Two years ago, I was asked to become the Director of Innovative Transport for Parsons, a firm that has spent 70+ years delivering some of the most complex, ambitious transportation programs in the world. As a transit planner by training, it seemed a logical extension of work I’d been doing for Parsons in the United States and Middle East: explaining to people how we were going to connect one point to another with a technology they may or may not have seen before, be it the autonomous rail lines of Dubai or the Bus Rapid Transit program in Richmond. Then again, the questions I’ve been asked in this role have been a bit more….creative than those I’d experienced in my previous life:
“If we’re all going to be in hovercars, do we even need to pave this road?”
“What are our qualifications related to aerial autonomous passenger drones?”
“This autonomous vehicle thing is so October 2015. Have you considered teleportation?”
That last one caught my attention. Yes, it may sound a bit further off than autonomous vehicles, hyperloops, and passenger drones, but if we’re going to be working with public agencies trying to execute multi-decade capital programs, don’t we owe it to them to look as far out as we can? Our clients are facing tremendous strains from the mobility disruptors of the world. In the time it’s taken many cities to study, plan, implement bikeshares, personal scooters have hit the streets. While there’s tremendous interest in deploying connected infrastructure, many manufacturers are looking to go straight to 5G for their vehicles, leapfrogging plans that have been on the books for decades. Initial concepts for hyperloop deployments have now evolved into multiple programs to build tunnels serving various types of sleds and vehicles.
For as fast as it’s all happening, why shouldn’t we look at teleportation?
Walk through the implications with me. Personal, on-demand transportation, taken to its most ridiculous extreme. Assume some combination of flux capacitation augmented by nano-based frugination techniques makes it all cost-neutral, zero carbon, and part of a balanced breakfast. Does this mean that we’ve solved our mobility problems?
Not really. You get one bad snowstorm in Chicago, and you’ll have 1.3 million people stacked like firewood on the beaches of Aruba. The Cubs ever make it to the Series again, and we’re going to see a lot less “Friendly” and a heckuva lot more “Confined” in, on, and around Wrigley. And if you think you have a hard time keeping track of your kid now, have fun when they can boldly go where no teenager had any business going before.
Regardless of the technology, transportation will always require us to think about the separations, connections, and boundaries that make up our civilization. As designers, builders, and innovators, it would be irresponsible for us to look at any new form of transportation and say, “Well, the manufacturers have this covered; I’d better find another line of work.” We must always come back to same three things:
– The vehicle. It doesn’t matter if you travel by car or by foot or by stream of particles–every mode has its own space, speed, and capacity constraints.
– The path. Hyperloops and high speed rail may offer us faster, more effective ways to travel, but they’re still constrained by the same geography as every other system Parsons has ever worked on–and still need to tie into the existing systems we’ve already built.
– The destination. Look at that example of teleportation in Aruba and look at the highway programs of the 20th Century, and you’ll see one thing in common: if we wreck the very place we were trying to improve with transportation, we have failed in our mission.
That’s why Parsons is transforming itself to look at Smart Mobility from a different lens, not focused on the Shiny Moving Thing Du Jour, but rather how we can build the systems, facilities, and policy frameworks that will allow traditional agencies to move toward an open architecture for both their physical and digital infrastructure. We are building a Smart City platform that will give cities flexibility in how they weave mobility options into their communities. We are showing clients how they can build reusable infrastructure that can serve people movers today and regional autonomous mobility systems tomorrow. We are advocating for performance-based specifications that provide the flexibility to leverage existing facilities and emerging technologies throughout the lifecycle of major transportation programs.
It has always been the role of transportation planners to show people how new technologies will fit into their existing communities. In this disruptive age, it is even more critical that we collaborate with innovators, cities, and citizens to show how we can make Smart Mobility work within our communities.