Current events seem a good place to start before a walk through some history and mobility—where we’re at and how we got here.

We are a society of people, and with that comes “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” borrowing from the movie of that name, and mobility is a part of that mix. The United States, and other cultures as well, have come a long way, including the times when discrimination and oppression of anyone that was different and had not been a part of the dominant class—African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, other colored peoples, women, other cultures and religions, and others—was rampant. But, we have a long way to go. In some form or fashion, this is reflected in what we are experiencing in the United States—division, tribalism, polarization, radicalism, cults, misinformation, disinformation, lies, conspiracy theories, inability to agree on facts, trust deficit, racial inequality, economic disparity, escalating, vindictive, caustic political dynamics, and even nihilism. These elements helped facilitate an attack on the United States Capitol, an act of domestic terrorism if not sedition (Bush, 2021). Moreover, voter suppression is reasserting itself at the state level and counterproductive to democracy. There is some speculation that this era of suppression may allow minority rule, similar to some fascist and autocratic regimes  (Derysh, 2021; Bagley, 2021; Albert, 2021; Smith, 2020; Chung and Hurley, 2021; Wolf, 2021). Where is this all headed and how will it end? How do we address or respond to this morass? Isabel Wilkerson (2020) makes a compelling case in her book, Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents, about how power—which groups who have it and which do not—has shaped America through a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings, that has continued from our nation’s beginning to today. The situation our society has found itself in has been referred to as a “cold civil war.” With all of the issues we in the United States and around the world are facing, it can be a challenge to resolve them. Developing leaders and helping them succeed, trust, display mutual respect, create strong relationships, educate the public, and listen are critical to addressing these challenges and in a civil and collaborative way. One element that is emerging is discussion to develop consensus of what democratic social media and the Internet look like in order to guard against extremism, hate, and lies that can foment conspiracy theories, attacks on our democracy, and distract and make difficult the work toward more important issues and needs such as transportation and infrastructure while protecting the freedom of speech and Internet, in the United States and around the world. This is a fine line to walk but with progress, democracy will be improved. The United States Constitution preamble, after all, is: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The work to achieve that aspirational preamble will never end. The mobility space is a part of this mix, is impacted by these events, and has a role to play in advancing a more sustainable and healthy society, economy, and environment.

It is hard to imagine how we can meet and overcome our many challenges—social, economic, environmental—associated with growing populations (Figure 10) in cities and countries around the world, but transportation/mobility are part of the solution. In 1968, The Population Bomb (Ehrlich, 1968) predicted worldwide famine in the 1970s and 1980s, major societal upheavals, and other environmental degradation due to human population growth. While most of the predictions did not occur as predicted, the general premise is hard to ignore considering today’s climate change, environmental degradation, and other global events. Ehrlich’s predictions were not new. Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834), a British economist and mathematician, proposed that population growth would outstrip increases in food supplies in his day (Malthus, 1798). Others have predicted that a sixth mass extinction has already begun (Ceballos et al, 2017; Carrington, 2017). While events have not unfolded as Ehrlich, Malthus, and others predicted, environmental resilience and human ingenuity, although limited, have almost certainly delayed and modified the timing, scale, and specific details of their predictions. It is startling to contemplate these events, the fact that there is evidence to speculate on these outcomes is reason enough to act to change their potential impacts (Lovejoy, 2017). It is also rare that predictions of any kind take place as originally described.

FIGURE 10. Population growth over the last 10,000 years. (Source: Our World in Data, 2019)

Transportation and mobility have been around since the beginning of humans. In fact, the history of people and civilization could be told in terms of mobility. Therefore, it provides some context and perspective for where our species started and how we got to the present. Our species, after all, are travelers and explorers that seek to understand our world and ourselves.

The universe and our place in it is a complex one (Figure 11) (Flannery, 2012; Flannery, 2002; 2018, Christian, 2019; Harari, 2014).

Figure 11. A brief history of human evolution. (Source:

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 navigating on animal trails and along waterways (rivers, lakes, and oceans), increasingly large and sophisticated floating craft (boats, canoes, ships, and others), and using domesticated animals 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. The Silk Road connecting Europe and Asia, and others, increasingly expanded trade and cultural exchange over vast areas of the globe.

History is marked by the longest and oldest trade route in the world—the Silk Road—an ancient overland trade route formed in the Western Han Dynasty from about 202 BC to 9 AD. This road or trade route spans 4,350 miles, connecting China, India, Persian Gulf, Japan and Europe. While this route has periodically declined in usage, it has existed for over 2,000 years. (, 2019; Elizabeth, 2016; National Geographic Society, 2019).

Within the realm of recorded human history, mobility and its infrastructure is also marked by the Romans building a network of an estimated 200,000 miles of roads to connect their empire. That was in their DNA from the beginning, and is likely in ours today (Morales, 2021).

Fast forward to the United States. 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. 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, a Native American pathway, as part of the British campaign to evict the French from the forks of the Ohio River (Weiser-Alexander, 2019). 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 (National Road PA Org, n.d). 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 true in many states and communities.

The United States developed the first National Park System in the world, signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1873, that began with Yellowstone National Park, treasures for all to enjoy. Prior to full control by the National Park Service in 1918, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers was responsible for building roads, bridges, buildings and other appurtenances that provided access for the public to the Park while leaving nature as they found it (Williamson, 2016).

Early in the 20th Century, Gifford Pinchot, forester, conservationist, former Pennsylvania Governor, first Chief of the U. S. Forest Service, and close friend of Theodore Roosevelt, became known not only for advancing the protection of forests and public lands but economic development including road building for recreational public use access. (U.S. Department of the Interior, 2017; Encyclopaedia Britannica, n.d.).

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. 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 ushered in an era of system preservation, due largely to inadequate funding, NIMBY (not in my backyard), and other competing issues (e.g. climate change, pandemic, social justice, equity, political polarization, etc.).

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. The Interstate era also saw an increase in the emphasis on safety, an effort to decrease loss in lives and property driven partly by liability concerns and increasing value placed on human life. This is critical and continues to this day.

As great as development of the interstate highway system is, there is also a dirty secret. It destroyed many neighborhoods of color, the poor, and underserved through destruction of homes, businesses, displacement, congestion, pollution, noise, and racism. The shadows of these impacts linger to this day (McFarland, 2021).

Data for improving mobility is not new and 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—we are dependent on it. Of course, good data does not always exist. There are many examples of poor organization and project performance (over budget, over schedule, poor quality) that resulted from the lack of good data.

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, including demand for vast amounts of data and analysis. 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 force-multiplier in building our nation’s strong economy.

The result—the United States is the best connected country in the world with the most extensive transportation system in the world—over 4 million miles of public roads, over 600,000 bridges on public roads, over 5,000 public airports, over 90,000 miles of privately owned Class 1 freight rail, over 20,000 miles of AMTRAK passenger rail, over 10,000 miles of transit rail, nearly 7,000 public transit providers, over 25,000 miles of navigable river channels, and over 300 ports (Wagner, 2020;, 2019; Hughes-Cromwick, 2019; Mazareanu, 2020; Bureau or Transportation Statistics, n.d.; Maritime Administration, 2019). This does not even consider other privately owned roads, bridges, airports, and other means of conveyance such as pipelines, short-line rail roads, trails, etc.

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: China’s “One Belt, One Road” which will result in the largest road network in the world, paving the Silk Road connecting China and Europe (Belt and Road Initiative, n.d.), 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 (IBEF, 2021; Devonshire-Ellis, 2020). This does not even consider other countries such as Norway, where roughly half of all cars on the road are no longer powered by gas, incentivized by tax savings, toll road exemptions and other incentives to limit climate change (Welch, 2021).

Multimodal advances, including through technology and collaboration, are also increasingly providing three dimensional vice two dimensional thinking—land, water, air, and space. It’s about connecting people to people and to other assets and resources. As such, transportation and mobility professionals are deemed “essential workers.”

We are now in the 4th Industrial Revolution—digital technology—with velocity, scope, and systems impacts that are blurring the lines between physical, digital, and biological spheres. The speed of these break throughs has no historical precedence and is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. (Schwab, 2016). The evolution of transportation and mobility has been quite a journey and that journey continues.


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