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
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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
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.
There is a mounting need from city and road planners to evolve current ground-based infrastructure, especially across transportation networks (Deruytter, 2020). There are a number of technologies, and collections of technologies, that are changing and impacting the mobility space. In Part 4, this writer neglected to acknowledge one of these leading transportation technology centers that is bringing the industry together to develop transportation and mobility solutions—the Infrastructure Automotive Technology Laboratory, or iATL, and iATL Partner Alliance in Georgia. The Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA)—Smarter, Greener, Safer—began in 1991 and has been a primary convention and driver for use of transportation technologies in the intervening 30 years. Below is a brief scan of some of these technologies, each of which could warrant a book to provide a complete coverage.
Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) and Vehicle to Infrastructure (V2I): These are the two primary connected vehicle areas and encompass CAV (connected and automated vehicle). The advantage of V2V is to gain capacity from infrastructure and improve safety (NHTSA, n.d.). This technology may also enable increased speeds and reduce travel time. V2I is beginning to advance as a means of further advancing capacity, safety, and speed. Both V2V and V2I offer the potential to expand other technologies such as battery charging while moving, autonomous routing of vehicles, and providing intelligent infrastructure with the capability of autonomously sending condition and other reports back to a central office for planning and response for repair or replace (RoboticsBiz, 2020; 3M, n.d.).
Intelligent Infrastructure: In addition to being able to send condition and other reports for action to a central office, emerging AI technologies are allowing for self-healing materials that repair themselves (Flower, 2020; Mazzarol, 2012; McFarlane, 2015; McMillan, 2017; ScienceDirect, n.d.).
Internet of Things or IoT: Infrastructure and transportation agencies are leading the way in adopting many IoT technologies, and that will continue. Why? Because they provide tangible results (Center for Digital Government for Spectrum Enterprise, 2019).
3D Printers: These printers have existed for some time but are expanding for construction. This includes the printing of the small 3D plastic models for completing concrete bridges to the printing of steel bridge models (U.S. Bridge, 2020). The basic limitation is only the size of the printing machine and whether that is cost effective.
Materials: Whereas 3D printers are limited by the size of the printing machine, new research is revealing the possibility of rationally designing materials to specification at the micro and macro scale and with broad engineering applications (Jenett et al, 2020). Plus, traditional materials continue to be improved such as ultra-high performance concrete (Carter, 2019).
Artificial Intelligence (AI): This is a leading technology of technologies, combining various technologies into new ones that can perform tasks thought to be science fiction. One of these is “robotic swarms” of meta materials that turn into buildings, vehicles, bridges—delivered in boxes by drones (Jenett, 2020; Wyss Institute, n.d.). The technology currently exists and the U. S. Army has initiated this development in partnership with the private sector including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Still others are in use such as Building Information Technology or BIM. Others include AI-driven asset management for bridges, monitoring the condition of assets on a real and near-real time basis (Stone, 2021). Yet another focuses on road maintenance (Holliday and Frick, 2021). Ford Motor Company has expanded to leverage AI and machine learning to predict and prevent traffic crashes (Mendoza, 2021). The future of AI is enormous in the transportation and mobility space, and society as a whole (The Washington Post, n.d).
Virtual (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR): Beginning in the gaming business, these technologies continue to rapidly develop, especially in the design and construction arenas. A recent augmented reality innovation by VW and Mercedes Benz enhances safe navigation through an AR blue line down the center line of the lane, allowing the driver to stay focused on the road ahead (Ligon 2021).
Robotics/Drones: These technologies have been in development and use for decades. Like other technologies that reduce the requirement for labor (typically the largest single cost for many organizations) within the mobility space these technologies are increasingly used for terrestrial and aquatic inspections of all kinds, vegetation planting, surveying, aerial photography, movement and delivery of materials, and others. There is continuing discussion on the use of drones, including the potential to lease air space above roads and perhaps generating a new revenue source (Skorup and Harland, 2020; Pressgrove, 2021).
Machine Control: Expanding on robotics and drones that are currently used is the programming of autonomous earthmoving and other equipment, surveying, inspections, etc., on construction sites (TopCon, n.d.; UK Plant Operators, n.d.). These have been in use for some years and allow for greater efficiency at a lower cost. Using currently available technology, other systems are emerging for other activities such as hauling dirt, delivery and placement of materials. Expanding on this area, some years ago the University of Nebraska developed remotely controlled orange work zone barrels to move without the labor required for moving each barrel (Bauer, 2004). This technology could be adopted to other systems, such as the Lindsay Company Road Zipper which moves concrete Jersey barriers on a near-real time basis to adjust lanes and contra flows in conjunction with traffic flow needs, separate bicycle from vehicle traffic, adjust to the needs of construction zones, etc. In effect, this could be done remotely or autonomously. The options are endless and open to continued innovation.
Cloud services: There are a growing number of organizations that are leveraging the cloud for more efficient operations. Among them is Amazon Web Services (AWS) which has a growing presence in the transportation and mobility space (Silver, n.d.). Municipal and state agencies continue to expand use of cloud services for construction oversight and other activities (Yoders, 2021).
5G: This technology holds tremendous promise as it increases the speed and capacity of communications essential to the mobility ecosystem (Abbosh and Downes, 2019). The Internet of Things or IoT is a driver of 5G with three broad categories of use: enhanced broadband, massive IoT sensing, and critical IoT. The massive IoT sensing alone will allow 10 times more devices to connect at 100 times the energy efficiency compared to LTE-Advanced (Little, 2019). Smart cities are being advanced thanks to 5G and other technologies (CBS Interactive Inc., 2020; Abbosh and Downes, 2019). 5G and its capabilities are expanding as this is written. 5G and AI will continue to drive mobility development.
Lidar: This technology has been around for some years, allowing for rapid 3D surveying by law enforcement, surveying by drones, autonomous vehicles, improving safety, enhanced BIM (Building Information Modeling), and other diverse applications that go on and on (Shacklett, 2021). One recent application makes transportation infrastructure more efficient and safer (Clark, 2021).
Global Positioning Systems (GPS): Although around for decades, GPS is worth mentioning because of its importance in pinpointing locations, navigation, and its ease of use (available on smartphones and many other devices). This is critical for many technologies including autonomous vehicles.
5.9 GHz: This bandwidth had been identified for public safety with important uses in the transportation arena. However, recently the Federal Communications Commission or FCC has given this bandwidth away for other commercial purposes. This sorely complicates an important safety tool for the transportation industry (Fisher, 2020).
Communications, integrated and interoperable-voice and data: The most common lesson-learned following disasters is the difficulty of communicating between all parties in both voice and data (FEMA, 2020; FEMA, 2014; OnSolve, n.d.; U.S. Fire Administration, 2015). As such, many states have developed more robust and interoperable communications systems. Nonetheless, effective communications is literally a key to success in responding to man-made or natural disasters and will need to be continually improved and maintained.
Solar: Solar power is developing slowly, but surely, as one of the most important renewable energies. For over 100 years, petroleum-based fuels and electricity generation have been separate industries. Oil was for vehicles, coal and water were for electric power. Drillers versus miners, petrostates versus power utilities. With EVs the distinction between petroleum-based fuels and power markets is blurring. Solar power is rapidly becoming the cheapest form of energy in much of the world, which means that as power markets grow to meet the new demand from EVs, oil is being largely displaced by power from the sun. For nearly 20 years, the International Energy Agency has underestimated the rise of solar power. Every year, their estimates expected the rate of solar growth to plateau, but every year it grew (Figure 7).
Solar roadways have been developed in France these past few years. It was recently announced that the first solar roadway to come on line in the U. S. will be in Georgia (Cooke, 2017; Edelstein, 2020).
Cyber-security: There is an arms race going on to hack and secure data. As technology has developed so has the need for adequate cyber-security. It is wise to have one, if not at least two, backup systems to protect transportation/mobility systems, including autonomous vehicles. Every organization continues to struggle with enhancing security (Center for Digital Government, 2020).
There are literally thousands of other technologies and associated tools in the transportation/mobility industry, and other fields, that continue to be developed, some proprietary and some not, in an effort to increase sales/profits and benefit-cost. A scan of printed and electronic trade journals, conferences, proposals, and sales presentations reflects the stunning scale of these developments. A brief scan reveals advanced and integrated project and program management, data collection and workflow automation, big data and analysis, remote piloted aerial and aquatic vehicles or drones, machine learning, Lidar, ground penetrating radar, geomatics, geophysics, Reality Mesh Services (i.e. 3D models out of unordered photographs or laser scans), Building Information Modeling (BIM) across the project life cycle while incorporating Reality Capture for Digital Twins and integrated for Asset Management, and many, many others.
This also does not discount the importance and value of the myriad existing methodologies that continue to advance, have been around for years, and that can increase system efficiency. Just a few include data collection and analysis, signal timing, static signing, variable message signs, 511, video cameras, radar, roadway weather notifications, traffic operations centers and infrastructure sensors, materials, recycling, planning, design, construction, maintenance, operations, and so on.
Motorized vehicles began with the advent of electric vehicles as evidenced by the first recorded powered vehicle fatality in the United States in 1899, from an electric taxi (see Part 2 of this series). Technology advances in the intervening 100 plus years have given rise to fully autonomous vehicles which are on the horizon.
The summary (abstract) provided by Clements and Kockelman (2017) is superb and provided in full.
“Connected and fully automated or autonomous vehicles (CAVs) may soon dominate the automotive industry. Once CAVs are sufficiently reliable and affordable, they will penetrate markets and thereby generate economic ripple effects throughout industries. This paper synthesizes and expands on existing analyses of the economic effects of CAVs in the United States across 13 industries and the overall economy. CAVs will soon be central to the automotive industry, with software composing a greater share of vehicle value than previously. The number of vehicles purchased each year may fall because of vehicle sharing, but rising travel distances may increase vehicle sales. The opportunity for heavy-truck drivers to do other work or rest during long drives may lower freight costs and increase capacity. Personal transport may shift toward shared autonomous vehicle fleet use, reducing that of taxis, buses, and other forms of group travel. Fewer collisions and more law-abiding vehicles will lower demand for auto repair, traffic police, medical, insurance, and legal services. CAVs will also lead to new methods for managing travel demand and the repurposing of curbside and off-street parking and will generate major savings from productivity gains during hands-free travel and reduction of pain and suffering costs from crashes. If CAVs eventually capture a large share of the automotive market, they are estimated to have economic impacts of $1.2 trillion or $3,800 per American per year. This paper presents important considerations for CAVs’ overall effects and quantifies those impacts.”
See Table 1 for a summary of the economic impacts of autonomous vehicles.
In the columns headed “Dollar Change in Industry” and “Percent Change in Industry,” signs “+” and “-”, respectively, denote a gain and a loss for the industry, whereas the industry-specific total for the dollar change in industry is the sum of their absolute values. Figures in the “$/Capita” columns and provided as overall total represent the sum of net economic benefits enjoyed by consumers.
According to an estimate by Intel Corporation and Strategy Analytics, announced in June 2017, the economic effects of autonomous vehicles will total $7 trillion in 2050 (Figure 6). The dollar amount represents a newly created value or a new ‘passenger economy’, calculated based on the assumption that fully automated Level 5 vehicles will be on the roads by 2050.
They also assumed that consumers and businesses will use Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) offerings instead of owning cars, and those who had been commuting to work by car will become passengers and spend the commuting time doing something else. Furthermore, transportation companies suffering from a serious labour shortage – such as long-haul truck operators and home delivery service providers – will introduce autonomous driving services, thereby enabling them to change their business models drastically. As such, the estimate reflects a very broad range of potential effects, which also include a wide variety of new commercial services such as onboard dining and retailing (Tomita, 2017).
Advancements continue almost daily. CNN Business (Farland, 2020) reports a self-driving and electric robotaxi from Amazon’s Zoox can travel up to 75 mph and never has to turn around, reversing directions as needed to navigate crowded city streets. In an effort to become a leader in this sector, China is advancing autonomous vehicles quickly, including fully autonomous highways (Metha, 2019; KPMG International, 2019).
There are a myriad of challenges to realize fully automated vehicles and that will require an accumulation of massive quantities of data and learning processes to enable the development of AI capable of coping with navigating the rules, laws, traffic control devices, unique infrastructure, and nuances in each city, county, and state, not to mention internationally. Moreover, developing soft infrastructure, including laws and regulations, and setting rules for liability arising from accidents involving autonomous vehicles will be challenging. Similar to the open ITS architecture established by USDOT, there is a need to establish AV architecture within the U. S., if not internationally.
The advent of fully automated driverless vehicles will have a tremendous impact on our society, bringing fundamental changes to the entire economic and social systems. When fully automated vehicles come into operation, they will become a major means of mobility for the elderly and infirmed in rural areas, in addition to agriculture uses. Urban areas will likely experience the greatest changes, the number of cars owned for personal use will drop, eliminating congestion and the need for parking spaces, and car-sharing services will continue to grow.
Companies are investing enormous money in both electric and autonomous vehicles. For example, Microsoft is investing $2 billion in Cruise, that is majority owned by GM, for a valuation of over $30 billion (Colias, 2021). Apple and Hyundai-Kia are planning to start production of a fully autonomous electric car in 2024 (Lebeau, 2021). It is interesting to note that the smart phone market is about $500 billion annually of which Apple has roughly one-third of that market. By contrast, the mobility market is about $10 trillion annually so Apple would only need two percent of that market to match their iPhone business. It is little wonder the interest in the autonomous and electric vehicle space.
Although some estimates are that it will be at least 2040 before fully autonomous vehicles will be dominant, how should we cope with these forthcoming changes? How should we redesign and change the urban and rural infrastructure and landscapes, land use, and the economic and social systems?
There are test beds spreading around the nation in an effort to bring these and other technologies to market—Contra Costa County California formed a Transportation Authority (CCTA) and developed the leading facility in the nation—GoMentum (https://gomentumstation.net), the University of Michigan established Mcity some years ago (https://mcity.umich.edu), Waymo is planning a test facility in Ohio (Moderation Team, n.d.), and Missouri just formed a Missouri Center for Transportation Innovation (https://mcti.missouri.edu). These test beds, and other efforts, reflect the drive toward an autonomous and safe mobility ecosystem future. What do they have in common? They are built on partnerships and collaboration. Of course, the National Academies Transportation Research Board (https://www.nationalacademies.org/trb/transportation-research-board), U. S. Department of Transportation, state departments of transportation, universities, and the private sector represent the best minds around and continually add to our body of knowledge on all aspects of mobility and transportation.
Autonomous marine, freshwater, river, air, truck, and train vessels
This discussion does not even mention other modes and types of autonomous vehicles such as marine, riverine, freshwater, trucks, trains, planes, drones or unmanned aerial vehicles, aircraft, or space craft. Although they share many of the same challenges as cars and similar vehicles, many of these are likely years away before widespread use. Nonetheless, they are on the horizon. Of course, the elimination/reduction of operators will require careful planning to help people find other jobs in addition to negotiations with unions, changes in business models, and changes in society. The following links provide more information on these topics.