Sunday, December 04, 2016

Some notes on our transportation future

Transportation (26 percent of 2014 greenhouse gas emissions) – Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation primarily come from burning fossil fuel for our cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes. Over 90 percent of the fuel used for transportation is petroleum based, which includes gasoline and diesel. (EPA, Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions)

At a recent public meeting about our transportation future in the Rochester region, I arrived expecting that there wouldn’t be much discussion about Climate Change. My expectations were confirmed, except that I brought up the specter of the link between Climate Change and transportation issues. It only got a respectful but gloomy nod of recognition.

The meeting was the Community Symposium on the Future of Transportation Technology, sponsored by the Genesee Transportation Council. Though I’ve tried to connect the dots between transportation and Climate Change in a couple of leadership capacities (chair of the local Sierra Club’s transportation committee and the Center of Initiatives’ alternative transportation group), I haven’t had much luck. The prevailing zeitgeist about transportation among local officials seems to be: there isn’t much money around to address transportation issues and what money there is has to go for road or bridge repair. As for the need to change attitudes about connecting transportation and Climate Change, fuhgeddaboudit.

To be fair, there has been a lot help getting active transportation (walking and bicycling) moving from local officials. It’s about as much that one would expect from our public servants with little money to leverage and little interest demonstrated by the public for anything other than cars. It’s no secret we really, really like cars and our eyes grow dim when someone mentions alternative transportation. Those eyes grow even dimmer if you mention the most boring word in the English language: infrastructure. (Which reminds me, we did not talk about trolleys, public transportation, or electric buses, or bus mass transit, though someone (in jest) mentioned drones.)

Anyway, I’ve written about local transportation and Climate Change before—Viewing local transportation plans through the lens of Climate Change, Rochester’s transportation system light-years away from Climate Change solutions, Connecting the Climate Change dots on Rochester’s transportation, Active Transportation attitudes in Rochester, NY, We need you on a bike to Greentopia September 17th, Will salmon-cyclists destroy Rochester’s chances for greatness?, Wanna do something about Climate Change in Rochester, NY? (Hint: bike.)--and though this vital link is of critical concern, this particular essay only touches on all that tangentially. The Mathew Effect (where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer) predominated the meeting about our future transportation concerns. This means the rich or well-off will like what the movers and shakers are thinking about our transportation future, while the rest, not so much.

We mostly talked about sensors, connectivity, and Big Data. Sensors are those little electronic gadgets that ‘sense’ a variety of concerns transportation experts use to monitor traffic density, infrastructural integrity, and a lot of other things traffic engineers would tend to care about. ‘Connectivity’ was not used in the touchy-feely sense that drivers may or should have with each other as they barrel down the highway; it is literally how vehicles communicate with each other and transportation infrastructures. Big Data is about the incredible amount of information transportation encompasses—traffic density, road and bridge data, bumps in the road, and that kind of stuff.

I had the feeling throughout the meeting that what everyone really wanted to talk about (but were uneasy to do so because there were a couple on greenies there) was self-driving cars. Really, these ‘intelligent’ new cars are alluring, they’re sexy, and if your career has focused on roads and bridges and traffic lights all your life, autonomous vehicles are really exciting. Insane, perhaps, but exciting. Yet, one thing I learned is that we are a long way from introducing autonomous vehicles on to our existing highways because these digital vehicles don’t work when there’s a lot of dust and dirt flying through the air. It ‘confuses’ present-day software when bad weather presents a lot of known unknowns, like how many dirt particles are flying around in storm and what their potential trajectory might be. If you know anything about software, this would be so mind-bogglingly difficult to accurately ‘digest’ as to make climate modeling child’s play.   

Ok, I’m getting a little too snarky…, We talked about many important aspects of future transportation technology …, what people are going to be driving in and on in the future because when you think about it we’ve gone from horse and carriages to gas-guzzling steel projectiles to electric/computerized vehicles in a relatively short time …, about transportation safety and health …, about land use because when you think about it, depending on your transportation system, urban and rural communities will thrive or die …, and we talked about predictability, which has a lot to do with traffic safety because when you think about it, when you know whether a traffic holdup is going to be a long wait or a short one, you are more likely to respond rationally, but if you’re in a long line of traffic backup on the highway and haven’t a clue about what’s going on or how long you’ll be trapped, you are more likely to do something crazy—like tear along the shoulder to get by everyone, or make an illegal U-turn …, and how Big Data can help alleviate some of these potential situations by you getting on your Smartphone and using some app to let you know what’s going on …, and we talked a little about how there might be a trickle-down effect with all this futuristic gadgetry for those with transportation challenges, like living in rural poverty and needing a city job, or getting those darn traffic signals to be more hospitable to pedestrians (who as you may recall are also part of our transportation future) …, and some other interesting stuff like dangerous slowdowns that Big Data interprets as an accident, therefore getting emergency crews to the scene sooner and saving more lives …,  some talked about whether some of this technology can be tailored to individuals with particular needs, loss of hearing, crossing a street in a wheelchair, riding a bike in heavy traffic …, and we talked about many more forms of transportation on demand choices that apps might be able to give you once they tap into this great, big, wonderful, and seemingly infinite, aggregation of Big Data. 

It was all kinda fun, though a bit frustrating for us trying to find a way to communicate our concerns about another future, the future where the future of transportation and just about everything else is going to be greatly affected by the consequences of Climate Change. Our existing transportation infrastructure, which must remain largely intact until we’re on to the next great idea (maybe flying autonomous drones with a pub), must be resilient enough to handle more extreme weather and the disinclination for the public to support a transportation system they now take for granted.    

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