The Geography of Transport Systems
Jean-Paul Rodrigue (2013), New York: Routledge, 416 pages.
ISBN 978-0-415-82254-1
Future Transportation
Author: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue
1. Past Trends and Uncertain Future
Where are the flying cars? Where are the supersonic passengers jets?
In 200 years of history since the introduction of forms of mechanized transportation, the capacity, speed, efficiency and geographical coverage of transport systems has improved dramatically. The goal to move passengers and freight faster, in greater quantities, safely and efficiently remains the core motivation to improve transport technology. Modes, terminals and networks alike have been subject to remarkable changes that come into two functional aspects:
  • Revolutionary changes. Concerns a completely new technology that creates new markets and growth opportunities for transportation and the economy as well. It often marks the obsolescence of an existing transport mode as the new mode has substantial cost, capacity or time benefits. Revolutionary changes tend to be rare but profound since they commonly involve the setting of entirely new networks. They commonly cannot be predicted, but once they occur it is possible to assess their potential impacts. Yet, in the early phase of their introduction, the potential of an innovation can be exaggerated.
  • Incremental (evolutionary) changes. Concerns the stepwise improvement of an existing transport technology and operations. This leads to increases in productivity with more capacity, lower costs and better performance of the involved mode or terminal. Incremental changes are possible to extrapolate but the rate of change they bring is difficult to assess.
Considering those changes, the following observations can be made:
  • Each mode, due to its geographical and technical specificities, was characterized by different technologies and different rates of innovation and diffusion. A transport innovation can thus be an additive/competitive force where a new technology expands or makes an existing mode more efficient and competitive. It can also be a destructive force when a new technology marks the obsolescence and the demise of an existing mode often through a paradigm shift. Still, in many cases an older technology will endure because of its wide level of adoption, utilization and accumulated capital investment. This is commonly known as path dependency. Vested interests in an existing mode, particularly if publicly owned, may also delay or even prevent an innovation to take place.
  • Technological innovation was linked with faster and more efficient transport systems. This process implied a space-time convergence where a greater amount of space could be exchanged with lesser amount of time. The comparative advantages of space could thus be more efficiently used.
  • Technological evolution in the transport sector has been linked with the phases of economic development of the world economy. Transportation and economic development are consequently interlinked as one cannot occur without the other.
One of the pitfalls in discussing future trends resides at looking at the future as an extrapolation of the past. It is assumed that the future will involve a technology that already exists, but simply operating an extended scale beyond what is currently possible. It can be seen as an incremental change bias. The parameters of such an extrapolation commonly involve a greater speed, mass availability, a higher capacity and/or a better accessibility, all of which implying similar or lower costs. Popular literature (such as Popular Mechanics or Popular Science) of the first half of the 20th century is abundant with extrapolations and speculations, some spectacular, about how transportation technology would look like in the (their) future. Looking at such perspectives is labeled "paleo-futurology"; how the past perceived the future.
At start, the prediction of future outcomes must consider what is within the realm of forecasting, scenario building or speculation. Forecasting tries to evaluate near term outcomes by considering that parameters do not change much, while scenario building tries to assess a series of possible outcomes based upon expected fluctuation in key parameters. A common failure about predictions is their incapacity at anticipating paradigm shifts brought by new technologies as well as economic and social conditions. Another failure relate to the expectation of a massive diffusion of a new technology with profound economic and social impacts, and this over a short period of time (the "silver bullet effect"). This rarely takes place as most innovations go through a cycle of introduction, adoption, growth, peak and then obsolescence, which can take several years, if not decades. Even in the telecommunication sector, which accounts for the fastest diffusion levels, the adoption of a technology takes place over a decade.
Any discussion about the future of transportation must start with the realization that much of what is being presented as plausible is unlikely to become a reality, more so if the extrapolation goes several decades into the future. Thus, as much as someone would have been unable at the beginning of the 20th century to even dream of what transportation would look like half a century later (e.g. air transportation and the automobile), we may be facing the same limitations at the beginning of the 21st century. However, since substantial technological innovations took place in the 20th century and that the laws of physics are much better understood, we are likely better placed to evaluate which technological trends will emerge in the near future. Still, the socioeconomic impacts of new transport technologies and systems remain complex to assess and rarely lead to any accurate assessment.
2. Technological Trends
Since the introduction of commercial jet planes, high-speed train networks and the container in the late 1960s, no significant technological change have impacted passengers and freight transport systems, at least from a paradigm shift perspective. The early 21st century is an era of car and truck dependency, which tends to constraint the development of alternative modes of transportation, as most of the technical improvements aim at insuring the dominance of oil as a source of energy. However, with uncertainties about the future of oil producton, there is evidence that the end of the dominance of the internal combustion engine is approaching. As oil production is expected to peak within a decade and then gradually decline, energy prices are expected to continue their upward trend, triggering the most important technological transition in transportation since the introduction of the automobile. In such an environment the most promising technologies are:
  • Automated/Intelligent transport systems. Refers to the development of a set of information and communication technologies (ICT) to improve the speed, efficiency, safety and reliability of movements, by relying upon complete or partial automation of the vehicle, transshipment (for freight) and control. These systems could involve the improvement of existing modes such as automated highway systems, or the creation of new modes and new transshipment systems such as for public transit and freight transportation (automated terminals). The goal of such initiatives is mainly to efficiently use existing infrastructures through information technologies. Many gains still remain to be achieved through the better management of existing infrastructures and vehicles. Yet, the diffusion of ICT is influenced by the business models of the transport sectors it takes place in. For instance, driverless vehicles are likely to improve the mobility of more marginal groups (e.g. elderly and people with disabilities), but as important they would enable a more efficient use of vehicle assets.
  • Alternative modes. There is a range of modes that could replace but more likely complement existing modes, particularly for the transportation of passengers. Once such technology is maglev, short for magnetic levitation, which has the advantage of having no friction (except air friction), enabling to reach operational speeds of 500-600 km per hour (higher speeds are possible if the train circulates in a low pressure tube). This represents an alternative for passengers and freight land movements in the range of 75 to 1,000 km. Maglev improves from the existing technology of high-speed train networks which are limited to speeds of 300 km per hour. In fact, maglev is the first fundamental innovation in railway transportation since the industrial revolution. The first commercial maglev system opened in Shanghai in 2003 and has an operational speed of about 440 km per hour. On the other side of the mobility spectrum urban transportation show some potential for a more effective use of alternative modes, particularly in car-dependent cities and this for passengers and freight transportation alike.
  • Alternative fuels. This mainly concerns existing mode but the sources of fuel, or the engine technology, are modified. For instance, hybrid vehicles involve the use of two types of motor technologies, commonly an internal combustion engine and an electric motor. Simplistically, breaking is used to recharge a battery, which then can be used to power the electric motor. Although the gasoline appears to be the most prevalent fuel choice, diesel has a high potential since it can also be made from coal or organic fuels. Diesel can thus be a fuel part of a lower petroleum dependency energy strategy. Hybrid engines have often been perceived as a transitional technology to cope with higher energy prices. This is also a possibility of greater reliance on biofuels as an additive (and possibly a supplement) to petroleum, but their impacts on food production must be carefully assessed. Far more reaching in terms of energy transition are fuel cells, which involve an electric generator using the catalytic conversion of hydrogen and oxygen. The electricity generated can be used for many purposes, such as supplying an electric motor. Current technological prospects do not foresee high output fuel cells, indicating they are applicable only to light vehicles, notably cars, or to small power systems. Nevertheless, fuel cells represent a low environmental impact alternative to generate energy and fuel cell cars are expected to reach mass production by 2015. Additional challenges in the use of fuel cells involve hydrogen storage (especially in a vehicle) as well as establishing a distribution system to supply the consumers.
Still, anticipating future transport trends is very hazardous since technology is a factor that historically created paradigm shifts and is likely to do so again in the future with unforeseen consequences. For instance, one of the major concerns about future transportation for London, England in the late 19th century, was that by the mid 20th century the amount of horse manure generated by transport activities would become unmanageable...
3. Economic and Regulatory Trends
Through recent history, there are few, if any, cases where a revolutionary transport technology was the outcome of a public endeavor. Still, the public sector came to play a growing role as transport innovations became more complex and incited a concerted approach in infrastructure, management or regulation. For instance, the massive diffusion of the automobile in the 20th century was associated with regulations concerning operations (e.g. speed limits), safety (e.g. seatbelts), emissions, as well as public investments in road infrastructures. While vehicle production came to be dominantly private, road infrastructures were perceived as a public good and provided as such. Similar processes took place for maritime transportation (port authorities), air transportation (national carriers), rail (national carriers), public transit (transit agencies) and telecommunications (frequencies). The complexity of transport systems, particularly with intermodalism, is likely to rise in the future; will this complexity be linked with additional public sector involvement?
Future transportation systems are also facing growing concerns related to energy, the environment, safety and security. Transport systems are either going to be developed to accommodate additional demands for mobility or to offer alternatives (or a transition) to existing demand. An important challenge relies in the balance between market forces and public policy, as both have a role to play in the transition. Since transportation is a derived demand, a core aspect of future transportation pertains to the level of economic activity and to what extent this level will be linked with specific passengers and freight volumes. In recent years, economic development and globalization have been important factors behind the surge in mobility. It remains to be seen to what extent this process will endure and if the global transportation system will become more globalized or regionalized:
  • Globalization. Assumes affordable energy prices, growing accessibility and an enduring openness to trade. The exploitation of comparative advantages continues, leading to a more complex lattice of trade and transportation systems. In addition to active networks of regional transportation are superposed various transnational relations.
  • Regionalization. Assumes higher energy prices and a commercial environment that is more prone to protectionism, all of which conveys more friction to long distance interactions. The exploitation of comparative advantages is thus done on a more regional foundation. This environment does not forbid international trade, but the latter mostly concern goods and services that cannot be effectively substituted. It is also prone to the setting of more effective regional transport systems.
A fundamental component of future transport systems, freight and passengers alike, is that they must provide increased flexibility and adaptability to changing market circumstances (origins, destinations, costs, speed, etc.), some of which unforeseen, while complying to an array of environmental, safety and security regulations. This cannot be effectively planned and governments have consistently been poor managers and slow to understand technological changes, often impeding them through regulations and preferences to specific modes or to specific technologies. Regulations have the tendency of preventing technological innovations and their potential positive impacts. This is often referred as the status quo bias where the dominant strategy of a public agency is to maintain existing conditions.  Also, if a new mode or technology competes with a nationalized transport system, then it is likely that the government will intervene to prevent its emergence with regulations (e.g. permits) and delays (e.g. public safety hearings). Recent history indicates that it was when deregulation took place that the most significant changes and innovations resulted for transportation. One of the most salient examples is the Staggers Act in American rail transportation, which was linked with substantial productivity improvements and new investments.
It is thus likely that future transport systems will be the outcome of private initiatives with the market (transport demand) the ultimate judge about the true potential of a new transport technology. Economic history has shown that market forces will always try to find and adopt the most efficient form of transportation available. Some transport systems or technologies have become obsolete and have been replaced by other that are more efficient and cost effective based upon the prevailing input conditions such as labor, energy and commodities. This fundamental behavior is likely to endure in the setting of future transportation systems, which will reflect the level of scarcity of resources, energy, space and time.