As an alumnus and a member of the Advisory Council for the Civil Engineering Department, I was asked to lead a workshop during the summer CATALYST Academy at Cornell University. The purpose of the summer program was to bring high school students from underrepresented backgrounds to Cornell to spark an interest in engineering and the university. My workshop entitled “Transportation: How you can be part of the Future” included a 30-minute presentation and a 60-minute group activity. This blog post is a summary of the presentation portion of my workshop.
Transportation has always been about moving goods and/or people from Point A to Point B. Whether we are discussing the ancient empires with routes to trade goods, the slave trade that brought Africans to the Americas, or the latest flight deals that allow for global travel, transportation is an essential part of the economy. Today, the transportation industry is at an interesting crossroads of ‘we’ve been doing it this way for decades’ and ‘new technologies require new thinking’.
“We’ve Been Doing it this Way for Decades”
For the last six decades, the basic formula for transportation planning has changed very little. We examine existing conditions, forecast changes over a 20 to 30-year period, and then predict how people will move and what mode they will use. While this model gives us a general idea of movement at the regional level, it can be problematic when used at other scales.
Among the challenges with the current model, I discussed two with the students. One challenge of the model is that it assumes people use one mode to take a trip between point A and point B. Where in reality people, particularly in highly urbanized areas, use multiple modes. For example, if a person takes public transportation, they still have walk trips from home to the bus stop and the bus stop to work. The other challenge is emerging megaregions, where people are able to commute between regions on a daily basis. For example, there are people who commute to DC daily from Philadelphia, which is part of a different metropolitan area. However, the travel models are still regional in that DC and and Philadelphia have separate travel demand models.
With the advancement of technologies, the transportation industry is facing new challenges and opportunities. I discussed:
- Changes in Communication: With the popularity of smart phones and tablets, people are able to have face-to-face communication with the click of an application. Where long distance relationships required a plane ticket or long-distance phone plan 10 years ago, now we are able to communicate globally via Wireless internet.
- Shared Economy: For the transportation industry, the shared economy includes sharing a motor vehicle, bicycle, or car ride. Programs like Car2Go, ZipCar, and Getaround allow for people to forego car ownership but still have access to a car when they need one. Bikeshare programs are a gateway to increasing the number of people biking as well as fill a short to medium transportation need. Rideshare programs such as Uber and Lyft provide access to people who do now own a vehicle and have been shown to increase transit usage.
- Autonomous Vehicles (AVs): When I was young, I was told we would live like The Jetsons by the time I was an adult. I also remember watching Maximum Overdrive and being freaked out at the thought of a semi-truck chasing people around. There has been (and still is) skepticism around AVs. However, fully autonomous passenger and freight vehicles are being tested on our roadways. There are still public policy questions around safety, cyber security, and infrastructure needs.
- Delivery Bots: I showed the students a video of a delivery bot in DC. The technology is being deployed in communities as both airborne drones and little motorized food delivery vehicles. If and when this technology scales up, what will be the future impact on how people and goods travel?
- MagLev: I shared with the students that there are ongoing discussion of using MagLev trains as an alternative mode of travel between cities. For example, the Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail is examining a maglev train that would travel from Baltimore to Washington DC in 15 minutes.
- Space: There are some big thinkers, such as Richard Branson, that envision a world with commercial space travel.
With the emergence of new technologies, humanity will face unique challenges and the current generation of teenagers are equipped to provide the solutions to those challenges. Some of the things I shared with the students:
- They are the first generation where access to technology and high-speed (and pocket sized) computers are the norm. I told them they do not understand the struggles of having to use a pencil to rewind a cassette tape. The first Apple iPod was release when many of them were born. The do not know a world without technology.
- They are growing up in an inclusive society. Although the U.S. still has its share of –isms (racism, classism, sexism, etc), this group has grown up in a world that has been more socially inclusive than any other in U.S. history.
- They have access to instantaneous and unlimited information. When I was in high school, research required flipping through the pages of an encyclopedia Britannica or going through card catalogue to find a book. The current generation has the ability to pull information on any topic at any moment. With the click of a button, Siri can answer question on music, history, biology, physics, etc.
The purpose of the presentation was to get the young people thinking about the current challenges and opportunities in transportation. After a brief question and answer, I broke the students into teams and assigned them an activity to address many of the issues I discussed in my presentation. In the next post, I will describe the group activity in detail and the ideas generated by the students.
Veronica O. Davis, PE is a transportation guru who uses her knowledge to spark progressive social change. As Co-owner and Principal of Nspiregreen, she is also responsible for the management of the major urban planning functions such as transportation planning, policy development, master planning, sustainability analysis, and long range planning. In July 2012, Veronica was recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House for her professional accomplishments and community advocacy, which includes co-founding Black Women Bike.