The global market for smart transportation already is $45 billion, according to a recent report. This includes the networks and infrastructure that enables things like Fast Lane (cashless) tolls to operate.
One of the promises of smart transportation is better management of traffic. While I can see how coordination of stoplights, electronic alerts of traffic jams, smart routes and other types of networking can be beneficial, the one consideration lacking in this scenario is the federal and local governments that have to adopt and regulate networks, infrastructure and traffic patterns. Here’s where the promise of “smart transportation” falls apart.
Boston suffered its worst winter ever (or ‘evah’) in 2014 and 2015 which highlighted the shortcomings of the city and regional rail system. This isn’t some kind of high-tech superconductor high-speed rail. This is Amtrak, commuter rails and a modest subway system. Boston couldn’t get its low-tech system upgraded for several decades. And if it were to just jump forward and replace the antiquated trains with something better?
I have two words: Big Dig. The Big Dig was the federally funded program that was going to take the Rube Goldberg-esque highway system around Boston—fraught with sagging bridges, too-low overpasses and leaky tunnels—and modernize the system. Not only did the project cost billions of dollars more than anticipated; take decades longer to complete than estimated; the net savings on an average commute never materialized. The population of Boston increased during the tenure of the Big Dig so traffic is as bad as it ever was.
Technology can solve a lot of problems. Sensors can detect traffic patterns and coordinate stoplights. Tolls can be automated. Capacity on highways and parking lots can be transmitted to drivers so they can make informed decisions. These concepts only work in regions where drivers have alternate routes. Boston is a city that decided to put its only international airport on an island with one (direct) way in and one way out. Alternate routes are limited.
So forgive me if I approach the idea of “smart transportation” with a lot of cynicism. The technology itself still has a ways to go. I find the recent test-hack of a vehicle which died at 70 mph extremely frightening. I am one of those people who believe the fewer electronics I have in the car, the better, because fewer things can go wrong. I’m not a Luddite—I am an easily distracted driver. I want no part of touch screens or social media in my vehicle. And the folks that will be making the decisions about infrastructure upgrades? They are appointed—they are not elected. And many of them are in the — you guessed it — construction business.
Smart transportation, for me, remains an oxymoron.