Planning the future of transportation? Think sustainability, social equity, experts say
'This transformation is difficult. It requires real behavioural change,' professor says
While many Silicon Valley tech billionaires and future-minded visionaries believe the future of transportation lies in technologies like autonomous vehicles, delivery drones and even hyperloops, some future-minded thinkers believe we need to make sure issues like sustainability and social equity are part of the conversations we have today.
"We already actually have little mini-robots delivering groceries and hot pizzas in some places and on some university campuses and in cities like San Francisco," said Shauna Brail, an associate professor at the Institute for Management and Innovation at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
"What we don't necessarily have is a way to scale them up, to ensure that they're safe, and we also have to make sure that there is a need for them — that they're serving a need or a purpose that relates to creating improvement in society, in people's lives."
For Leah Zaidi, a senior associate at the Future Today Institute, concerns about future forms of transportation start at the policy level.
"We are not prepared from a policy perspective for the technology that's coming," Zaidi said.
As an example, Zaidi pointed to the case of an Uber autonomous vehicle backup driver who was charged with negligent homicide in mid-September 2020, following the 2018 death of a 49-year-old pedestrian in suburban Phoenix, Ariz.
In that case, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the Uber backup driver had failed to monitor the road while watching the television show The Voice on a cellphone, leading to the death of the pedestrian.
"Rather than having anticipated the scenario and understood how this scenario could have gone wrong beforehand, we're in a reactionary stage where we're responding to a problem," Zaidi said. "And we shouldn't be doing that. We [should] be anticipating the problems before they happen and [design] for them ahead of time.
At the same time, Brail said, it's important to find ways to entice both public and private sector actors to continuing working on future development, "but to understand the bigger picture, so that when one is creating the implementation for these new technologies, that we can monitor and track and address challenges."
Despite the advancements in transportation technology already underway, Zaidi said it's difficult to predict whether future humans will experience the relatively available options to move around their communities — and the planet — that many enjoy today.
The bicycle, a healthy and environmentally conscious solution
As citizens of planet Earth continue to grapple with the consequences of motorized transportation, one human invention remains top of mind when it comes to travelling in a way that's both healthy and safe for the environment: The bicycle.
"If you cycle just 15, 20 minutes a day, then that's all the physical activity that you need," said Peter Walker, a correspondent for The Guardian newspaper and the author of How Cycling Can Save the World, in an interview with Spark host Nora Young.
"The beautiful thing about the bicycle … is the it solves a lot of very, very modern day crises -- whether it's inactive living or the climate emergency, but it does so in a design that hasn't really fundamentally changed for about 120 years."
"We're going to be contending with all sorts of migration issues," Zaidi said, some of which will be brought on by climate change-related concerns, which often trigger political instability as well. "It may not be a question of whether or not it's easy, it may be a question of whether or not it's necessary."
For Jean-Paul Rodrigue, a transportation geographer at Hofstra University, the cost of mobility — both the literal price, as well as environmental costs — are among the downsides to improved human movement.
"That's the major impediment to our mobility around the world — that each time we want more, we need to consume more energy, we need to create more infrastructure to support this mobility," he told Spark host Nora Young. "And that's a very big issue in developing economies such as India [and] China, where the demand for mobility is skyrocketing and they are rushing to provide the infrastructure which comes at a very negative impact."
Rodrigue pointed out that China is currently the world's largest emitter of carbon, while "India is not far behind."
"So that's the challenge we're facing," he said. Is there a way that we can provide mobility with a lower environmental footprint."
Nonetheless, Rodrigue was hopeful that new technologies, new materials and increased automation in the transportation sector will "lessen this footprint of mobility."
Brail cautioned that doing nothing — failing to improve existing transportation methods, as well as existing infrastructure — will mean "more congestion, more urban spread, more emissions… and we're creating a more inaccessible society as a result."
"This transformation is difficult," Brail said. "It requires real behavioural change."