Mobility in the Balance

Author: Phillip Cherry, BSCE 2010
Phillip Cherry
Phillip Cherry
The movement of people and goods has always been essential to maintaining the nation’s economy; however, current forces and trends may limit the continuity of our mobility and the benefits associated with it.  Much of the nation’s infrastructure, especially bridges, is now well past its design life.  Funding the replacement of these facilities will require a concerted effort, as, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 1.6 trillion dollars is needed to fully update the nation’s infrastructure.  If facilities are not updated soon, some bridge crossings may need to be closed due to safety concerns, resulting in significant impacts on both regional and local economies, as some closures would require detours resulting in increased fuel consumption and loss of productivity.

Also impacting mobility are fuel prices, which are rising in part due to the combination of increasing worldwide demand and a decreasing supply of easily accessible oil.  The Deepwater Horizon incident in 2010 illustrates the environmental and safety risks associated with drilling for oil in less accessible regions, and other options such as the Canada’s Athabasca Tar Sands and oil shale in Wyoming are energy inefficient and present other environmental concerns.  Traffic congestion and delay due to an increasing number of urban residents and suburban commuters costs time and productivity, and adds further to pollution as cars idle during peak periods.

Because these issues are interactive in nature, a multitude of complementary solutions is required.  Although technological improvements and engineering solutions will represent a significant part of the progress in maintaining mobility, establishing a sustainable infrastructure funding system is the key to the long-term replacement and continued maintenance of the nation’s infrastructure.  Developing a collection and revenue framework that accurately and equitably captures both the true cost of building and maintaining roads as well as managing the congestion that occurs on them will help ensure goods and people are transported efficiently.

Some of these advancements will occur in Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS).  Likely breakthroughs include inter-car communication, warning drivers in real-time of stalled vehicles or traffic ahead, and eventually autonomous or semi-autonomous driving.  In this scenario, cars would communicate with each other and the surrounding infrastructure and environment and would be controlled by computers to allow for tighter spacing between vehicles, higher roadway capacities, and safer roads.  Other roadway congestion management measures include tolling, bus-only lanes, and dynamic pricing in which toll rates are based on congestion and time of day.  Much of the new additional funding would be spent expanding public transportation via with light rail transit, modern streetcars, and high speed rail.  Coupled with this renewed investment in transit might be a shift to more vertical and dense living patterns, thus reducing total vehicle miles traveled and mitigating the effect of higher fuel prices.  Perhaps most essential to maintaining mobility requires continued investment and an awareness that all transport modes must be utilized and the previous approach of simply adding another lane is no longer a viable solution.