How We’ll Get From Place to Place

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a report on the current status and likely future of transportation systems in the U.S. Beyond Traffic: Trends and Choices 2045 did not paint a rosy picture. Here are just a few of the findings:

  • If you drive a car, you now spend, on average, the equivalent of five vacation days every year sitting in traffic.
  • 65% of our roads are rated in less than good condition.
  • 45% of Americans don’t have access to transit.
urban traffic jam


Now toss into the mix population growth, the aging of the population (all of us boomers are aging fast), an increase in freight volume and the impact of climate change on highways, bridges, public transportation, coastal ports and waterways. The result, the DOT suggests, is that by 2045 “at the airports and on the highways, every day will be like Thanksgiving is today.”

Technology promises a way around this dire prediction with visions of systems that make mass transit faster, more comfortable and more accessible.

One of those technologies, called hyperloop, involves capsules traveling in reduced pressure tubes. Engineers working on prototypes of hyperloop trains predict they could move passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in about a half hour traveling at speeds of around 600 mph.

High speed train

China high speed train (Peter Griffin)

Another developing technology is called maglev, short for magnetic levitation, Maglev trains are guided by magnets so they do not touch the ground, making for a smooth, reduced friction ride. This technology is already being used in China. The Transrapid in Shanghai has recorded speeds of 270 mph.

For slower local transit, an early version of the driverless car is being planned at Milton Keynes in the UK. They are expecting to deploy by 2017 a system of small electric vehicles called urban transport pods that carry up to two passengers at speeds of 10 mph or less on dedicated traffic lanes that go from the train station to destinations up to a mile away.

In Hawaii an elevated train system is being built that is scheduled to open in 2017 and be completed by 2019. The system, which will include 20 miles of elevated track on the island of Oahu, will be fully automated allowing frequency of service to be altered based on demand. The trains will be driverless.

A somewhat less exotic option is a Bus Rapid Transit system, which is simply a redeployment of existing traffic lanes for buses only. Typical features of a BRT system include location in the center of the road, priority access at intersections, higher speed buses with multiple doors and station platforms that are level with the bus floor. Chicago is planning a 16-mile BRT system along Ashland Avenue. The bill: $160 million.

What all of these solutions have in common is they need funding. The DOT report comments that “public revenues to support transportation are not keeping up with the rising costs of maintenance and capacity expansion.” And the folks in Washington and the various state capitals who have made a bipartisan effort to allow our transportation infrastructure to rot are no more likely to sign the check for innovative mass transit systems.

The Obama administration had announced a high-speed rail plan in 2009 which has gone nowhere. The link between Miami and Orlando was cancelled by Florida Governor Rick Scott who refused the federal money for the project. The governors of Wisconsin and Ohio did likewise. Both are now running for the GOP nomination for President.

Closer to home for me, the once reliable commuter train line from New Jersey to New York City has just gone through a summer of virtually perpetual delays. This is largely because Amtrak and New Jersey Transit share a 100-year-old single-track tunnel across the Hudson River. And it’s five years after Governor Chris Christie, another Presidential nomination seeker, canceled a plan to build a new rail tunnel.

Amtrak train


In May, eight people were killed and 200 injured when an Amtrak train from New York to Washington derailed near Philadelphia. According to the DOT report “the Northeast Corridor (Boston to Washington) alone requires investments of nearly $1.5 billion per year over 15 years to bring the corridor into a state of good repair and maintain it in that condition.”  But the day after that crash the House Appropriations Committee voted to cut Amtrak’s funding by $300 million.

The California High Speed Rail Authority was created in 1996. Its goal: a high speed link between Los Angeles and San Francisco. But the San Diego Union Tribune refers to the plan as “dead train walking” noting last weekend, “the state still doesn’t have the money firmly identified or the necessary environmental approvals.”

So there are very few signs that suggest America will make the investments necessary to take advantage of the new technologies that could reinvent mass transit. That will mean that passenger vehicles remain the dominant mode of transportation in the U.S. and the decrepit bridges and tunnels, the substandard roads and highways, will see more volume and more deterioration.

The virtual default by government on transportation issues also leaves us clearly in the hands of the private sector. That includes the big three U.S. automakers; the guys who have a longstanding track record of trying to push bigger and more expensive cars into the market with only an occasional sideways glance at fuel economy, safety or environmental impact and only then when they are forced to do so by regulators, gas prices or Asian and European competition.

Will technology produce cars of the future that enable us to avoid the gridlock forecast by the DOT report? Will GM, Chrysler and Ford lose control of the industry to some combination of Google, Tesla, Apple or Uber? Will we all continue to own private vehicles? Those are some of the issues I’ll be discussing in future posts.

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28 Responses to How We’ll Get From Place to Place

  1. I’m sure the BHB folks living outside the USA will have some good comments on this, Ken. After a dozen trips to Europe, I weep when we get back home and have to deal with traffic again. Pittsburgh (although some keep voting it a most livable city) has the worse traffic patterns and drivers I have ever seen. Some of it is simply the inheritance of a city designed around three rivers. Other reasons–I have no idea how they can take an empty field, build retail development around it, and apparently never hire a traffic engineer.

    We would LOVE to take a train from Pittsburgh to DC for our weekends there. Drive time, with a lunch stop: 5 hours. Train time: 9 hours.

    Cars ever rented on trips to Europe: 0. Train trips taken: can’t count them all! We have been on the high speed trains in Germany and in Italy–what an amazing way to travel! We have been on a slow moving train from Munich to Prague–what a way to travel!

    Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. pjlazos says:

    Thanks for you post, Ken. I take Amtrak to work from my home in Central PA to my job in Philadelphia. I’ve never been one enjoy or withstand the strain of long car commutes and without the train, I fear I would need to get another job. I don’t understand the American preoccupation with the auto nor governments’ less than zealous attempts at funding commuter rail. I have seen the ridership on my train increase easily a thousand fold since I started riding 22 years ago. People are clamoring for a route in that doesn’t involve stressing your back and neck and despoiling the environment. It’s up to the government to lead on this issue and start moving more money into mass transit and less into automobile-related expenditures. We need good infrastructure, yes, but we also need reliable trains that offer people a safe, cost-effective, and timely alternative.


  3. patweber says:

    Ken my husband and I have traveled the world and no matter where we go – Costa Rica, Italy, Egypt to name a few countries, we haven’t seen much better. In Costa Rica they’ve been building a major highway, if my memory is right it’s Highway 1, for 9 years. NINE years. It’s a stretch that could shorten a 5 hour drive to maybe 3 1/2. The funds and labor dried up in 2008 and has not come back. Guess we’re all going to find other escape routes!


  4. Beth Niebuhr says:

    What amazing possibilities! Love the hyperloop and maglev concepts. Also the slower possibilities. The state of our country’s transportation and facilities is shameful. Of course when the politics slow any progress to a standstill, nothing is likely to be allowed to progress. How the rest of the world must view this! We’re not exceptional.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Phoenicia says:

    There are far too many cars on the road. 30 years ago perhaps there was one car per household. Now, there can be up to four cars per household as parents have a car each as do their adult children.

    In the UK the roads are narrow and with many home owners opting for driveways, there is less space for cars on the road.


  6. Sabrina Q. says:

    Not sure what will come about when it comes to transportation. Thanks for sharing your information. I know that where we are in Pennsylvania, the roads need some work. They started repairing. This summer, almost all the roads were under construction in my immediate township. It was really difficult to get around.


  7. jacquiegum says:

    I have a different perspective on this. I think it is a basic as we Americans viewing mass transit as some sort of loss of freedom and privacy. People think they need to be able to get up and go when they want, not be subject to a schedule. The gripe about roads, pollution, and give very little thought as to how much they contribute to these things. Some of the cancelled projects were cancelled because surveys indicated there would be almost mo buy-in from the public and legislators were unwilling to bet on the “if we build it they will come” theory. Like everything else, we keep kicking this can down the road. So sad…. I fear there are dire consequences ahead…just like you cited.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. lenie5860 says:

    Ken, this isn’t just a situation in the States. Quite a few years ago now most of the train tracks in this area were pulled out and they’re now used as bike lanes. I would have to drive several hours to be able to get on a train which would take me only to a certain number of cities. Now they realize that was a mistake but that’s are far as they’ve gotten. No suggestions as to solutions.


  9. Erica says:

    I hate to say it, but where I live every day already is like Thanksgiving. There are roads that are known for being bumper to bumper most of the day. When I work in the office, I have a 45 minute, 6-mile commute. I’ve even been caught in bumper to bumper traffic at 1am. I seriously needed new brakes at 15,000 miles because I’m always on my brakes when in the car. I would love some better mass transit to come to Los Angeles, but progress is slow. We are getting some new higher speed trains, but they are really going to help those who work in downtown. Otherwise, it is very challenging to get around using public transit. Especially because the buses travel the same congested roads the rest of us do, and then they also stop every couple of blocks so it is a very slow way to travel. Our roads have horrible potholes everywhere. This is all a huge problem, but I don’t get the sense that there is an easy answer.


  10. The problem with the federal highway trust fund ism where does the money really go?. In addition to highways it also funds bridges, tunnels, carpooling, clean air, bicycle lanes, sidewalks, and anything having to do with people getting to a destination. It seems that politicians use Bills as a vehicle to attach other programs having nothing to do with what the voters belief. It’s all smoke and mirrors to me, boiling down to whatever the Lobbyist wants, gets passed.


  11. Transportation in the future will be so swift it makes transport today look like normal mail compared to email. And we will not drive our cars.


  12. Suzanne Fluhr says:

    I’m going to make myself a drink (not a soft one) because your post is totally depressing. I live in Philly (when I’m not “down the shore”), so I see the sad state of our transportation infrastructure up close and personal. After the Amtrak crash that killed 8 people within Philadelphia city limits, people started mentioning the freight train tracks that traverse a densely populated portion of the city. You know, the ones that carry highly flammable, explosive chemicals. The CSX solution. “We’ll be more careful.” BTW, it takes longer to take the train to Atlantic City from 30th Street Station in Philadelphia than it does to drive.


    • Ken Dowell says:

      At least you can get to Atlantic City by train. I think that’s about the only shore town you can get to without a car. An interesting idea for reviving Atlantic City would be to build a high-speed train that made it a 30 minute ride from Philly or New York.


  13. I’m glad to hear they are building a train on Oahu. We were on the island last year and the traffic in Honolulu was absolutely ridiculous. Thx for another interesting post, Ken.


  14. Meredith says:

    Wow, considering I avoid traveling on Thanksgiving like the plague, this is not good news! I would love to travel more by train, the way Europe does, but I can’t see how we could make that happen in our huge country. Can’t wait to read more of your thoughts on this issue…


  15. Tim says:

    I gave up owning a car several decades ago and am waiting for the ability to fly to kick in. The sci-fy shows always showed jet-packs and flying cars as the way of the future. George Jetson was my idol…what happened to those ideas?


  16. Andy says:

    Hmmm, maybe there is a ‘political opportunity’ lurking here, if not now then in the future. So a governor in some state refuses to do anything about traffic congestion. If/when the governor runs for reelection, a challenger should step up to the plate and blanket the state with TV commercials that
    (a) feature video of bumper-to-bumper traffic,
    (b) blame the incumbent (“Captain Gridlock”) for the situation, and
    (c) conclude with an “I promise to clean up this mess, so support me” type of message.
    I have no idea if this would work in real life but it would still be interesting to see what happens.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. klagowski says:

    “Getting around” is totally challenging in most urban centres. In Toronto, we have 24-7 traffic chaos, and it’s next to impossible to keep up with the stats. Our average commuting time is one of the longest in Canada, somewhere upwards of 45 minutes. Huge lack of foresight in the urban planning department. Now everyone wants pretty boulevards and bicycle paths like Europe has, except – this isn’t Europe. We need to have more choices and better transit solutions. Oh, and small, fuel-efficient peppy cars!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Thank you for the post Ken. In the UK we have an excellent train and bus system. All our airports have trains to get into town.


  19. Jason @ says:

    It’s as if certain cities like the traffic madness. Our traffic in Atlanta is very bad most days. Our mass transit system is decent when it comes to buses, but horrible when it comes to trains. The city government didn’t expect the Atl to grow as fast as it did.


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