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Scenes from a Revolution: The New Direction in Transportation

Scenes from a revolution

A few headlines from around the world … OK, mostly around my home city of Boston … on the week of the release of our new report on the implications of changing driving trends in the United States:

  • On Monday, the Boston Globe reported on the upcoming construction of Fenway Center – a new $500 million mixed-use development that will include 550 apartments, a new commuter rail station, bicycle and pedestrian paths, and a parking garage festooned with solar panels. Fenway Center is one of a number of building projects going up all across the city, with no section getting more action than the South Boston “Innovation District,” where a forest of construction cranes rises above the skyline. The announcement came a few weeks after outgoing Boston Mayor Tom Menino announced his plan to add 30,000 new units of housing by 2020 in the city.
  • On Wednesday, the Globe reported that bicycle traffic on the city’s streets increased by an eye-popping 28 percent between 2010 and 2012, while the number of crashes remained nearly flat.
  • Today, on the front page, the Globe reported on the launch of a new peer-to-peer car-sharing service called FlightCar. Users of the service drop their car off at an off-site parking lot and are then shuttled to the airport. FlightCar then attempts to rent the car to another user. In either case, whether the car is rented or not, the parking is free.
  •  Also today, on the editorial page, Harvard economics professor Ed Glaeser – one not prone to flights of fiscal profligacy – argued for the launch of pilot ferry service between two city neighborhoods separated by Boston Harbor, South Boston and East Boston (or “Southie” and “Eastie” in local parlance). The two neighborhoods were connected by automobile tunnel in the mid-1990s as part of the “Big Dig,” but Glaeser’s op-ed takes it for granted that automobile connectivity isn’t enough. He writes: “The problem with a subway stop or a highway is that these are expensive and fixed. We’re stuck with them whether or not the riders arrive. But legitimate worries about making big mistakes don’t mean our transportation system should be frozen.”
  • Last, but not least, new research suggests that texting while driving now kills more teenagers annually than drinking while driving.

What do all of these stories have to do with one another? They’re each a point of data in an emerging vision of a transportation future that looks to be very different from the past.

Our new report, A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future, makes the case that America has come to the end of a road, if you will – that the rapid increase in vehicle travel that took place between 1946 and 2004 in the United States is unlikely to be repeated any time soon. It suggests that, while we don’t know what the future of transportation will look like, we can reasonably guess that it will involve a lot less driving than seemed likely even a few years ago. And it calls for a thorough – and urgent – revisiting of our nation’s transportation policies to figure out how to deal with that new reality.

The stories above speak to many of the factors at work in the trends described in A New Direction – the boom in interest in urban living, particularly in neighborhoods close in to city centers and especially among young people; the rise of alternative forms of transportation both old (bicycling) and brand-new (airport car-sharing); the ways in which technology is reshaping transportation; and, in Glaeser’s piece, the strengthened rationale for small-scale solutions to transportation problems in an age of rising uncertainty about future trends.

There are many moving parts to the transportation puzzle – both in the potential causes in the changes underway and in the way they’re manifesting themselves – which means that it can sometimes be hard to step back and see the big picture. We hope that A New Direction kick-starts the discussion about America’s transportation future in a way that keeps the big picture in focus, and moves us toward a more sensible transportation policy in the years to come.