From electric highways to pop-up airports, the transit infrastructure of the future will need to be adaptive, resilient, and able to scale over time.
Infrastructure is a boring-sounding word. And yet infrastructure itself—and transportation infrastructure in particular—is a defining characteristic of human civilizations. Incan and Roman proficiencies for designing and engineering roads and causeways were central to the success of their respective empires.
Similarly, our modern world is advanced through the highways, railways, airports, and seaports that facilitate the movement of people and goods at a global scale. But that advancing world tends to outgrow or evolve the utility of its infrastructure. Bridges built in one decade need more lanes in the next, airports require fewer parking spaces for cars and more places for rideshare pickups, and ports already contending with offshore backups of cargo ships are further slowed by trucks stuck in traffic. Put bluntly: The infrastructure we have in one era isn’t the infrastructure we’ll need in the next.
Consider the troika of transformative changes that our current infrastructure will struggle to support. First, our cities are becoming bigger and bigger, with 70% of the human population anticipated to live in them by 2050, so our infrastructure will need to scale in big ways. Second, many of our cities are facing serious threats due to climate change, given that more than 90% of all urban areas are coastal, a condition that will demand infrastructure that’s adaptive and resilient. Third, infrastructure isn’t just physical anymore; technologies, including artificial intelligence and augmented reality, are blurring the distinctions between the physical and the digital and beginning to merge them together, and our infrastructure will need to operate within this new reality.
Given these transformative changes, there are three kinds of superpowers that we’ll need from the next generation of transportation infrastructure.
Smart: Just as much code as concrete.
Physical infrastructure tends toward rigidity. For example, many traffic jams are directional; highways are bumper to bumper in one direction at the beginning of the day and then again at the end of the day, with the lanes in the opposite direction clear because they can’t flex dynamically. Digital technologies help subvert that rigidity. The slow and inefficient intersection we have now with stoplights and traditional vehicles is transformed when the vehicles are connected and autonomous and their movements are managed by computers.
Digital technologies are already integrating into our transportation infrastructure, albeit in a layered approach. Biometrics and robotics are now commonplace inside airports, and personalized wayfinding is likely in the near term. Public transit agencies shifted to cashless payment systems a long time ago, and transportation departments have already started using drones to monitor highway traffic. This trend will continue, but with infrastructure designed from the start to incorporate all the capabilities that digital technologies offer.
What might this new digitally native infrastructure look like? “Pop-up” airports that use augmented reality to replicate navigational markings on temporary 3D-printed runways, and computer vision systems for managing tower operations remotely. That kind of impermanent, virtually managed airport is necessary if we’re to meet the demand for air travel in just the next few decades—especially since passenger volumes cycle seasonally and spike for specific events like the Super Bowl and spring break. Similarly, we’ll need ferry terminals that are capable of switching between different kinds of sailings, from ferries with lots of onboard vehicles to others with walk-on passengers transferring to waiting rideshare vehicles. That kind of smart terminal will be required to account for how autonomous and shared vehicles evolve our relationships with cars.
Sustainable: Juice makers for carbon-free mobility.
We associate carbon emissions most directly with modalities—cars, trains, airplanes, trains, ships, etc.—and less so with the built environments made to support them. For example, we might herald the momentum of electric vehicle sales while ignoring that coal power still accounts for nearly 22% of electricity generation in the United States—a declining figure that’s still almost double the percentage from wind and solar. Similarly, while there are exciting efforts toward decarbonizing seafaring ships, many cruise ships still idle their diesel engines while in port to generate electricity to keep the lights on, kitchens running, pools heated, and so on due to the lack of shore-side electrical installations that they’d otherwise plug into. So, while we need to decarbonize transportation, we also need infrastructure that supports those carbon-free options and contributes carbon-free energy.
There are early exemplars of this approach. China constructed its first highway with built-in inductive charging for electric vehicles four years ago. Airports are increasingly interested in on-site renewable energy for the purposes of ensuring reliability and insulating their energy costs against the ups and downs of global markets. (Indianapolis International Airport now boasts the largest airport-based solar farm in the world, with an installation covering 183 acres.) Trains in the Netherlands have been running exclusively on wind energy since 2017. This shift toward transportation infrastructure built around renewables will continue as the world pivots away from fossil fuels.
And while airports add solar and wind power installations, they might also develop integrated verticulture to produce sustainable aviation fuel. That type of fuel, which can be derived from several different feedstocks, is currently the only viable alternative to conventional jet fuel for the wide-body aircraft we use for long flights. Growing and processing feedstocks such as Jatropha and Salicornia vertically right at the airport takes advantage of airports’ large real estate footprints and avoids competing for land with agriculture.
In urban environments, the projected emergence of both electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles (eVTOLs) and battery-electric autonomous cars in the next decade will require clean energy grids in cities to support all those batteries. Since open space is scarce inside cities, we should expect more infrastructure like the “lid” proposed in Seattle, which would cover a portion of an interstate dividing the city, reconnecting adjacent neighborhoods and creating all-new public spaces in the process. These types of megastructures could be designed as solar-powered multipurpose hubs for air- and ground-based vehicles that would sit atop existing freeways.
Intermodal: Hubs for orchestrated handoffs.
Our present mobility ecosystem is multimodal. Our future mobility ecosystem is intermodal. This future is an inevitability of transportation systems that are becoming increasingly autonomous, connected, electric, and shared. That future—in which transportation systems are managed more and more by artificial intelligence—will optimize what different modalities do best (e.g., bikes and scooters for quick trips in dense city blocks, autonomous vehicles for crosstown commutes, eVTOLs for flights under 150 miles, etc.). Then they can be stitched together in ways that balance system efficiency and passenger needs. Right now, passengers do that stitching on their own, architecting their own multimodal trips. The next big leap forward is when computing power does that on our behalf, making every shared bike, car, bus, ferry, subway, and aircraft part of the network and creating intermodal trips by doing all the planning, paying, and prompting for us.
We’ll need transportation infrastructure that evolves to deliver this intermodal future. What will this look like? In broad brushstrokes, infrastructure that was previously devoted to single modalities will transform into intermodal spaces. Airports will continue facilitating commercial aviation, but their parking garages will evolve into hubs for autonomous vehicle fleets and rooftop platforms for eVTOLs and even short-haul dirigibles. Subways and light rail lines will add cars dedicated to TSA screening, linking up with shuttles that take passengers directly to the “air side” of those airports. Even what we once called bus shelters will shape-shift into sidewalk hubs for pedestrians connecting to docked scooters and bikes, rideshare vehicles, and dynamically scheduled buses.
This article was originally published in Fast Company magazine.