The Economist: How Will we Get Around in 2050?

The future of transportation in Colorado

Transportation and communication systems are fundamental technologies influencing cultures and economies. Our wealth, income and well-being are substantially determined by how far our voice will travel in seconds and how far we can go in a day. This aspect of the post-industrial revolution is often overlooked when considering future well-being and happiness. 

When I first began commuting to Denver in the 1980s, there were traffic jams on I-25 between Denver’s downtown and the Tech Center. In terms of congestion, not much has changed, even though additional lanes and a train were added. As for phones, it was dial-up, no fax or internet, and communication outside the local areas was expensive. This has changed as internet and telecommunication technologies disrupted how we communicate and the associated cost. 

While great strides have been made to decrease effective distances to far-off places, we are still constrained regionally. Internet and cellphone service is still slow and unreliable in exurban mountain areas like Park County, and travel between Colorado’s Front Range cities is bottlenecked even though we can fly halfway around the world in 14 hours. Solving the remaining regional communications challenges will be easier due to technology and lower investment needs. The state Legislature approved $100 million in subsidies to speed up internet in rural areas, while Colorado voters decisively voted down Proposition 109 and 110 to fund major transportation improvements and needed maintenance on state highways. 

The transportation hassles will worsen as deferred maintenance on our roads and bridges continues. The problem is reaching crisis levels due to competing needs for public dollars. If maintenance is deferred long enough, fixes that once required pothole fillers and crack sealing will need substantial road reconstruction. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates 21 percent of Colorado’s public roads are in poor condition and 6 percent of its bridges are structurally deficient. A quick estimate places the cumulative funding deficit for roads and bridges for state, county and local governments in Colorado at more than $30 billion with about half of the deficit being for roads other than major highways. The same relationship can be found nationally where $836 billion in backlogged highway projects were estimated by the ASCE in 2017. 

How will these worsening deficits be addressed? Failing to invest will increasingly shift costs to consumers/ voters whose auto maintenance and waiting in traffic costs will increase. If investment were spread over 10 years, the “catch-up” cost would be about 1 percent of GDP per year. But we still need political commitments. At the federal level, such spending would either add to the deficit, require higher gasoline taxes or substitute for a portion of spending on defense, health, retirement, education or other social programs. If rank were ordered by potential return on investment, surely road and bridge spending would rank high. 

Our continued reluctance to commit will change our everyday world. At the county and municipal levels, there is already talk about reverting to more gravel roads in less-traveled areas. Consumers will substitute one mode for getting together (transporting for a physical visit) with another mode (online high-speed video). This keeps us more confined in our home neighborhoods. It results in more virtual work and internet shopping. With our lives being more localized, pedestrian and bicycle transportation will become more common as will accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists. 

Despite the anticipated return to localization, we will still face the dilemma of paying for what we have in the way of roads and bridges. Smart technologies will lead the way to changing the funding paradigm. With the world of big data, analytics and machine learning, not only will our existing systems become more efficient, we will be able to track individual vehicles and charge everyone according to usage rather than through flat taxes or gasoline taxes. In other words, our entire transportation system will become a toll road. 

Come to think of it, these trends are already observable. Perhaps the future trajectory is not bad. 

Categories: Tech