shops”, such as Expedia does for airlines and hotels, for simple, connected, seamless, user-friendly trips for people. This has been ongoing in the primarily private sector-based freight industry which is driven by economies of scale, efficiency, and profit. Business to business has recognized for a long time the value of breaking down silos in spite of their need to protect their proprietary interests, growth, and profit. The public sector is more dominant in the movement of people and they seem to struggle more in breaking down silos, in part, to protect public interests including personal data and privacy. Breaking down the silos between public, private, and public and private entities, makes the task of creating one mobility ecosystem enormous. Still, this is an opportunity as the demand for collaboration increases to provide more efficient, cost-effective, environmentally and economically sustainable mobility for the movement of people and goods. This has become a quality of life issue for our planet and our global society.

Reimagining Mobility

Some elements

The future will be what we make it. It will likely be messy, and no one has the answers. The Transportation Research Board 2019 report on Critical Issues in Transportation reflects a smorgasbord of issues, challenges, and opportunities. The report states, “Changes are coming at transportation from all directions, including potentially revolutionary technologies such as drones and automated vehicles, rapid innovations in urban transportation services, unreliable funding for infrastructure and operations, and possible changes in national policies affecting trade, climate, environmental protection, and sources of energy. The potential consequences of these changes could make future congestion, fuel consumption, and emissions either markedly better or markedly worse. Correspondingly, these potential changes could positively or adversely affect commercial truck, rail, aviation, and waterborne networks, with significant implications for the delivery of goods and services, personal travel, and the economy.” What will likely not change is the general systematic process for developing vehicles and infrastructure—planning, design, construction, manufacturing, operations, maintenance.

Despite concerns over privacy, identifying travel patterns is important. Technology has enhanced our ability to do this enabling plans and designs to be developed for improvements.

Sharing data is another important component. How? Simple vehicle/people trackers are available and used while protecting privacy.

Gaining trust is critical and that takes time. This is also easily lost, and everyone must stay mindful of how important this is for the system to work properly, even efficiently. The technology should include the ability for the user to turn the location off unless it has potential safety risks or system impacts which may relate to safety and/or efficiency.

So, what’s in it for me? This has the potential to reduce costs financially and environmentally while improving the overall quality of life, decrease travel time, increase the efficiency of the system, maintain and/or increase the profits of data collectors/owners.

A determination should be made of what is the proprietary in both the public and private spheres.

What are some drivers in reimagining mobility? These include reducing costs for users and the environment, reducing congestion, increasing the capacity of existing infrastructure, reducing travel times, and increasing safety.

What are some obstacles? Privacy continues to dominate, including as an issue in exploring a replacement for the fuel tax such as the vehicle miles traveled tax (VMT) initiated by the State of Oregon. Fielding is another issue. How do you efficiently field new technologies into a fleet of varying types and ages? That is likely messy and will require a long transition. Consolidation, analysis and meaningful output is likely another obstacle. Collecting data is only useful if it can provide meaningful outputs. While 5G will greatly enhance rates, the overall capacity of the system is a predictable obstacle to include adequate data storage capacity. Data centers being developed by Facebook, Microsoft and others may be examples of what will be needed to accommodate this new, emerging mobility ecosystem.

How to Move Forward

Finding a framework is key for the needed public-private partnership to develop. The Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) architecture developed by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) may be a good model. This architecture attempts to define a system of governance and key architectural elements that must be met by participants, public or private, while not being overly prescriptive. This can be a fine line to walk. The Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA) is a consortium that continues to bring the public and private sectors together to augment USDOT in developing and deploying emerging technologies. In 2019 the Transportation Research Board published the results of a three year study on the future of the interstate highway system, originally planned for a 50 year life, that made several recommendations including that its future should be modeled after the original interstate approach, adjusting the federal fuel tax to the original 90 percent federal share, creation of an Interstate Highway System Renewal and Modernization Program (RAMP), increasing the federal fuel tax to a level commensurate with the federal share required of the RAMP investment and adjusting the tax as needed for inflation and vehicle fuel economy, and with an assumption that it would be at least 2040 before large scale automation occurred. These frameworks of governance have worked in the past and there is every reason to believe they will work in the future. It is critical that the federal and state governments, and their conventions such as the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), lead the way.

It is important to tie this effort to safety, congestion reduction, climate change, resilience, security, economics, quality of life, health, business, asset management including the true costs of travel and supporting infrastructure, sustainability, and overall system performance. This also has the potential to improve other associated elements to include social justice, equity, diversity, increased access, reduced energy consumption, and others. Reimagining mobility has the potential to improve all of these.

In a mobility ecosystem, everything is related to everything else and the progression to it will be challenging, messy, and a long road (no pun intended). However, there are some human elements that will enhance, if not be critical to, success. These include being resilient, collaborative, maintaining a focus on the big picture goal, not getting stuck or lost in the details, and continuing to leverage emerging technologies.