The world is overwhelmingly short-term focused, and no one really knows what the future holds as the global built-natural environment evolves. It likely will be more or less recognizable compared to today. Many of us, but not all, have enjoyed living in a high-quality built environment/standard of living while our natural environment has degraded, largely unnoticed by many. Changes to our built-natural environment will likely not happen quickly but over decades, centuries, and millennia (if this isn’t considered quickly, which is a relative term). During this time, our built-natural environment is poised for significant change, some for the worse and hopefully some for the better (World Economic Forum, 2023). There is also the Doomsday Clock, originally established with the involvement of Albert Einstein to approximate humanity’s end from nuclear weapons. It has since been expanded to include other threats, and that clock keeps moving forward toward midnight (Weise, 2023a). There are also dire predictions from credible sources and acknowledgment that it is too late to fully prevent the resulting impacts (Jazeera, 2023, Ripple et al., 2023; Sumata, 2023). These predictions include ones from a Nobel Peace Prize-winning collection of scientists and perhaps the greatest group of scientists ever assembled—the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC (2023). The press has highlighted this report (e.g., 9News, 2023; Borenstein and Jordans, 2023; Rice and Pulver, 2023). Others forecast variations on this future, but they are not substantially different (Barrage and Nordhaus, 2023; Watts, 2023; van der Wijst et al., 2023). These are in addition to the prescient 1972 Limits to Growth projections (Meadows et al., 1972), updates and various off-shoot initiatives (Bardi and Pereira, 2022; Herrington 2022), and myriad associated efforts (We Don’t Have Time, nd) that have precipitated this four-part series. There are also more optimistic outlooks based on currently available technologies (Weise, 2023b). Although somewhat dated, one study found that not one of 150 countries meets basic needs of its citizens at a globally sustainable level of resource use (O’Neill et al., 2018). An interesting link is also provided with this citation (O’Neill et al., 2018) that provides a comparison of various resource usage for these 150 countries. Ultimately, no one precisely knows what the future holds, although the facts and trend lines of the risks to our global society, economy, and built and natural environments appear indisputable. Thus, it may be best to view these various scenarios within a “cone of possibilities” while planning and preparing for the worst.
Some projections are that sea level will rise 12 inches by 2050 (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2022a). That’s less than 27 years from now. Ten percent of the world’s population live in coastal areas less than 32 feet above sea level (Bressan, 2021), 267 million are less than six feet above sea level, 44 percent live within about 90 miles of the coast, and eight of the ten largest cities in the world are near a coast (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2022b). This does not consider more intense storms (marine and terrestrial) from increased heat in the oceans and the atmosphere. Biodiversity extinction continues at alarming rates (70 percent of wildlife is already lost). That diversity is the basis of a healthy planetary ecosystem for all living things, including humans.
Biodiversity encompasses the living nature in all its variety. It provides many services, including climate regulation, pollination and soil formation, decomposing wastes, provision of raw materials, and contributions to our mental and physical well-being. There are three dimensions to biodiversity: ecosystems, species, and genetics. More than 90% of biodiversity loss is caused by five drivers: land degradation and habitat destruction, resource (over) exploitation, climate change, pollution, and invasive species.”
Avice-Hyet and Petit, 2023
It’s hard to estimate other high risks, including continuing wars such as in Ukraine. The coming decade will largely find whether we will succeed or fail in maintaining a quality, built-natural environment for all within a healthy global ecosystem.
Politics may seem real (and it has a definite impact on our lives, positive and negative), but it’s not reality even though it feels like it since we’ve all been raised within economic and societal systems. The natural environment is the base reality of a livable built-natural environment including the natural resources we need to have quality lives (clean air, clean water, clean food, etc.).
Ultimately, “Mother Nature” holds the “trump card,” while the built environment and the natural resources we need will pay the price financially, economically, quality of life, and extinction of species, potentially including ourselves. Even the rich are subject to Mother Nature’s laws and behaviors. While they may be able to protect themselves from her ravages for a while, eventually, she will impact them as she has the most vulnerable. (Jazeera, 2022).
Our world is approaching a mass extinction of nature, similar to those caused by the asteroid that slammed into the Gulf of Mexico 66 million years ago, ending the Cretaceous period and the age of dinosaurs. The asteroid wiped out 75% of all life on Earth. The difference this time is that slow-motion destruction is still progressing right before our human eyes (Ramanujan, 2021). The net consequences for nature, including humans, could be catastrophic given time and events unless we take them seriously. (Cowie et al., 2022; Dryden and Duncan, 2022; Greenfield, 2023; Greshko, 2021; McGuigan, 2022). Understanding both the physical and social tipping points is critical to mitigate and avoid the worst impacts (National Academies, 2023b). One intriguing book recently released explores the contribution of social sciences in conservation and conserving biodiversity (Miller et al, 2023). A better understanding is essential considering the central role humans are playing in the Anthropocene Epoch and degradation of our global ecosystem (McCoy, 2023). Moreover, nature will help us save the planet if we let it (Carew, 2023).
The central challenge is for us as humans is to see ourselves as part of the natural world, not separate or superior to it (Figure 4). There is hope and movement in a recent initiative called the Well Being Economy Governments Partnership (Meredith, 2023). This effort seems to be growing and is one to watch. It was stunning that the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, recently condemned the obsession with economic growth and urged the country to rebalance the economy, ecology, and ethics (Leahy, 2023). Valuing various aspects of nature, such as infrastructure, continues (The Editors, 2023). There are also many other ideas and efforts underway. Some of which are Reuters (2023), Rotterdam School of Management (2020), Savini (2022), Stanway (2023), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Program Engineering with Nature (U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, n.d.), National Academies (2022), and United Nations (2023b). This does not exclude the vast number of other efforts underway (e.g., Puko, 2023). The European Union has recently established sustainability rules that will require more rigorous reporting by companies around the world (Holger, 2023). Recently, the small Pacific Island country of Vanuatu is poised to gain UN approval to seek an unprecedented legal opinion from The Hague on what obligation countries have to combat climate change (Freedman, 2023). This is another aspect to watch for how it develops. With my background in transportation, it is appropriate to give a nod to the myriad efforts in that venue (Khatib, 2023). Technology advances are also in the mix (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2023c). It is also encouraging to see other system integration efforts, in this case, the integration of ecosystem health and public health (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2023a). After all, we are all dependent on a healthy ecosystem.
Figure 4. Humans superior to or separate from versus a part of the natural world. (Source: Hans Lak LinkedIn post 11-21-2022)
While the science behind how and how quickly our global ecosystem will change is not precise, the risks could not be higher in dismissing the timing or severity of these changes. While world-class scientists have overwhelming evidence of the impacts and how to mitigate them (United Nations Thailand, 2023, World Economic Forum, 2022, 2023), we cannot become seduced into ignoring or reducing the urgency of arguments on the precision (Bailey, 2023) of what can be done to mitigate the greatest impacts, or outright misinformation and denials (Banerjee et al., 2021). Others, including banks (Kusnetz, 2023), have not sufficiently moved toward a more sustainable built-natural environment. Inadequate action will only increase the risks. There are confounding features of our global environment, such as net growth of Antarctic Sea ice, that has yet to be explained and appears to be acting differently than the Arctic relative to global warming (Blanchard-Wrigglesworth et al., 2022; Antarctica Journal, 2023; NASA Earth Observatory n.d.; Parkinson, 2019). This does not mean that global warming is not real, but it does point out we have a lot to understand.
Planet Earth has one global ecosystem that contains a subordinate human global society and economy. In protecting our planet Earth, re-ordering our human systems to be compatible with nature, and changing hearts and minds, we will succeed or fail—together. (Gergis, 2022; Watts, 2022).
In one final thought, I have recently realized that there is an inextricable link between the existential threats of balancing truly sustainable built-natural environments and of castes in the United States and around the world (Bakewell-Stone, 2021; Wilkerson, 2020)—a planetary crisis. Over the next 20 years, we are going to encounter a “karmic moment of truth” as to how we collectively determine the quality and direction of our world society, built, and natural environments (Isabel Wilkerson interview of 2-13-2023 on The Last Word news broadcast with Lawrence O’Donnell; World Economic Forum, 2023; Vespa, 2020). We must become a real pluralistic society in the United States and globally. Diversity in nature and humanity is the default, not a monoculture. Diversity provides deeper, more flexible, more resilient, and ultimately stronger systems.
In a world without caste, being male or female, light or dark, immigrant or native-born, would have no bearing on what anyone was perceived as being capable of. In a world without caste, we would all be invested in the well-being of others in our species if only for our own survival, and recognize that we are in need of one another more than we have been led to believe. We would join forces with indigenous people around the world raising the alarm as fires rage and glaciers melt. We would see that, when others suffer, the collective human body is set back from the progression of our species. A world without caste would set everyone free.”
It is the human species that has fashioned the world in which we live, and the trends we have created. Likewise, our responsibility is to solve our built-natural environment challenges while resolving our caste issues. The United Nations (2023a, 2023b, 2023c), and many others have stoked, advocated, and advanced needed change. Still, “The 2020s will be remembered as the decade that determined the fate of humanity. We can each choose to be part of the critical mass that will change the world. And when we do, it will bring profound meaning and purpose to our lives.” (Lohan, 2023; Gergis, 2023).
Wisdom is knowing that you know nothing.”
—Socrates 399 B.C., from ‘Plato’s Apology’ (my simple interpretation: to have the humility for continuous learning and changing your thinking)
Let’s face it, the universe is messy. It is nonlinear, turbulent, and chaotic. It is dynamic. It spends its time in transient behavior on its way to somewhere else, not in mathematically neat equilibria. It self-organizes and evolves. It creates diversity, not uniformity. That’s what makes the world interesting, that’s what makes it beautiful, and that’s what makes it work.”
If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”
Cowie, R. H., P. Bouchet, B. Fontaine (2022, January 10). The Sixth Mass Extinction: fact, fiction or speculation?[Video]. Biological Reviews; Wiley. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.1111/brv.12816
Dryden, H., and D. Duncan. (2022, October 28). Climate Disruption Caused by a Decline in Marine Biodiversity and Pollution[Video]. International Journal of Environment and Climate Change; SCIENCEDOMAIN international. https://doi.org/10.9734/ijecc/2022/v12i111392
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2023b). Integrating Public and Ecosystem Health Systems to Foster Resilience: A Workshop to Identify Research to Bridge the Knowledge-to-Action Gap: Proceedings of a Workshop. The National Academies Press. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.17226/26896
Parkinson, C. L. (2019). A 40-y record reveals gradual Antarctic sea ice increases followed by decreases at rates far exceeding the rates seen in the Arctic. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(29), 14414–14423. Retrieved May 13, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1906556116
Ripple, W. J., C. Wolf, T. M. Lenton, J. W. Gregg, S. M. Natali, P. B. Duffy, J. Rockström, H. J. Schellnhuber. (2023). Many risky feedback loops amplify the need for climate action. One Earth, 6(2), 86–91. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2023.01.004
Sumata, H., L. D. De Steur, D. V. Divine, M. A. Granskog, and S. Gerland, S. (2023, March 15). Regime shift in Arctic Ocean sea ice thickness. Nature, 615(7952), 443–449. Retrieved April 30, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-05686-x
van der Wijst, KI., F. Bosello, S. Dasgupta, et al. (2023). New damage curves and multimodel analysis suggest lower optimal temperature. Nat. Clim. Chang. Retrieved April 30, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-023-01636-1
Vespa, J., L. Medina, and D. M. Armstrong. (2020). Demographic Turning Points for the United States: Population Projections for 2020 to 2060. Current Population Reports, P25-1144, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, 2020.
There are a lot of systems thinkers but two are among my favorites:
Edward O. Wilson, a world-renowned scientist of the natural environment (Wilson, 1998, 2012, 2014, 2016, and many others not reflected in this blog)
Robert Prieto, a world-renowned engineer of the built environment (Prieto, 2008, 2015, 2017, 2020, 2022a, 2022b, and many others not reflected in this blog)
Another favorite of mine is Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems (2008) a sustainability-focused book and one of the original 1972 The limits to Growth authors. Many others are actively addressing the fundamentals of improving our built-natural environment.
There are also other systems thinking efforts toward more holistic thinking underway. It is encouraging to see efforts on valuing nature, such as a recent agreement by the United States and Australia (Chung, 2022) and others (MacEacheran, 2022; Well Being Economy Alliance, n.d.). Two of the more significant efforts toward more holistic thinking include the National Academies (2022) report with recommendations on taking a systems approach toward a better understanding of the built-natural environment and Gaya Herrington’s (2022) book on five insights from a relook at the original Limits to Growth model which confirmed the original 1972 trend lines. I am especially struck by the latter’s objectivity and clarity. In sum, her five insights are:
We are connected, and acting like we are not has led us to the brink of collapse.
Growth is not a good goal. In fact, it is the cause of society’s problems.
We need to fundamentally change society’s priorities if we want to avoid significant declines in our current levels of well-being.
Time is of the essence to make this change.
The end of the growth pursuit does not mean the end of progress, quite the opposite.
Tenants of a path forward:
I have tried to establish this list of tenants which will be needed to engage the challenges of global growth in a meaningful and productive way.
A good faith effort must be made by all, or at least a majority, to avoid the tipping points, which could last centuries if not millennia (Dixon-Declève et al., 2022).
A clear and straightforward focus must be developed to bring these challenges to the attention of the public. The lack of a clear focus, in fact, may be part of the problem in engaging our global society in an acutely focused direction forward rather than for narrow scientific, engineering, or other interests. This is a very difficult task. The world is now replete with conferences, meetings, books, publications, and other venues on a path forward before it is too late. This collection of venues is so vast it is virtually impossible to stay up with, much less digest.
A clear strategy and planning are needed to substantially manage positive and negative risks. Some are asserted by Dixon-Declève et al. (2022) as follows:
A program management approach is needed. A program involves interrelated projects combined with a systems approach. The extra investment required to build a more resilient civilization is estimated at two to four percent of global income per year for sustainable energy and food security alone. These “turnarounds” will surely be disruptive, and the likelihood of occurring is not high (Dixon-Declève, et al., 2022).
Priorities must be made. This will be neither clear nor simple, but I would suggest a good starting point is Herrington’s Figure 32 titled “Finance system within ecosystem, stable versus fragile” (Herrington, 2022). I might suggest calling this figure “Herrington’s Hierarchy of our Planet.” This is no great surprise since we all live within our planet’s natural ecosystem.
Meaningful metrics must be developed. I say meaningful because everything that can be measured is not important, and everything important cannot be easily measured. Recently, NASA space satellites are tracking 50 super emitters around the world (Greicius, 2023; Hartono, 2022). Some metrics being used are not accurate and therefore misleading and not very meaningful to developing a sustainable built-natural environment (Elgin and Rangarajan, 2022; Boudreau, 2022). This is highly problematic. Still, accurate and meaningful metrics on the health of our natural environment must be weighted equally, or higher, to the built environment on which it depends. They must reflect reality, not wrong, misleading, or inaccurate metrics that only make the task more difficult, if not impossible. This also includes a standard definition and understanding of terms (Jones, 2022; Savini, 2022).
Above all, action must be taken in conjunction with feedback loops to measure progress and enable adjustments to align the way. Without action, it is just a lot of talk. Dixon-Declève et al (2022) provide a pretty common sense list of actions for our future which I have adapted.
Share wealth more fairly.
Act in the interests of future generations.
Change how you measure progress, value well-being and nature over financial growth.
Engage citizens about what really matters in society…most don’t read papers and books on our planet’s dilemmas.
Send unequivocal signals to markets on long-term commitment and investment transformation.
Join the movements and do what you can in your own life.
Vote for politicians who value the future.
Start conversations and efforts in how our global society and planet can be improved.
The need for meaningful feedback loops has already been mentioned but bears repeating. These are needed to measure progress and adjust as needed to achieve priorities and goals.
Finally, as feedback is received, adjust actions as needed to achieve the stated priorities and goals.
One of the most salient, simple, and summarized rules for a healthy built-natural environment is from Donella Meadows, et al. (1972), and this still speaks true today.
Renewable resources should be used no faster than they can regenerate.
Pollution and wastes shall not be put into the environment faster than the environment can recycle them or render them harmless.
Non-renewable resources shall not be used at all, and renewable substitutes should be developed.
The human population and the physical capital plant must be kept at levels low enough to meet the first three conditions.
The previous four conditions must be met through processes that are democratic and equitable enough that people will stand for them.
In theory, the United Nations seems the right governance body to lead this work. The UN’s work is meaningful to our global society and planetary ecosystem, including 17 ambitious sustainability goals developed in 2015. These goals were targeted to be accomplished by 2030 and some progress has been made (United Nations, 2022, 2023). These goals are:
Good health and well-being
Clean water and sanitation
Affordable and clean energy
Decent work and economic growth
Industry innovation and infrastructure
Sustainable cities and communities
Responsible consumption and production
Life below water
Life on land
Peace, justice, and strong institutions
Partnerships for the goals
However, the UN (by design) lacks the authority to bring all nations in line with what is needed, and it is a fantasy to believe otherwise (e.g., United Nations, 2022). Thus, it is an open question whether the myriad efforts currently underway will succeed in mitigating the growing impacts on our global society and ecosystem or whether a new form of governance should be developed. Will each country rise to the occasion (Searcey, 2022; Office of Science and Technology Policy, 2022; Greenfield, 2022; Frazen, 2022; Meyer 2022)? Will companies force the needed change (Weston, 2022; Schneider Electric, 2022; World Economic Forum, 2022)? Will we find common ground and work together to resolve our collective issues (Sarkar, 2019)? Will people around the world force and guide us, from the ground up, to a more sustainable built-natural environment (Meadows, 1994; Wahl, 2020)? What is fair and equitable responsibility (for example, Ghosh et al., 2022)? How will the public and private sectors work together in resolving this existential crisis? These are all critical but unanswered questions. As it is, efforts are largely fragmented while many are doing the best they can.
There is a lot of work to be done, individually, societally, and globally. The simple and unavoidable truth is that whatever the future holds, we will succeed or fail together.
There are no separate systems. The world is a continuum. Where to draw a boundary around a system depends on the purpose of the discussion.
United Nations. (2023). Global Sustainable Development Report. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Sustainable Development. Retrieved April 1, 2023, from https://sdgs.un.org/gsdr/gsdr2023
I am in my eighth decade of existence and believe, rightly or wrongly, that I have gained some perspective on the arc of life on Planet Earth. I have been a part of our global society, and its development, through my years of local, state, national, and international experience in academia, engineering, construction, transportation, natural sciences, management, and leadership. I also enjoy building things of value, physically and metaphorically, in concert with the social, human-built, and natural environments. At my base, I consider myself a scientist, nature, and evidence-based from an early age, valuing the scientific method and, as more evidence comes forth, that conclusions may change. That is in stark contrast to the misinformation in our society today. I have lived a good life, enjoyed the natural world, and benefited from myriad developments. I am proud to have brought some built-natural environment perspective to mitigate, if not improve, our natural environment. These include recycling, asset management, environmental management, infrastructure development to reduce costs and environmental impacts, improvement of habitats and associated species outcomes, and the quality of people’s lives. Unfortunately, they don’t count for much in the greater scheme of life.
As our planet approaches a population of eight billion people (Davies, 2022) (there were about 2.5 billion in 1950 when I was born), I am reminded of the “carrying capacity” (Odom, 1971) which is familiar to ecologists, farmers, ranchers, and conservationists. That is, there is a limit to the number of individuals a habitat, including our global habitat, can sustain. Moreover, risks are growing (World Economic Forum, 2022; Wallace-Wells, 2017; Pulver and Rice, 2022). It is virtually impossible to deny the influence human beings have had on the world, even to the point of creating a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene (Brondizio et al., 2016).
I do not recall a time as now with as much attention to our natural environment since the days of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, the United Nations convening the first Earth Summit (the UN Conference on the Human Environment) in 1972, and the Limits to Growth in 1972. There are myriad efforts that have developed: Global Project Management (2023) and myriad series stemming from the 50th Anniversary of the Limits to Growth such as:
I reviewed some of these growing built-natural environment issues in a series of previous blogs entitled “The Mobility Ecosystem: the changing landscape and need for fresh, new ideas” (www.leadershipintransportation.com).
I was shocked to learn that the “Lungs of the Earth” (aka the vast Amazon Rain Forest) has reversed behavior. For the first time in its existence, the Amazon now emits more CO2 than it absorbs due to large-scale human disturbances such as land clearing (Gatti et al., 2021; McCoy, 2022). This is in addition to continuing degradation and destruction of the Amazon (Watts, 2022). We are also living in the sixth mass extinction of life on earth, partially because of our encroachment into wildlife habitats, and 2020 brought us a pandemic that completely disrupted our global society (Tollefson, 2020).
The efforts this past year are truly remarkable. Initiated partly by a review of the original 1972 Limits to Growth computer model in the book Limits and Beyond: 50 years on from The Limits to Growth. What did we learn, and what’s next” (Bardi and Alvarez, 2022). These efforts include a host of books, articles, webinars, conferences, and other venues on the subject of saving our planet. The 1972 Limits to Growth is still prescient 50 years later, not in details but in major trends.
Some other eclectic and seemingly disparate books have also influenced my thinking this past year, including Five Insights for Avoiding Global Collapse (Herrington, 2022), Earth for All: a survival guide for humanity (Dixon-Decleve et al., 2022), How to be a Stoic (Pigliucci, 2017), The Emperors Handbook (by Marcus Aurelius a translation by Scott and Hicks, 2002), The Standard for Project Management (Project Management Institute, 2021), and The Standard for Program Management (Project Management Institute, 2017). These readings, and others, set the basis for this writing. I have tried to write this to expand program and project managers’ thinking and perspectives as they are in a somewhat unique position to mitigate, if not improve, our built-natural environments. Prieto (2022a) provides another, more detailed discussion of the role of program and project managers in the climate change arena.
While I perused the book The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al., 1972) as an undergraduate and graduate student, I did not fully recognize its relevance.
Now, I find myself increasingly reflecting on what has gone before and what the future will look like.
Simplicity is appropriate, even though the “devil is in the details,” in explaining inherently complex subjects, and I could find no better simple description, vice describing in words, than the figures depicting our natural-built environment challenges, existential and otherwise, as in Herrington’s book (2022). There is another good figure depicting this subject entitled “Integration of Natural Capital and Economic Capital” (Figure 1) found on the inside back cover of Odom and Barrett (2005).
Figure 2 reflects the hierarchy of needs for our planetary existence and the fragility of life on earth if nature is relegated to the lowest priority. This has some similarities to Maslow’s well-known hierarchy of needs and human motivation to have a stable and successful life (Maslow 1943).
Money is perhaps human history’s most successful shared fiction (Goldstein, 2020). We have all been raised in an economic framework, so it feels real, but the capitalist narrative underlying our economic system is purely a human invention, which becomes clear as we replace the issues surrounding this human invention with a purely physical one, such as a threat, disease, injury, or death. In other words, the natural system is what is real and it sometimes takes a traumatic event for us to reset, or see more clearly, our priorities toward life and its attendant features (family, friends, other living things, and generally enjoying what is otherwise a short human life).
In recent decades, there have been increasing efforts to address these built-natural environment challenges and dilemmas. These include environmental laws and regulations, recycling, sustainability, ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) programs and approaches in our society in general but also in the economic and investing arenas (e.g. Fink, 2022). These efforts are all worthwhile but it is difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain whether these largely unintentionally fragmented efforts have substantial impacts toward a more balanced built-natural environment, or if they are even measuring real impacts (Catanoso, 2022), sometimes referred to as “green-washing” (Robinson, 2022). These efforts are also not without pushback in our crazy political world (Toppe, 2022; Beals, 2023; Ramsey, 2023). ESG risks in engineering and construction must also be considered (Prieto, 2022b, 2023). Another aspect is whether our built environment will bend or break while sustaining our underlying natural environment (Woetzel et al., 2020).
I believe that our current challenges require systems thinking and a program management approach (Prieto, 2021; Project Management Institute, 2022a, 2022b). Program management is a collection of projects with a common interrelationship. What could have more interconnected relationships than our global built-natural environment?
This four-part series is not meant to be comprehensive, a prediction of the future, or a doomsday. Events are moving rapidly so this series may be lagging but the central themes remain the same. It is meant as a very broad review of our current planetary situation. What I know with certainty is that we will succeed or fail in caring for our planet—together. It is our common mother ship.
Aurelius, M. (2002). The Emperor’s Handbook: A New Translation of The Meditations. Simon and Schuster.
Bardi, U., & Pereira, C. Á. (2022). Limits and beyond: 50 years on from the limits to growth, what did we learn and what’s next?: A report to the Club of Rome. Exapt Press.
Brondizio, E. S., O’Brien, K. F. a. R., Bai, X., Biermann, F., Steffen, W., Berkhout, F., Cudennec, C., Lemos, M. C., Wolfe, A. P., Palma-Oliveira, J. M., & Chen, C. (2016). Re-conceptualizing the Anthropocene: A call for collaboration. Global Environmental Change-Human and Policy Dimensions, 39, 318–327. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2016.02.006
Carson, R. (1962). Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Gatti, L.V., L.S. Basso, J.B. Miller, M. Gloor, L.G. Domingues, H.L.G. Cassol, G. Tejada, L.E.O.C. Aragão, C. Nobre, W. Peters, L. Marani, E. Arai, A.H. Sanches, S.M. Corrêa, L.A. Anderson, C. Von Randow, C.S.C. Correia, S.P. Crispim & R.A.L. Neves. (2021) Amazonia as a carbon source linked to deforestation and climate change. Nature. 595: 388–93, 2021. Retrieved March 26, 2023, from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-03629-6
Reimagining the future will be neither quick or easy. Change is the only constant and that can be slow and difficult day-to-day work by teams of people working together. It starts with a well thought out vision, strategy, and holistic plan for the mobility ecosystem with performance metrics, defined roles and responsibilities to track progress. This is a dynamic, not a static, process and must be continually reassessed as change waits for no one. The elements discussed throughout this 13 part series must be incorporated and used to good purpose, especially engaging people through outreach, partnerships, consensus, and collaboration. The vision and strategy must give focus to balancing the built-natural environments—social, economic, and environmental health—and make those efforts sustainable. They are not mutually exclusive. In addition to the diversity, varied and essential disciplines that need to be involved, systems thinking must be used to see the big picture while knitting the individual disciplines and activities into one holistic effort that will accrue one safe, seamless, sustainable multimodal mobility ecosystem that serves the economy, society, environment, and people’s lives. The various existing and emerging technologies must be effectively leveraged to continue to do more with less in the process. Strategic partnerships must be established to leverage public-private strengths including consultants, construction contractors, data analytics, technology developers/providers such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, vehicle and other manufacturers, and others to mutual advantage (Howard, 2021). This will require leadership.
It is the hard day-to-day work that, over time, will result a mobility ecosystem that is sustainable, resilient, and seamlessly integrated into society, the economy, and environment to which we all aspire. Throughout the path ahead we need new, fresh ideas.
—Imagine a world where everything that can be connected is connected within the mobility ecosystem while improving and sustaining a healthy society, economy, environment, and people’s lives.
To some extent, transportation, mobility, and its infrastructure has always been a bit of a “Rorschach test.” That is that everyone, at least every American, sees something different as to what it is, what it is supposed to do, and what they want. So it is little wonder that there is a challenge in developing a strategy, consensus, and alignment in an industry with increasing social, economic, and environmental aspects to address.
No one really knows what the future holds although there is merit in the statement that “the only way to determine the future is to invent it.” There is a premise by futurists that the future can be viewed as a “cone of possibilities” which seems a reasonable approach. A Buzz Feed internet article entitled “Futurists tell us the most amazing and scary things to expect in the future” was posted on Apple News December 3, 2020 (Spohr, 2020). Some of the future mobility is described as follows.
…thinking about BuzzFeed’s younger readers, many of whom will live to see calendar years even more mind-bogglingly futuristic, like 2080, 2090, and even 2100. What will life be like for them over the course of their lives? How many changes will they see over the next 10–80 years?
To find out, BuzzFeed connected with some of the world’s leading futurists and asked them to forecast what the years to come might bring. Here are their fascinating and thought-provoking insights:
Public transit will be radically different in the future — and traffic will be a thing of the past.
Twentieth century public transit will be replaced by private transportation in van-sized smaller vehicles and single-person pods, driving on roads that are rarely congested because everybody follows tools like Waze which work together with cities to stop too many cars bunching up in the same place before they get there.”
— Brad Templeton
Family road trips will be in self-driving recreational vehicles accessorized with robot assistants and food replicators.
Self-driving RVs will pick you up from your home and be pre-programmed to drive the route you chose (including parking themselves in the designated spaces in RV parks), and they’ll stop along the way at national parks…with reservations, of course. The RV will have internet-on-the-go to allow the kids to play computer games when the vehicle is in motion. The entertainment module will be tailored to the child’s age and interests so that you will never hear, ‘Are we there yet?’ The RVs will be equipped with food replicators, so if the parents don’t want to cook, they won’t have to. Robots will handle the setup and tear down, including making sure that the black water is flushed. All the family has to do is enjoy their time together on this all-inclusive holiday.”
— Joyce Gioia
There is increasingly speculation on the future, not to mention the impact of changing technologies on skill sets and the need to re-educate the changing workforce (Shea, 2021; Michal, 2021). Even Warren Buffet was slow to recognize the important role of technology in our society (Gandel, 2021). The point, we must remain open to change otherwise we risk getting stuck (Hawrylack, 2021). This is a dynamic in human nature.
There are also studies and ideas that have been generated such as what should the future of the interstate highway system be? (The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine, 2018)
National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA innovations and products for space exploration have been adopted for use by our society. Most recently, NASAs 2020 Rover, a car sized vehicle has been developed along with a helicopter to learn more about the Martian planet (Adams, 2021). NASA developments will likely continue to add to our transportation-mobility arena and society as a whole.
While this series of blogs has dealt primarily with ground surface transportation and mobility, changes are afoot in other modes. For example, some airlines and investors are betting on electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (eVTOL) to replace helicopters (Subin, 2021; LeBeau, 2021). Many want an improved passenger rail system (Benson, 2021). The Elon Musk inspired Hyperloop is estimated to exceed speeds of over 700 miles per hour and there are companies around the world working to make this a reality. Still, there are technical and economic issues to overcome (Silic, 2021; Kim and McNabb, 2020). Musk has even asserted that while the California High Speed Rail costs exceed $68 billion, the Hyperloop could be built to span the same distance for $6 billion (Nicol, 2018). There is the topic of smart roads (Integrated Roadways, n.d.).
The only thing that is certain is that the transportation and mobility space is changing, and rapidly.
There are discussions, trends, and research on the departments of transportation of the future (Fuchs and Shehadeh, 2017), thinking beyond cars (Busch, 2017), automated drive-thru meals (Metz, 2021), need for greater equity (Lydersen, 2020), easing poverty (Korman, 2021), electrifying transportation for low income communities (Citizens Utility Board of Illinois, 2020), data management (Center for Digital Government, 2020), big data to relieve congestion (Neumann, 2015), getting broadband across the United States and especially rural areas (Harrison, 2021), reducing traffic congestion and saving costs using AI and V2X (V2X=vehicle to everything) technologies (Carey, 2021), 5.9 GHz (Bhatt and Tymon, 2021), 5G (Fulton, 2021; Wachsman, 2021), smart roads and inductive charging (McFarland, 2021; Stout, 2020; Integrated Roadways, n.d.), cloud services for transportation agencies (AWS, n.d.; Silver, 2021; Matteson, 2021; Silver, n.d.), increasing citizen needs for digital technology in local governments (Schiavone, 2021; Rock Solid, n.d.; Pew Research Center, 2021), growth of micromobility (Miller, 2021), reimagine delivery with drones (Drone Delivery Canada, 2021), reinventing container shipping (Saxon and Stone, 2017), changing logistics (vanValkenburgh, 2021), renewed nature-based solutions (Miller and Huber, 2021), renewed emphasis on resiliency (Schmitz, 2021), increasing environmental issues (Teirstein, 2021; Woodyatt, 2020; Phillips, 2019; Irfan, 2019), how to rebuild America’s infrastructure (Della Rocca, et al, 2017), funding (Wehrman, 2021; Lombardo, 2021), bridging infrastructure gaps (Woetzel et al, 2016), private infrastructure financing (Budden, 2017; Parsons, 2021), new innovations in project financing, delivery, and public-private partnerships (U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highways Administration, 2021; Glazier, 2020), and many others. Others speculate on the future of mobility in cities (Harrouk, 2019), the future of autonomous vehicles in business (Gifford, 2017; Lamb, 2019), and an increasingly long line of public and private organizations committing to 100 percent electric vehicles in the next 10-20 years (Bascome, 2021), lessons in electric vehicle launches (Turkel, 2021), generator-equipped electronic vehicles (Morales, 2021), electric buses (Carroll, 2021), growing fleets of electric cabs (Lambert, 2021), electric delivery vehicles (Adams, 2021), electric heavy trucks (Reuters, 2021), design changes in electric vehicles (Korn, 2021), death of the gas-fueled vehicle (Hamza, 2021; Westbrook, 2020; van Lierop, 2020; Evannex, 2018; King, 2016), electronic vehicles will have 100% of the market by 2040 (Entrepreneur, 2021), the need for additional electric power production (Markets and Markets, 2020; Hull and Malik, 2021), new tools (Remix, 2021), some future implications of zero emission vehicles ( Robinson, 2021), expanded broadband (Pressgrove, 2021; McEwen, 2020), smart cities (Napolitano, et al, 2021), mundane mobility including sidewalks (Descant, 2021), fragility of the supply chain (Naughton and Colias, 2021; Ziady, 2021; Thorbecke, 2021), use of highway medians for other transportation purposes including monorail (Ohnsman, 2021), where Covid-19 has accelerated change (McKinsey & Company 2021), flying cars and driverless buses (Broom 2021), continuing developments in mobility technology (Heineke, et al, 2019), and the need to view infrastructure as a system (Smith, 2020). For now in the transportation space, cities are becoming greener, climate change continues largely unabated, and the impacts of the Pandemic continue with an uncertain future (Baruchman, 2021; Ariza and Harris, 2021; EPA, n.d.; The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering Medicine, 2021; vanValkenburgh, 2021b; Frueh, 2021; Lowry, 2021). These are all legitimate forward-looking “think pieces”, products, and services and are needed.
It is also important to remember we live in one world with one global economy and environment (Shalal and Lawder, 2021; Whalen, 2021; Reuters Staff, 2021).
Some aspects of these futures and ideas may materialize but they are just that, speculations on what the future of mobility may look like. What the future holds will likely be messy and not simple (Putnam, 2021; Gifford, 2017). While it can be entertaining and thought-provoking to consider these futures, no one really knows what the future holds.
To emphasize that no one really can predict the future even though many have some basis, it is interesting to look back at some predictions made only a few years ago. For example, pre-2015 (Carroll, 2014; Eaves, 2007; Frey, 2008; Threewitt, 2012) and post-2015 which is closer to what we know now (Marsh & McLennan Agency, 2018; The National Express Transit, 2019; Mire, 2019; Cunningham, 2017; Thansis1997, 2018; Goodnet, 2016; Frey, 2021). To my surprise, there are even futurist schools (The Futurist Institute). And then there are the pundits speculating on the future of transportation stocks and companies that are disrupting the transportation industry (Whiteman, 2021; Sandre, 2017).
There is the issue of what long term effects the Covid-19 Pandemic will have on transportation, mobility, and freight (Furchtgott-Roth, 2021; Polzin and Choi, 2021; Goodman et al, 2021) and warning signs of a longer pandemic (Baker, 2021).
There is also the continuous drumbeat of the need for infrastructure investment (Landers, 2021; Infrastructure Report Card, 2021). I would add to this the need for social and environmental investment since they are not mutually exclusive.
Throughout this series of blogs there has been very little attention to other areas of the transportation and mobility space such the arena of logistics and supply chains which reflect the entire system through a freight lens.
Being somewhat simplistic, we know a few things with a very high level of certainty relative to the future of transportation and mobility:
America’s transportation systems are long overdue for increased investment. As the new Biden Administration proposes massive funding initiatives for transportation infrastructure, technology will play a critical role in enabling a modernized, next-generation transportation system. A new reliable and sustainable funding model to replace the fuel tax is part of this.
Autonomous, electric vehicles, V2V, V2I, V2X, adaptive traffic signals, electronic tolling/user fees, advanced machine learning, artificial intelligence, 5G, and asset management tools using the Internet of Things, will all be foundational building blocks of a modern system.
A modernized system will combat climate change and meet constituents’ changing needs, including equity, social and environmental justice.
These systems will require a fresh approach to how information is acquired, managed and analyzed as they require the processing of petabytes of data in real time. Cloud computing and edge computing will be part of this mix considering the enormous amount of data involved.
Many are looking, exploring, and building the future of mobility and transportation, it happens a piece at a time, and like other infrastructure and systems that society depends on, is sorely needed (The Commission on the Future of Mobility, 2021). The potential for information overload is a likely risk and part of this mix, as it is presently, and must be effectively dealt with (Sammer, 2021).
The interests and impacts of transportation and mobility are vast with far-reaching impacts to our society, the economy and environment. There is likely no one that is not impacted. Although what an average family spends on transportation can vary from 13 percent to 30 percent of their income depending on various factors to include income, a common percentage used is 16 cents of every dollar, and 93% of this goes to buying, maintaining, and operating cars, the largest expenditure after housing ( Elite Personal Finance, 2021; Cautero, 2021; ITDP, 2019; Financial Samurai, 2020; Miller, 2021; U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, n.d.; American Public Transportation Association, 2021).
This has been a broad, somewhat rambling, series through the mobility ecosystem and has not touched a great many areas and topics but, hopefully, has touched upon the major ones. As travelers, explorers, and citizens of the earth, we must continue our aspiration to understand and sustain our built-natural environment, and the mobility ecosystem, before they become unsustainable. This series has not given proper attention to a host or organizations (public, private, academic, and others) that are making substantial contributions toward the challenges and opportunities facing the mobility ecosystem. Some of these and associated organizations include the United States Department of Transportation and its modal administrations and offices, state departments of transportation, city and county associations, the National Academies including the Transportation Research Board, American Association of Highway and Transportation Officials and their regional associations, Intelligent Transportation Society of America, Metropolitan Planning Organizations, American Road and Transportation Builders Association, Associated General Contractors of America and their state chapters, American Council of Engineering Companies and affiliates, National Society of Professional Engineers and affiliates, National Society of Black Engineers and affiliates, Women in Transportation Society and affiliates, Women in Transportation Society International, Society of women Engineers, National Association of Women in Construction, American Society of Civil Engineers and affiliates, Society of American Military Engineers and associated posts, Green Roads, World Road Federation, International Road Federation, International Bridge, Tunnel, and Turnpike Association, Engineering News Record, American Trucking Association and state chapters, American Public Transportation Association and state affiliates, Association of American Railroads, colleges and universities including University Transportation Centers, and others. Other companies too numerous to name helping to lead the way include auto and truck manufactures, technology companies (including AI, 5G, web services, data services, edge computing), safety (National Safety Council and affiliates, American Traffic Safety Services Association, Association of Transportation Information Safety Professionals, and many others), finance agencies including bonding, other agencies (federal, state, and local), interest groups of all kinds (including the American Automobile Association), and many other important organizations that not only add to our body of knowledge through studies, reports, webinars, conferences, news and other means to advance our mutual interests reflecting a cross-section of our society, economy, and environment. My apologies for the many organizations I have not acknowledged.
Dr. “Kevin” Bao also provides an interesting perspective on how leaders should respond to crises and opportunities. (Steele, 2021). Perhaps this can help in our efforts to clearly, objectively, and urgently address the challenges ahead.
The National Academy of Engineering, National Academies, is bringing many previously disparate and fragmented disciplines and areas of scholarship of complex systems into more holistic thinking (Madhavan et al, 2020). It is challenging and difficult work to digest such broad knowledge but it is an important start to a better way forward, in transportation, mobility, and other areas. After all, a unifying characteristic of complex systems is that they are driven by human behavior, and human thinking.
Of course an elephant in the room is what impact will the $1.9 trillion Covid relief package have on our society, economy, environment, and people’s lives to include the transportation and mobility space (Pramuk, 2021; Morris, 2021).
The new Biden Administration also envisions a once in a century opportunity to change transportation—a new transportation era—comparing this opportunity to the interstate highway system started under President Eisenhower and the transcontinental railroad started under President Lincoln (Yen, 2021). As such, the Administration continues to pursue a robust $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan (Tankersley, et al, 2021). While the majority of Americans support this and there is a verifiable need, it is also a “heavy lift” considering the complexities of our modern day society and politics.
There is also the underlying discussion of how to best democratize the Internet and social media without interfering with the great good these tools provide (IoTeX, 2020; Newcomb, 2016; Smith, 2019; Edinger, 2021; Vicente, 2020; Susaria, 2021; Edinger, 2021).
Recently, the first Nobel Prize Summit was held and attended by Nobel Prize Laureates and other experts. The summit was convened to promote a transformation to global sustainability for human prosperity and equity. As was pointed out, time is the natural resource in shortest supply. This summit was established amid a global pandemic, a crisis of inequality, an ecological crisis, a climate crisis, and an informational crisis. Without transformational action this decade, humanity is taking colossal risks with our common future. The future of all life on this planet, humans and our societies included requires us to become effective stewards in creating a harmonious biosphere and society. This includes inherent infrastructure and mobility. The bottom line, there is now an existential need to build economies and societies that support Earth system harmony rather than disrupt it. In summary, we need to reinvent our relationship with planet Earth as we build this new future. (The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine, 2021)
There is an adage that says the only way to predict the future is to invent, or create, it. There are myriad efforts in that direction. To that end we may be seeing the private sector emerging to lead that future while the public sector follows.
Which takes us back to the quote at the beginning of Part 1 in this series:
The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”
Madhavan, G., G. Poste, W.B. Rouse (eds.). (2020). The Bridge. Linking engineering and society. National Academy of Engineering. Retrieved June 12, 2021, from https://www.nae.edu/File.aspx?id=244667
Markets and Markets. (2020). Power Electronics Market with COVID-19 Impact Analysis by Device Type (Power Discrete, Power Module and Power ICs), Material (Silicon, Silicon Carbide and Gallium Carbide), Voltage (Low Voltage, Medium Voltage and High Voltage), Vertical (ICT, Consumer Electronics, Industrial, Automotive & Transportation, Aerospace & Defense), and Geography – Global Forecast to 2025. Markets and Markets. Retrieved May 25, 2021, from https://www.marketsandmarkets.com/Market-Reports/power-electronics-market-204729766.html
Polzin, S. and T. Choi. (2021, January 14). COVID-19’s effects on the future of Transportation. National Transportation Library. United States Department of Transportation. Retrieved June 12, 2021, from https://rosap.ntl.bts.gov/view/dot/54292
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine. (2018). The future interstate report: 10 big ideas for the 21st century. The National Academies of Sciences Engineering, Medicine. Retrieved May 23, 2021, from https://www.nap.edu/resource/25334/interstate
There is little or no question that education is a key to success. As the responsibilities of transportation professionals broaden, there is needed education in all areas: the suites of disciplines in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) but also digital technologies and their various disciplines and off-shoots, social sciences, human resources management, public relations/communications, organization development and change, project and program management, business, finance, accounting, project controls (scope, schedule, budget), audit, English/editing/writing, planning, project development, design, construction, operations, maintenance, engineering and its disciplines, architecture, systems engineering/management, biological/environmental/climate sciences, geology, hydrology, political science and government, law, economics and economic development, jobs sustained and created, analytics, quality assurance and control, history, leadership, and many others. These are needed along with the skills, talents, and innovations to address the spectrum of transportation and mobility and associated challenges. It is difficult to find comparable data on countries’ STEM graduates. However, it appears while the U. S. produces the most Ph.D.s and 40 percent of India STEM graduates are women, India and perhaps China produce more STEM graduates than the U. S. (Buchholz, 2020; Sindwani, 2020; Gray, 2017). Regardless, the United States needs to keep focused on the importance of STEM programs and adjust to increasing technology and automation (Långstedt, 2021; Dilven, 2021). The competition for talent and skills will only continue in the future. A recently announced leadership development program is a partnership between Kiewit Corporation and University of Nebraska called the Kiewit Scholars Program (Crouch and Reed, 2021).
Marcia McNutt, President of the National Academy of Sciences, provided an excellent overview as the 2021 Transportation Research Board (TRB) Key Note Speaker on where we have been, where we are, and where we’re headed in her presentation: “Delivering science in a crisis: our critical role in helping society build back and forge a more resilient, sustainable future” (https://youtu.be/wuMOSM8BEoA). The TRB celebrated its 100th anniversary November 11, 2020, and as part of the National Academies, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.
It is also important to remember that leadership is about people (Bock, 2021).
Strong generalist, systems and servant leadership are essential to bring this all together, setting the vision, mission, strategy, goals and objectives, priorities, policies, and standards through the people to overcome the many challenges—social, environmental, economic—we face (Smith, 2020; Renjen, 2020; Baldoni, 2020; Renjen, 2019; Moore, 2019; Bruce, 2020). (Some of these topics are also discussed in other articles on this website www.leadershipintransportation.com). In addition to the many talents leaders have needed in the past and present, they must continue to learn, adjust, and understand digital technology, at least at a conceptual and conversational level about what it can and cannot do (Joy, 2021; Cheng, et al, 2021). These are in addition to the many characteristics and intangibles that make good leaders—providing vision and direction, listening, asking questions, being responsible and accountable, giving credit, taking blame, being open, transparent and honest, doing outreach, building trust and strong relationships, and many more.
Some good transportation leadership articles written in a plain and direct manner are worth reading (McClain, 2013; Russell Reynolds Associates, 2015; Fohr, 2020). There is also the greening of transportation career fields (National Center for Sustainable Transportation, n.d.).
Top leaders must also develop a strategy that is simple, disciplined, and based on a clear value proposition on which customers, employees, suppliers, partners and stakeholders can mobilize (Oberholzer-Gee, 2021).
Regarding leadership, the Biden Administration has proposed a vast $2 trillion infrastructure package while the Nobel Foundation is hosting a “Nobel Prize Summit: Our Planet, Our Future” in April 2021 in efforts to address the many social, economic, and environmental needs (Tankersley, 2021; Renshaw and Holland, 2021; Schlesinger, 2021; Schapker, 2021; The National Academies of Sciences Engineering Medicine, 2021; Wehrman, 2021). Some are even promoting a $10 trillion infrastructure package over 10 years (Anderson, 2021; Winck, 2021.)
It is likely that we will see more changes in the transportation and mobility space in the next 10 years than in the previous 100, and education and leadership are more important than ever. It is no understatement that the race to the future will require skilled leadership and a well educated and skilled workforce. With the dramatic pace of change, perhaps there is nothing more important than to be life long learners. This writer has learned this lesson many times.
It has perhaps never been more important and necessary to step back and look at the world anew, think anew, and act anew, as a whole, not just its parts and sum of its parts, but as more than the sum of its parts—the built-natural environment we call earth—our home. This, leadership, and education, will continue to help us find a better path forward.
We live in a global economy, driven by multimodal transportation across the earths surface—land, air, and water.
This writer has tried to separate into shorter sections the social, economic, and environmental issues but found separating them was artificial and not real, losing or subordinating the inter-connectivity in the process. While disciplines are important and reasonable to separate out for “deeper dives,” separating them into categories defeats the purpose of a holistic or systems view. Thus, these issues are addressed as they appear—one ecosystem, or mobility ecosystem in this case, with related parts—in at least an attempt to reflect a systems view. Segueing from Part 9, it is also worth noting that without a functioning democracy we have nothing, including meaningful progress in the transportation and mobility space and all of the issues tied to it.
While the current Covid-19 Pandemic was not caused by our global transportation system that drives our global economy, there is no question that the pandemic’s rapid spread was a result. Similarly, the “cure” will be more rapid because of this same transportation system.
The pandemic has lost some of its acceleration as counter measures and vaccinations have taken place although there is concern over variants and a race for booster vaccinations occurs, similar to annual flu vaccinations. Still, more than 30 million Americans, or one in every 12, have been diagnosed positive for COVID-19 with over 550,000 deaths in the U. S. and nearly 3 million deaths globally, as of this writing. The expectation is that the total U. S. deaths will exceed 600,000 deaths by the end of 2021, before the pandemic is “under control” in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, estimates the actual number of Covid-19 infections may exceed 83 million in the U. S alone (CDC, 2021). Worldwide there are currently nearly 140 million recorded cases. (Wu and Chiwaya, 2020; Worldometer, 2021; Baker, 2021).
The year 2020 was the worst year for economic growth since World War II (Siegel, et al, 2021). Moreover, there was no “playbook” of how to respond economically as we continue to try and understand and plan for the future (White, 2021; Ross, 2021; Achenbach et al, 2021). It has changed everything in our lives—how we work, how we shop, how we socialize, how we commute, how we travel, education, business, entertainment, the environment, the economy (Vasel, 2021; Reese, 2021; Lobosco, 2021; Stern, et al, 2021; Watson, 2021; Dickler, 2021; Hughes, 2021; Wikipedia, 2021; Wikipedia, 2021; Parker, 2020; Spear et al, 2020; Pesek, 2021; Burns and John, 2020; Reuters, 2021; Bauer, et al, 2020; Patton, 2020; McKinsey & Company, 2021; Craven, et al, 2021; Entrepreneur, 2021; Davidson, 2021). The Pandemic persists even as vaccinations progress; new variants emerge; some states set aside recommended CDC measures, and a potential 4th surge emerges (Khemlani, 2021; Dearman, 2021; Rodriguez, 2021; Guenot, 2021; Dilven, 2021; Diedrich, et al, 2021; Murray, 2021). This is also changing how we think about cities, remodeling them in ways that could make urban life, and rural life, more attractive and sustainable (Goldsmith, 2021). More specifically, state department of transportation leaders recently discussed the impacts of Covid-19 on transportation (AASHTO, 2021). The “15-minute city” concept is emerging around the world—dwellers should have everything they need (work, grocery stores, bars, restaurants, shops, schools, healthcare, leisure) within a 15-minute trip, on foot or bike, from home (The 15-Minute City Project, 2020; Moreno, n.d.; Sisson, 2020; Harley, 2021). To be fair, there are also concerns about the 15-minute city with potential to increase inequality (O’Sullivan, 2021). Lockdowns gave working from home proof of concept, challenging the notion that cities need to be divided into separate areas for working and living. Many city dwellers experienced life with fewer cars and more bikes on streets and those cities will have to decide whether to make these “healthy streets” permanent (Whittle, 2020). A new smart city work philosophy concept is emerging for companies—smaller workspaces to meet all over the city, closer to people’s homes. The traditional idea of a city, one where smaller communities form around one central hub, is changing. Future cities may become vast urban areas made up of several smaller communities, each with their own center.
There is also the issue of communities holding onto some of the good things that have occurred during the pandemic (Descant, 2021). Besides the Herculean effort to develop and deploy vaccines, there are many other efforts that have been generated in these dark times. In another Herculean effort, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers led the conversion of hotels and other buildings into needed COVID-19 hospitals. They also created an intelligent HVAC system that will likely find many uses in indoor spaces, and perhaps the transportation space as well (Carter, 2021).
None of this discounts the attractiveness of living and working in rural communities because there is much to like in these wide-open, needed spaces, that produce much of the food and other products we consume. Access is through mobility in all its forms. While agriculture is main stem in rural areas, the beauty of wild spaces has an important part in the United States, the world, our psyche, mental health, health of our planet and the life that it supports (Williams, 2017; Louv, 2011).
Even as we deal with this pandemic and its impacts to our lives and economy, there is need to learn lessons and prepare for the next pandemic, including in the transportation/mobility space (Wall, 2021).
The pandemic has caused us to rethink the ways we work. Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, predicts companies will much more begin to question taking a trip “just to discuss things,” reducing business trips by more than 50 percent. Home offices have grown exponentially, turning business meetings into video calls. This way of work is likely here to stay, reducing “office life” by more than 30 percent. (Entrepreneur, 2020).
As mobility emerges as a human right, equity, social and racial justice, equality, environmental justice, and mobility for the under served, disabled, minorities, communities of color, and poor are part of the core mission for transportation agencies. Moreover, as technology evolves and holds promise for improving lives, the digital divide must be closed and made accessible and affordable to all. This is an opportunity and will require strong strategic partnerships with private sector partners such as IBM, Apple, Google, Verizon, GE, and others. These necessary public-private partnerships might include joint committees, agreements versus contracts, and collaboration with other partners and stakeholders. Transportation agencies also would be well served by having offices or positions for experts in these areas and are well integrated into planning, design, construction, operations, and maintenance activities and collaborate with other partners, interests, and departments as appropriate. Updating the American Disability Act and related laws and rules must also occur.
The February 2020 ITE Journal is dedicated to exploring equity, what it means for transportation, strategies, how to put equity at the center of our work, micromobility to reach the under served, and how to make transportation systems better for all. This is a valuable resource for transportation professionals (ITE, 2020). There is evidence that transportation and mobility can help defeat poverty (Korman, 2021). There are also emerging tools and experience for measuring and advancing equity and social values (Fujiwara and Dass, 2020; Alexander et al, 2020; Citizens Utility Board, 2018).
Dorval R. Carter, Jr., President of the Chicago Transit Authority, received the 2021 Thomas B. Deen Distinguished Lectureship from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine Transportation Research Board (TRB). Mr. Carter was recognized for his leadership in the transit industry and legal community, and for spearheading significant advances in public transportation. His presentation, “Our Work is Never Done: Examining Equity Impacts in Public Transportation”, provides an excellent narrative for where equity has been and where it is going. His presentation, given as part of the TRB’s 2021 Annual Meeting on January 25, 2021, can be viewed via YouTube at: https://youtu.be/IBMgn5Ivm3c.
Environmental justice, similar to mobility, is emerging as a human right as it should. Its premise is essentially that all people deserve to live in a clean and safe environment free from industrial waste and pollution that can adversely affect their well-being. Those involved in creating and maintaining the mobility space must take responsibility for insuring this space is accessible, affordable, and with a clean and safe environment for all, including the under -served, minorities, communities of color, poor, and dispossessed. In addition to strong environmental offices and positions, environmental laws and rules must be updated. The impacts of greenhouse gases can have impacts far from their source (TRB, 2021).
In 2020 during the pandemic, the U. S. saw a 10.3 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, the lowest drop in annual emissions since World War II. See Figure 11. (Larsen, et al, 2021). This was a result of an estimated reduction of 15 percent vehicle miles traveled (VMT) compared to 2019 and a 13-40 percent reduction in demand for primarily passenger vehicles and as much as 18 percent reduction in diesel in April and May. This also resulted in delays of many projects as transportation department revenues from fuel taxes cratered.
While this allows the U. S. to exceed the 2020 Copenhagen Accord target reduction of a 17 percent below 2005 levels, this should not be considered a permanent change in meeting the 2025 Paris Agreement target of 26-28 percent reduction from 2005 levels. In addition, the 2020 reduction has come at an enormous price to the economy and human suffering. Serious work to make meaningful structural changes must continue to improve environmental health and limit global warming.
Over the past year, the world has been fixated on the pandemic and its effects on our lives, and for good reason. But an even bigger threat could change the way we live in a less rapid but more permanent way—the climate crisis—an existential and intergenerational quality of life threat. The threats range from the profound to the more subtle (Guterres, 2018; Xu, et al, 2020; Roston and Wade, 2021; Deutsche Welle, 2021; Cassella, 2021). Transportation agencies are some of the largest land owners in the world with responsibility for the land, air, and water. As such, they play a significant role in fighting climate change.
Global warming has already forced an estimated 20 million people to flee their homes every year (Oxfam, 2019; Ropeik, 2021; Newburger, 2021; NOAA, 2021). Rising temperatures combined with population growth means three billion people — one third of the projected global population — could be living in “unlivable” conditions by 2070 (Fleming, 2020). The inevitable result will be mass migration to “climate havens,” or cities sheltered from extreme weather with the capacity to grow (McDonnell and Shendruk, 2020). Preparing for this future can no longer be put off, and heads of state, members of the scientific community, the private sector, NGOs and youth groups will meet to discuss the issue at the world’s first Climate Adaptation Summit in January 2021. As cities around the globe develop climate action plans (C40 Climate Leadership Group, 2020), expect to see more zero-carbon housing projects (C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, Nordic Sustainability, 2019) and green belts replacing asphalt (Totaro, 2020). “The questions we should be asking is how to protect the most vulnerable residents,” says Greg Lindsay, Director of Applied Research at the nonprofit NewCities Foundation. “How to develop new carrot-and-stick approaches to steer people away from the highest-risk areas.” (Lindsay, 2020).
Florida is ground zero for sea level rise and the costs are rapidly escalating into the multiple billions of dollars. Miami is raising their roads two feet and others are preparing to abandon, roads, bridges, and homes (Mitchelides, 2016; Harris, 2019; The Weekly Staff, 2020; Carroll, 2021; Sea Level Rise.org, n.d.). Rising sea levels are threatening Route 1 through the Florida Keys. The costs of raising the roads will amount to $500,000 per resident according to an a narrative without reference (Latanision, 2020). Regardless, published reports state some roads would cost $25 million per mile to adjust for sea level rise (Brackett, 2019). Using that cost and that US1 is 113 miles long over the Florida Keys with an estimated population of 73,000, the cost would be about $40,000 per person. Regardless of which is more reliable, these costs will likely continue to grow and ignore other impacts such as abandoned homes and businesses, property being flooded and below sea level, and ultimately a cost the State of Florida cannot afford.
Florida is not the only location at risk due to the rise in sea level. New Orleans is a case in point where it has been below sea level for many years—protected by sea walls and gigantic U. S. Army Corps of Engineers pumps (Twillie, 2018; Prior, 2019; Dunn, 2020; Laskow, 2017). Add to this that by 2050 70 percent of the world’s population is estimated to live in large cities, and these cities are sinking, literally, under their own weight (Parsons, 2021; Koop, 2021; Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2018). The cumulative effects of storms, land subsidence, and urban cities subsidence could have dramatic impacts on life and the way we live, including transportation and mobility since they are never mutually exclusive from the built-natural environment. Soils have elastic and plastic properties. There is a propensity for cities to expand development through building new land with fill material, on wet soils, or adjacent to water bodies. Thus, it is relatively easy for these saturated soils to be prone to liquefaction, especially in seismically active areas. This is made worse by infrastructure, including roads and bridges, not being seismically designed or retrofitted (Chalmers, 2018; Oregon.gov, 2013). This writer is reminded of the many studies on the risks and catastrophes of building on permafrost, helping to better understand the built-natural environments, including before construction of the Alaskan Oil Pipeline (Péwé, 1979). Engineering has limitations and we frequently learn as we go, or hopefully.
Climate change has resulted in billions of dollars in flood damage (National Centers for Environmental Information, Feb 2021; National Centers for Environmental Information, Jul 2021; Kann, 2021). There is also the threat of land subsidence that may affect 19 percent of the world population by 2040 (Herrera-García, et al, 2021).
There are yet other issues that are likely to have negatives impacts. As many as 572 airports are also threatened by global warming and associated sea level rise by 2021 (Yesudian and Dawson, 2020). A record number of hurricanes, wildfires and floods cost the world $210 billion in damage in last year, much of it due to global warming. There were a record number of disasters during 2020 which occurred in the U.S. (NOAA, 2021).
This does not even mention the many negative impacts to a healthy environment (some of which were mentioned in earlier blogs of this series) that we depend on and continue to emerge (World Wildlife Fund, 2021; Rosane, 2021; World Wildlife Fund, Feb 2021). There are also many negative impacts to our environment, including from global warming, but some may not be attributed directly to climate change (Burt, et al, 2018; University of California – Santa Cruz, 2021; PEW, 2020; McPherson, et al, 2021). .
The recent winter infrastructure crisis in Texas is indicative of the importance and cost of infrastructure upon which society depends. In many cases, the repair, replacement, updating, contingency planning and preparation has been deferred, delayed, and perhaps overtly ignored for decades. This has been made worse by the impacts of climate change (e.g. changing weather patterns, warming/acidic oceans, etc.). Millions of people have gone without power, electricity, heat, water, waste water services, transportation and mobility for days, in some cases weeks. Fish and wildlife have also suffered. This is largely avoidable, if not substantially mitigated, by relying on science and proactive planning. This catastrophe has also impacted other states and communities. This human catastrophe is a failure of leadership. It is a virtual certainty that we will see more of these built-natural environment catastrophes in the United States and around the world. And, it is the most vulnerable, poorest and least able to cope that will suffer the most. (Gonzalez, 2021; Giusti, 2021; Meier, 2021; Fowler, 2021).
Defining carbon zero by 2050 targets, as well as roles and responsibilities, is yet another area that must be clarified and is critical to addressing the challenges of climate change in the United States and around the world (Buddoo, 2021; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine, 2021; Global Carbon Project, 2015-2020).
The Internet of Things, or IoT, holds promise to mitigate and improve other climate changes in other ways such as biodiversity and habitat loss (McClellan, 2020). Ecological bridges, essentially bridges over roads or other man-made structures, serve to connect wildlife habitat, connect and sustain gene pools necessary for healthy ecosystems (Hui Min and Pazos, 2015; Machemer, 2020). Otherwise gene pools become fragmented, exacerbating the challenges of habitat and species loss due to climate change.
While this author was a researcher at the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers Waterways Experiment Station, the Corps adapted a Wetlands Evaluation Technique developed by Paul Adamus for the Federal Highways Administration (Adamus, 1983). The valuing of nature has continued to evolve to the present. More recently, Dow Chemical Company and The Nature Conservancy developed a technique called the Ecosystem Service Identification and Inventory Tool that is available publicly (www.esiitool.com). This technique quantifies ecosystem services using a nature screen and a nature scoreboard to develop the business case for using nature in lieu of or in conjunction with other man-made systems. Dow has committed to generating $2 billion of value to nature, having achieved $500 million thus far. This system continues to evolve as do the efforts of private and public organizations in creating a sustainable world. On the horizon are what have been termed “stacked benefits.” That is, bringing together many partners, from up stream and downstream, so to speak, to pool resources and funding toward a greater benefit to the natural and built environments. This is part of Dow’s commitment to identify $1 billion in net present value through their Valuing Nature Goal, and work processes developed to support the goal, as well as challenges and successes in driving culture change (Polzin and Molnar, n.d.; Engineering with Nature, 2021).
Recently, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) intends to funnel up to $10 billion into preventing climate disasters, the most ever, preemptively protect against damages by building sea walls, elevating and moving flood-prone homes and businesses, and other steps as climate change intensifies storms and other natural disasters—“Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities or BRIC”. While this is an important step, it is doubtful this will be enough given the costs that climate change will exact. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers National Nonstructural Committee (NNC) has had a relocation program from flood plains and other areas prone to natural flooding and that has met with some success but resistance as well (National Nonstructural Committee). There is a continuing discussion of resilience (Campbell, 2021). There is the idea of “seasteading”, houses and other buildings built on floating platforms that would rise and fall with the tides and changing sea levels (Cusick, 2020). Although this can seem a bit far-fetched, the Dutch have been doing this for 400-500 years. As with many things in our society including transportation and mobility, lower income families and the dispossessed are disproportionally impacted (Cusick, 2020).
There are also landscape designs emerging to protect cities and property as flood plains of rivers are shrinking, much of it led by the Netherlands, and have relevance to transportation infrastructure (Mossop, 2021; Rijkswaterstaat, 2019). Research also indicates promise for measuring risks and optimal rerouting of traffic during flash floods, minimizing exposure to motorists (Corns, et al, 2021). A lot can be learned from biomimicry as well (Fairs, 2021).
During the devastating 1993 Mississippi River floods the St. Louis District Engineer stated that “you cannot control Mother Nature.” That was true then and is true now. We can, however, work with Mother Nature, perhaps more as native and indigenous peoples did as they had little choice but to live in harmony.
The climate crisis is an existential threat. Roadway traffic alone accounts for about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. As such, there are many opportunities for transportation professionals to have a positive impact in reducing and mitigating the climate crisis and associated impacts to our transportation and mobility system (Gates, 2021; Adler, 2021). Some examples (Plummer, 2021):
Rethink transportation grants
Make states measure emissions
Mandate cleaner vehicles (go electric)
Lend a hand to public transit
Push congress for new laws
Still other areas hold promise (Schapker, 2021):
Surface transportation authorization
Highway Trust Fund solvency
Project delivery reforms
Most recently, Buttigieg and his modal administrators spoke to the AASHT0 Board of Directors on February 25, 2021 and spoke to the pillars that will drive federal transportation policy:
Breaking down barriers within the U. S. Department of Transportation, between other federal departments, and with state and local agencies
He and his modal administrators also discussed a variety of initiatives and potential initiatives such as environmental justice, jobs, a partnership with auto manufacturers to alert drivers of on coming trains, user-friendliness/less bureaucracy with smaller communities, a dedicated rail trust fund, increasing bus lanes, sustainable funding, a coordinated government setup on climate change, and others. (Cho, 2021).
These are all critical issues for the transportation and mobility space. These and other critical issues have also been reported elsewhere (see most recent TRB critical issues in transportation report).
Still, our society operates in largely economic terms so we must speak in those terms (Milberg, 2021; Wachs, 2011; Cramer, 2018). One recent example is from Florida, of which the state legislature requires a report on the economic impact of transportation investments (Florida Department of Transportation, 2020). Similarly, the Oregon Transportation Investment Act III first priority required by the state legislature was economic stimulus. That was measured in various methodologies including jobs created or sustained (HDR, n.d.).
Tribal Nations as native Americans have a unique status in our country as dependent sovereignties and they have unique challenges. As such, the USDOT and BIA programs at the federal level are important and must be reviewed for reasons similar to reviewing and updating the funding and allocation that is needed for states and communities, urban and rural, and in a partnering framework. Similarly, this is true for territories as they are American citizens as well.
Eventually, transportation and mobility should be addressed holistically in social, economic, and environmental terms on a routine basis, whether in planning, needs assessments, establishing priorities, or other processes. It is the only way to achieve a sustainable and healthy built-natural environment.
Engaging people is critical to success and all means must be exhausted in the effort, virtual as well as physical. Sometimes the process of making a decision together as a community is more important than the decision made (Couros, 2021). This will require significant outreach, public meetings, education, listening, and a sense of humor yet sober seriousness. The United States and world are filled with good people who want to live good, happy, and safe lives. It is only by engaging and educating people and working together that we will achieve the future we all desire. One recent example by industry was announced December 10, 2020, a coalition of 37 leading company CEOs (www.OneTen.org) has formed One Ten to hire and promote one million Black Americans over the next ten years into family-sustaining jobs with opportunities for advancement. As a meritocracy, we must find ways to yoke the intellectual talent and diversity of all Americans regardless of race, color, creed, sexual orientation or other differences.
There are many, many examples where effectively engaging people has been critical to success, as it is a part of virtually any successful venture. One example, the Nebraska Department of Transportation led a statewide safety summit that over a period of a few years reduced roadway fatalities by 50 percent. More recently, the Kansas City area is engaging people for ideas to reduce roadway fatalities and injuries (Mid-America Regional Council, n.d.).
We have a generational opportunity to transform and improve America’s infrastructure (Buttigieg, 2021), and in a post-pandemic world (Cisneros and Fulton, 2021).
There is much to do and there are many ideas. We need them. Still we need a strategy to guide and align these efforts. Transportation agencies have much in common around the world and state departments of transportation have had a dominant presence in the United States—safety, traffic control, infrastructure planning, project development, design, construction, and maintenance. Because of the rapid move to digital technology, one of the more promising services is cloud technologies or computing and its inherent flexibility, agility, scalability. It offers economies of scale through large, centralized server banks and services that provide hardware, software, and applications through the Internet vice the expense of having them on site. The risks must be weighed, but there appears to be considerable upside, to include improved customer facing outcomes vice “back room” or organizational business processes.
Some of the leaders adopting these technologies include toll agencies who are continually seeking ways to improve customer outcomes which include not only the physical infrastructure and traffic speed but paying tolls as easily as possible. As the move toward a mileage-based system continues, especially given Tesla, VW, etc., and increasing pledges of 100% manufacture-only of electric vehicles by 2035 by Ford, GM, and others, transportation agencies may be operating a lot more like a utility in the near future. As such, the experience of toll agencies may allow them to take the lead. Certainly other transportation agencies can learn a lot as this future evolves. The potential for people and freight to move seamlessly, easily, and without cash, through one multimodal mobility ecosystem is possible, if not highly probable or a virtual certainty. (Wehrmann, 2021).
As the mobility ecosystem continues to change, it is in a unique position to be a substantial help in improving society, the economy, environment, and people’s lives.
Adamus, P.R. and L.T. Stockwell. (1983). A method for wetland functional assessment: Volume 1 critical review and evaluation. Federal Highway Administration. Retrieved April 11, 2021, from https://trid.trb.org/view/205071
Burt, J.M., M.T. Tinker, D.K. Okamoto, K.W. Demes, K. Holmes, A.K. Salomon. (2018, July 25). Sudden collapse of a mesopredator reveals its complementary role in mediating rocky reef regime shifts. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Retrieved April 11, 2021, from https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2018.0553
Carter, D. (2021, January 21). Our work is never done: examining equity impacts in public transportation. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Retrieved March 21, 2021, from https://youtu.be/IBMgn5Ivm3c
Engineering with Nature. (2021, February 10). Dow’s valuing nature journey: how a multinational chemical corporation is realizing value by incorporating Nature in its business decisions. Engineering with Nature. Seminar Video. Retrieved April 11, 2021, from https://ewn.el.erdc.dren.mil/seminars.html
Entrepreneur. (2020, November 18). Bill Gates predicts that 50% of business travel and 30% of office life will disappear in the post-Covid-19 era. Entrepreneur. Retrieved March 21, 2021, from https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/359957
Herrera-García, G., P. Ezquerro, R. Tomás, M. Béjar-Pizarro, J. López-Vinielles, M. Rossi, R. M. Mateos, D. Carreón-Freyre, J. Lambert, P. Teatini, E. Cabral-Cano, G. Erkens, D. Galloway, W. Hung, N. Kakar, M. Sneed, L. Tosi, H. Wang, S. Ye. (2021, January 1). Mapping the global threat of land subsidence. Science 371(6524):34-36. Retrieved March 21, 2021, from https://science.sciencemag.org/content/371/6524/34
McPherson, D.J.I. Finger, H.F. Houskeeper, T.W. Bell, M.H. Carr, L. Rogers-Bennett, R.M. Kudela. (2021, March 5). Large-scale shift in the structure of a kelp forest ecosystem co-occurs with an epizootic and marine heatwave. Communications Biology 4(298). Retrieved April 11, 2021, from https://www.nature.com/articles/s42003-021-01827-6
TRB. (2021, March 8). New mobility services combined with transit show potential to further accessibility, efficiency. equity, safety, and sustainability. Transportation Research Board. Retrieved March 21, 2021, from http://www.trb.org/main/blurbs/181729.aspx
Xu, C., T. A. Kohler, T. M. Lenton, J. C. Svenning, M. Scheffer. (2020, May 26). Future of the human climate niche. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 117(21) 11350-11355. Retrieved March 21, 2021, from https://www.pnas.org/content/117/21/11350
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.
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).
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. (History.com, 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; BridgeReports.com, 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.
Ceballos, G., P.R. Ehrlich, R. Dirzo. (2017, July 10). Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines. PNAS. Retrieved March 7, 2021, from https://www.pnas.org/content/114/30/E6089
Christian, D. (2018). Origin story: a big history of everything. Little, Brown and Company.
While the future can be exciting and an adventure, there are unanticipated events that occur that can disrupt normal flows and operations (Maritz, 2019). On the extreme, there have been catastrophes that seemed “acts of god”, events that are not contemplated in this series of blogs yet provide some context (Maritz, 2019; Gibbons, 2018). More predictable and relevant to our lifetimes, the Cascadia Fault off the coasts of Oregon and Washington is predicted to rupture in the next 50 years and could be the worst North American human disaster on record with significant costs in lives lost and property damage. The damage to roads, bridges, airports, transit, railroads, and navigable waterways will significantly reduce the ability to respond and recover. This event is being studied and planned for (Bauer, et al, 2018; Roth and Thompson, 2018; Sounds, 2019; Steele, 2020).
Risk management is the identification, evaluation, and prioritization of risks followed by methodologies to minimize, monitor, and control the probability or impact of unfortunate events or to maximize the realization of opportunities. The U. S. transportation industry has enormous risk exposure and among the most risk-prone industries in the world. As such, the federal transportation act—Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act or MAP-21 and signed into law in 2012—established the requirement for states to develop a risk-based asset management plan. Risk management is a dynamic process and used routinely within the public and private sectors. Without such plans, organizations can be surprised by events that have negative financial impacts or missed positive opportunities with improved outcomes. The literature on risk management is rich and evolving. A Black Swan is an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected and has the potential for severe consequences. Risks must be identified at the beginning of a project or program, discussed, and updated regularly. Some typical risks might include scope, schedule, and budget issues; safety issues; liability issues; site condition issues; dispute issues; quality issues; workforce turnover or other staffing issues; weather or other delays; contract interpretation disputes; rework; prompt payment; opportunities for additional work; priorities; owner readiness; and so on. Regardless, it is critical to identify risks, actions to prevent or mitigate new risks, probability of occurrence, and a champion/responsible party to take the lead. Various means of identifying the probability of risks are also important such as Monte Carlo simulation.
The Covid-19 Pandemic is a glaring and recent example of positive and negative impacts and could be categorized as a Black Swan. It could not have been anticipated although pandemics are a certainty. As risks do, it is also having positive and negative impacts. For example, remote work and quarantining are reducing CO2 emissions (IEA, 2020; Figure 9), online shopping continues to increase versus brick and mortar stores (Ali, 2021), costs associated with commuting and office space (Boland, et al, 2020; Ambrose, 2020), and reducing traffic congestion (Ronan, 2021). Some reports are that certain categories of online shopping and delivery increased 50-125 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. However, already disadvantaged populations are disproportionately negatively affected and transit faces an existential threat in 2021 and beyond due to the reduction of ridership and associated revenues.
As many as 572 airports are also threatened by global warming and associated sea level rise by 2021 (Yesudian and Dawson, 2021). A record number of hurricanes, wildfires and floods cost the world $210 billion in damage in last year, much of it due to global warming. The six most expensive disasters of 2020 occurred in the U.S. (NOAA, 2021; Kann, 2021). There is also the threat of land subsidence that may affect 19 percent of the world population by 2040 (Herrera-Garcia, et al, 2021).
As of this writing, over 30 million U. S. citizens have tested positive for COVID-19 and over 500,000 deaths. That is more than 1 in 9 that have been diagnosed with the disease. Under more normal conditions before the pandemic, there was not a public transit system that was not subsidized. Even with vaccines being fielded, the future of transit ridership and revenues is far from certain. The course for the foreseeable future, without federal help, is to reduce services. Black Swans and other events may be giving us a “pause” to rethink transportation/mobility.
As weather patterns change, commodities and other flows are interrupted and delayed. The recent Texas utility debacle from unusual winter weather is yet another risk that could have been precluded and mitigated. People and companies lost heat, potable water and waste water services, and have and are experiencing injuries, death, and economic hardships—a series of cascading failures (Northey, 2021). During the crisis, unregulated utilities charged a market cap price of $9,000 per mega-watt hour (McGinty and Patterson, 2021). The lack of preparation was made worse by delaying commodities including food and Covid-19 vaccinations. Moreover, Texas utilities were warned 10 years earlier of the preparation needed but they ignored the risks (Blunt and Gold, 2021). This is a failure of leadership.
In addition to individual risks typically identified in risk assessments, there can also be risk correlations between work breakdown structure (WBS) elements, events, risks of projects, across projects, and programs. Some of these might include (modified from Prieto, 2020):
“Money Allocated Is Money Spent”
Parkinson’s Law – work expands to fill the time allotted
Overconfidence in assessing uncertainties
Complexity with hidden coupling – risk events are likely to affect multiple cost elements with the potential for cascading impacts
State of technology – common new technologies/materials
Common management, staff and work processes
Optimism bias and other biases consistently applied
Budgeting and contingency management strategy and approach
Packaging and contracting strategy
Failures/delays at interfaces
Low frequency high impact events of scale
So risks, associations of risks, and Black Swans can be complicated and reflect the nature of the mobility ecosystem, systems, and systems of systems, in general. Megaprograms and projects (over $1 billion) are particularly prone (Denicol, et al, 2020; Vartabedian, 2021; Garmo, et al, 2015; Irimia-Diéguez, et al, 2014; Zidane, et al, 2013; Flyvbjerg and Bruzelius, 2014).
Dr. “Kevin” Bao also provides an interesting perspective on how leaders should respond to crises and opportunities (Steele, 2021).
Denicol, J., A. Davies, I. Krystallis. (2020, February 13). What are the causes and cures of poor megaproject performance? A systematic literature review and research agenda. Project Management Journal. Retrieved February 27, 2021, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/8756972819896113
Herrera-Garcia, G., P. Ezquerro, R. Tomás, M. Béjar-Pizarro, J. López-Vinielles, M. Rossi, R. M. Mateos, D. Carreón-Freyre, J. Lambert, P. Teatini, E. Cabral-Cano, G. Erkens, D. Galloway, W. Hung, N. Kakar, M. Sneed, L. Tosi, H. Wang, S. Ye. (2021, January 1). Mapping the global threat of land subsidence. Science. Retrieved February 27, 2021, from https://science.sciencemag.org/content/371/6524/34
While there is never enough money to address the needs, there is not a transportation agency in the Nation that is not struggling with the lack of funding, largely due to the Pandemic 2020-present whether it’s fuel taxes, general funds, bonds, public-private-partnerships, wheel taxes, vehicle registrations, or other funding sources (American Society of Civil Engineers, 2020; Stofan, 2021; NPR, 2020; Jimenez, 2020). Still, are we talking about infrastructure the right way? That is, are we talking to and the about the people that use it (Milberg, 2021)?
In 2019 the U. S. federal government spent $96 billion on building and updating infrastructure, $67 billion was transferred to states. In 2017, the most recent data available, state and local infrastructure spending totaled $162 billion excluding these federal transfers. At the same time there has been a shift toward increased spending on operations and maintenance and away from spending on new capital projects. Some estimates are that roughly 2/3 of dollars go to keep infrastructure functioning (i.e. maintenance, repair, replacement, or system preservation) while roughly 1/3 of dollars go to upgrades (i.e. new capital projects). While this allocation can be disputed depending on the audience and perspective, keeping infrastructure functioning (system preservation) is the highest and best use of dollars and most economical in serving the public good. How dollars are best allocated for system preservation and new capital projects needs to be continually assessed, typically on an annual basis in conjunction with needs assessments and specific criteria. The current (2017) American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE, Report Card identifies an estimated $2 trillion gap in the $4.6 trillion needs required to achieve a state of good repair over the next 10 years (American Society of Civil Engineers, 2017). For surface transportation alone the gap is estimated to be $1.1 trillion gap in the over $2 trillion needs over the next 10 years. Perhaps more sobering, the world is facing a $15 trillion infrastructure gap by 2040 (George, et al, 2019).
Since the creation in 1919 by the State of Oregon, the fuel tax has been the primary federal and state funding mechanism for transportation/mobility infrastructure for over 100 years. The past two decades have seen a decline in those fuel tax revenues as a result of little or no increase in many fuel taxes, improving fuel efficiency, alternatives fuels, and now a pandemic. To close those gaps, general funds, wheel taxes, vehicle registrations, bonds, and other sources have been used. Still the gaps exist.
A question: should the US align with the UN’s “people first” model for public-private infrastructure projects? The model evaluates projects on five criteria (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, 2016):
Increasing access and promoting equity
Improving environmental sustainability
Improving project economic effectiveness
Engaging all stakeholders
While there is important movement in this direction, it probably comes down to whether the needs of all stakeholders can be reconciled—consultants, builders, financiers, politicians, businesses, the public and others—that oversee infrastructure development and come to consensus on what they are doing. These can be powerful interests and getting people to work together, much less collaborate and come to consensus, will continue to be a challenging task to scale up the funding to meet growing needs.
So, what is the likely funding source for the future? That is unknown. A few years ago many believed that a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax being tested over the past two decades in Oregon and other states would prevail and might yet. However, emerging technologies, declining personal car ownership, electric vehicles, alternatives fuels, remote work, changing business models, sustainability, climate change, access, equity and social justice, and future physical infrastructure needs may warrant new funding sources. Regardless, it is clear a new, reliable, and sustainable transportation/mobility funding model is needed that balances urban, rural, and multimodal needs and with an eye to the future. This includes a review of criteria for allocating funds, taking into account the needs of urban and rural communities, connecting roads and modes, and the capabilities of smaller communities who do not have the staffs to accommodate the substantial federal processes. The federal government must partner with states, communities, and other partners and entities to make funding and its allocation as effective and efficient as possible. While traffic is much higher with more costly infrastructure needs in urban areas, there are also critical needs in rural areas although there is less traffic (NAFB, 2021).
The funding space is also changing. Black Rock Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Larry Fink, in his 2020 letter to CEOs has stated “In the near future—and sooner than most anticipate—there will be a significant reallocation of capital” (Fink, 2020). This is driven by their investors demand for investments that are sustainable and that will limit climate change. Black Rock is the world’s largest asset manager with $17 trillion under management, has said its clients are looking to double their environmental, societal, and governance (ESG) investments in the next five years. Institutional investors have said they will stop investing in companies that are not sustainable (CISION PR Newswire, 2021; Losavio and Tsai, 2021). This has implications for transportation, infrastructure, and mobility. To that extent it is not a surprise that stocks such as Tesla experienced dramatic growth in 2020 as investors look for positive and sustainable environmental, societal, governance, and economic outcomes.