The History and Future of Traffic

“The number of automobiles and trucks on American roads now exceeds the number of people living here.” Imagining Cities Without Highways Article

There I was, coasting down the interstate and in full-song, singing loudly Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” in my GMC which has acoustics that can only compare to a shower. Onlookers zipped past me cruising well over the speed limit while I coasted at a law-abiding citizen’s 60 miles per hour. A handful of speeding tickets in recent years kept me from driving with the speed of traffic, which was nearly 80 MPH, so I focus instead on the music and my alone time more than I worried about shortening my estimated time of arrival.

google-maps-trafficBut then, up ahead, I spotted them. Cones of fluorescent orange. Big cones and even bigger, brighter flashing arrows telling me that this spacious four-lane road would soon funnel into one single lane and, eventually, force me off of my straight path into a series of back roads and winding turns. The dreaded detour. Crows who fly straight would never know this problem. I quickly typed into Google Maps my destination address and within seconds saw the best possible route laid out before me – highlighted in green as if to call out a beautiful green pathway to faster driving and immediate happiness.

Eventually, I would find my way back onto the main road, picking up speed again toward my destination. But this detour cost me 15 minutes, and when I finally found the highway again, I found traffic at a stand-still.

“What would life be like without traffic?” I thought. Then another thought, more extreme: “What would life be without highways?”

SIDE BAR: I realize that the thoughts and opinions I share in this post are not revolutionary. The ever-changing transportation system and futuristic vision of roads and cars are both widely publicized. My hope is that if you are reading this you will have one of two thoughts: The first one being “Yup, uh huh, I agree with you Chris, cool stuff” and the other would be “No way, that’s stupid. Very dumb stuff Chris!” And if you have either of these two reactions then I have shared some of my own thinking that is, I hope, at least worth reading, I hope. 

Back to highways: the widely paved roads that cross state lines carrying us from east to west, north to south, passing through major cities and spanning across plains and around mountain ranges. In the United States alone there are over 150,000 miles of paved highways. It is easy to take them for granted, probably because of the rush-hour headaches and the potholes and speed traps and the terrible ralk radio that we find ourselves listening to along the way.

But the highways really are valuable to us, or to me at least. In the four years since I bought my last car, I have put upwards of 80,000 miles onto it. Most of that windshield time has been spent on the interstate highways throttling up and down on my cruise control. Furthermore, with a life so revolved around these roadways, it is easy to forget that our highway systems haven’t always been in place.

It all started In 1916 when the highway-tankU.S. Federal Government laid thousands of miles of wide roads trailing to and from main military bases, cities, and coastal points. The roads served one simple purpose, to allow for efficient transportation for military machinery (tanks and artillery). Before these roads existed, it was incredibly difficult, if not impossible to travel from one base to another, whether for training drills or for actual national protection. This initial road-laying was part of the Federal Aid Road Act and was paid for with the World War I budget, but after America got a small taste of how valuable these roads could be, they set out to build more, this time for civilian life.

Two years later, a proposed plan to lay 50,000 miles of road running from east coast to west coast was presented and finally approved in 1921. The roads were designed to run to-and-from every main Army base and necessary military route but could also be used by civilians in horse and buggy or automobile as well.

Then, in 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt laid out a new plan to build what we now know as the Interstate Highway System; but it wasn’t until the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower that these plans become a reality.

When Eisenhower was a young Army officer he had sat on a tank during the first coast to coast trip and he had been so inspired by the possibilities of travel in his country that he backed the plan as if his presidency depended on it. Eisenhower took action, appointing the then head of General Motors, Charles Wilson, as the Secretary of Defense and lead for all highway development. And then, many years later in 1956, Eisenhower finally signed the bill that is mostly responsible for our highway systems as we know them today.

Finally, it would seem, there would be enough space for the growing surplus of automobile owners to travel leisurely throughout the country, and this would arguably become one of the main contributors to the United States’ great economic success as well, since “the gross domestic product of the country quintupled between 1956 and 2013.” (Imagining Cities Without Highways). But while these highways and interstates would do a phenomenal job connecting popular destinations separated by hundreds of miles, they would however render useless for creating inefficiencies within highly populated cities. For as the square mileage of pavement grew, so too did the number of cars on the streets.

We know today that multi-lane roads could never withstand the growing number of drivers in major cities such as New York City, Chicago, or even Minneapolis. Each time the state tries to respond to the influx in traffic, they undergo extensive construction expansion plans and, after a year of construction, they add one lane or build a new ramp which only seems to lead to more traffic somehow. As soon as the construction is finished, it is back to the bumper-to-bumper monotony which defines our “rate race.” This leads to my question I had – what if we didn’t have highways? I didn’t ask this with a vision of gravel roads. I ask it while wondering if there is a better solution to our problem. And although there is no doubt that the 150,000 miles of pavement that spans our country is here to stay, it lends to other questions about how to fix the problem of traffic. One such solution is to reduce car ownership altogether. And one such company that is working on this solution is Lyft, the world’s second largest rideshare company (next to Uber).

Lyft’s co-founder John Zimmer has spoken publically about his vision of a future when we don’t own the vehicles that we ride in. Instead, we buy a monthly mileage plan from Lyft or another service provider which would allow us to borrow a car when we need one, or to order a ride (taxi style) when we need to get from A to B. Furthermore, we may even “order” these rides without a driver even behind the wheel.

As self-driving cars become more and more realistic (more on this later), it is not far-fetched to think that younger populations will likely move away from car ownership and simply commute and transport around in electronic capsules to get from place to place. After all, from Kindergarten through 12th grade, most of them experience this anyway. They hop on a yellow bus, a “transportation capsule,” while ride sharing with some people they know and some they don’t. It’s not revolutionary to a child that they might travel in a car from one place to another without owning or driving that car.

This might seem crazy to think about but it very well might not be crazy to future generations. The sharing economy has already taken hold, and younger generations already live in a world where they share their music, homes, investments, toys, bikes, and even clothes. They lease their iPhones instead of buy. They watch streaming video instead of collecting DVDs. They even capture memories with a camera with no intent to keep for themselves but only for the sake of sharing. The sharing economy is here and its consumers are among us. Why wouldn’t this apply to car ownership also?

And furthermore, if we are to imagine a world of highways where cars are rented rather than owned but can also drive themselves without a human manning the wheel, then a few other realizations have to happen. First, we must understand that the best way to create a safe and efficient transportation system is to build new infrastructure. Trains and subways are safe because they stay on their path, unobstructed from dangerous obstacles. However, this infrastructure investment would be too costly and too expansive and so will likely never happen. We can’t replace our roads with new ones, but we can build digital systems on top of our old ones.


First, we must understand that “autonomous car” development is the future. Autonomous cars are those that have technology built in to be able to communicate with other cars and physical objects around them. These “connected” cars respond and move in relation to each other and the streets underneath them, breaking or slowing when another vehicle is attempting to merge into the lane in front of them, or swerving or stopping when an obstacle obstructs the path ahead. This connection of devices and infrastructure could, theoretically, create a world where car accidents are either non-existent, or at least limited to natural causes such as storms. Even the word “traffic” has now become synonymous with the electronic transactions happening in the digital world of the internet. Eventually, traffic on the roads could be managed by traffic on servers and in data centers.

Of course, this is very far away. For now, drivers relent in the idea of giving up control of the wheel, and car owners hate the idea of not being able to jump in their familiar possession to run errands or, heck, even take a ride. This is the second thing that must happen: drivers must realize that their economy and physical surroundings are changing and with them, so too is transportation. Just like the automobile replaced the horse and buggy, so too will the automobile be changed or, at the least, challenged. This is the evolution of technology and development.

The visionary enterprises that run our capitalist world are investing heavily in these technologies. Google recently invested $258 million into a partnership with Uber, but it’s not just Google and Uber that’s chasing the self-driving car capabilities. Mercedez Benz, Audi, Nissan, BMW, Ford, Tesla, and many other major players are racing to win the autonomous car game. However, it will take intense synergistic partnerships to allow these cars’ systems to “speak to each other.” Radio frequency ID and motion sensors will not be safe enough, and so a new type of infrastructure will be required – one built in cyberspace that allows these cars to coexist efficiently as they pass intersections and merge lanes. And I believe that if this infrastructure and supporting elements are in place, it could create a safer world – potentially.

Not only could this create safer intersections and interstates, but it could also lead to efficiencies, especially in densely populated urban areas. A recent study at the University of Texas showed that one self-driving car could replace 11 households’ cars, simply by showing up when they needed a ride and delivering them to their destination. While one family is at their destination, the car is doing the same for the other ten families.  Based on this test case as a reflection of potential, traffic could be reduced, theoretically, by over 1000%.

Self Driving Car .jpg

Ride-sharing in a self-driving car isn’t so crazy. In this Mercedez Benz concept, it would more closely resemble a train experience than it would a car. Click this video for more impressive prototypes shown at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES): Yahoo CES Self-Driving Car Report

I have already explained that infrastructure (in the physical sense) is a key component to our lives and to our country. It makes up the structures that take us from one point to another. The buildings that make up our cities, the roads that make up our country. Those highways, our main mode of transportation, take on their own shapes and personalities. Communities revolve around their intersections. Somewhere between potholes and construction, we find our way to important destinations on these wide roads. But the challenge moving forward won’t be to maintain and expand these highways but rather it will be deciding how the cars that use them become more efficient, or if cars even use them at all.
Does that mean less cars on the highway? Or does it mean eliminating human drivers altogether so that the cars can use data and technology to cruise faster without risk of crashing. (See a great article on this HERE.)flying-cars

Or maybe, just maybe, it means cars that aren’t bound to the two-dimensional highways, but rather can fly through the air, defying highway traffic altogether. And this too is not just science fiction from 1980’s cartoons. Uber is already building an “air bus” that will transport people within 50-100 mile radiuses to avoid traffic when rides are just long enough to want to avoid highways and just short enough to not warrant a flight by airplane. This flying car could be a service to the public as soon as 2020. (ARTICLE on WIRED Magazine)

But enough about flying cars. Let’s come back to earth and discuss more about highway traffic.

“But what if replacing urban highways with city-scaled roadways and more transit options weren’t impossible? What if we agreed that we needed to think less about the demands for infrastructure today and plan better for our lifestyles and transportation patterns 50 years from now?” Imagining Cities Without Highways Article

In the very near future, the implementation and use of autonomous cars will be developed to work nearly without flaw. But they won’t be used at scale for quite a while longer, not because of technological capacity but because of laws and lawmakers that prohibit these cars and their systems from changing the way we commute, and rightfully so. There are still major questions to be answered in how this new technology will affect our lives, and if the good will outweigh the potential bad. There have always been these discussions, since the invention of the bicycle and the airplane and the internet; and key lawmakers and business people need to be convinced before opening doors for public adoption.

These questions about risk, IT security, accountability, insurance, and analytical decision making are all questions that will need to be answered. But again, I believe that in order for driverless cars to become commonplace, they will need to be able to work within the systems (infrastructure) and around the obstacles (other vehicles). Stand alone technology is not enough. We need systems that can communicate to each other to provide ultimate safety.

If these challenging questions can be answered, which I am confident they will be, then we will most certainly see in the near future a world of autonomous cars. The real question is, are these problems that we want to have? I think YES, and here is why:

  • Over 30,000 people die in car accidents per year. If we can reduce that number to even 10,000, it is a huge crash.jpg
  • Many of these deaths are a result of “distracted driving,” such as drunk driving and texting and driving. These are low-hanging-fruit in the elimination of these crashes.
  • As populations grow, so too does driver population. Eventually, we will run out of land in order to expand major highways. The answer isn’t to keep expanding roadways, it is to make the vehicles fewer or more efficient.

Although I am optimistic about the future of autonomous cars and our country’s infrastructure, I do have major concerns. To say I want cars zipping around the highway, or the airway for that matter, without an intelligent human behind the wheel would be false. To say I don’t want to be in control, or that I don’t have concerns about hackers, terrorists, malfunctions, and algorithms that have to make humane decisions would also be false. But I do think that traffic is one of those problems that can and will be solved, and years from now we may look back at 2017 and laugh (or cry) at the thousands of hours that people spent completely wasted, sitting in stop-and-go traffic during their commute.

For now, I am not ready for a world where my car drives itself or where I don’t even own the car I ride in. So for the time being, I will continue to enjoy my long rides where I get to sing off-key Adele songs and I try to avoid Highway Patrol speed traps. And until then, I’ll be thankful for the infrastructure we do have, and how great our lives are here in America, regardless of how much we like to complain about our commutes.



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