We talked to Daniel Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis,about the future of transportation.
Daniel Sperling: Bicycle for local trips, airplanes for long trips, and they average out to be not-so-high-carbon. I’ve just hit two million miles on United Airlines, which I’m not proud of.
Boom: Would you want to travel on Elon Musk’s proposed Hyperloop?
Sperling: If it were as fast and cheap as they say—800 miles per hour and $20 to get from the Bay Area to LA—I would be delighted to use it. There would be questions about how safe, secure, and quiet it is, but if it ever lived up to its billing, yes, it would be very attractive. But those chances are slim.
Boom: What is your vision for transportation in 2050?
Sperling: Less urban sprawl so that it is much easier to use neighborhood electric vehicles, biking and walking for local trips. The small electric vehicles might be automated and would operate on electrified lightweight tracks that can be constructed easily and cheaply because the cars would be light. When the vehicles go off the tracks, they would have a small battery or fuel cell that would allow them to go on local streets and travel perhaps thirty miles into rural areas. On top of that, we’d also want to develop a suite of new mobility services that take advantage of modern communication technologies. We’d be able to access demand-responsive vans though smart phones to pick us up within a few minutes—kind of like a SuperShuttle to the airport but with a quicker response and able to access any destination in a metropolitan area, not just airports. We would also have smart carpooling services, so if people are going to a ballgame, or to work, and if they knew their neighbors were also going in that direction, they could carpool. All of these new mobility services exist, but there are all kinds of barriers that inhibit them from being more successful. We have to create incentives to support these companies and not try to quash them. By 2050 I think these transit options will be very common. They will account for a significant share of passenger travel by then.
Boom: As people move closer to the places they work and socialize, will we all be traveling less over the course of our days in 2050?
Sperling: It’s already happening. In California we have a law that encourages reductions in vehicle use and sprawl, with specific targets for 2020 and 2035—the Sustainable Communities Act of 2008. People are traveling less for a variety of reasons, including desire to avoid traffic congestion. But it is also because people go through a lifecycle. When they get married and have kids, they tend to want more space. But after the kids are gone, most people want to revert back to smaller homes, easier access to services and entertainment, and thus more compact land use. If we recognize that many people prefer a lifestyle that is centered on more density, and we built our cities and neighborhoods accordingly, then we would see a dramatic reduction in vehicle use. We would see a great increase in walking and biking, and use of small neighborhood cars as well.
Boom: When will we see public investment to support the infrastructure for these alternative mobility services and vehicles?
Sperling: If we depend on public investment, nothing will happen. It has to be private investment. The cost is not large. Here at UC Davis at the Institute of Transportation Studies, we’ve estimated that the cost of switching to an electric and fuel cell vehicle system would be about $100 billion over fifteen years. That seems like a lot of money, but when you consider that we spend about $500 billion for gasoline per year in the United States and a total of almost $2 trillion every year to own and operate our cars, it’s a drop in the bucket. The question is, where do we find that $10 billion per year? It won’t be through taxpayer subsidies. One way is through feebate programs where car buyers pay fees for gas guzzlers and get rebates for clean, efficient cars—with taxpayers paying little or nothing.
Boom: What will the car-to-person ratio be in 2050?
Sperling: There are currently about eight cars for every ten people—and I think it’s going to be the same in 2050. What will be different are the types of vehicles. There will be many of those small neighborhood cars and automated cars running on lightweight tracks, all of them running on electricity and/or fuel cells. We’re going to continue to have a transportation system based on personal mobility, because that’s what people want.
Boom: What would you put in a time capsule for 2050?
Sperling: I’d insert a Hummer SUV as a symbol of how obscenely inefficient our transport system had become around the turn of the century.