When it comes to infrastructure, governments, private developers and transit authorities invest heavily in planning for the long term. In order to optimize their investments, they must analyze the past, integrate current trends, and extrapolate for the future.

This analytical process becomes less clear, however, when planning for the future of transportation has to account for disruptive technology. Expanding our capacity for mobility will certainly spawn enormous potential benefits, but it remains to be seen whether or not this will put more vehicles on the road, and cause more congestion and more headaches.
What is clear is that we are no longer speculating about a far-off future, and it is important to consider all potential solutions in any long-term planning.

“The risk is that, without a proper plan, the window of opportunity to prepare for automated vehicles is closing,” says Rachel Skinner, Development Director in the UK for WSP and author of the guide Making Better Places. “It isn’t a debate about whether or not the technology is coming, but rather what we are going to do to accommodate it when it arrives.”

The Smartphone Revolution

Thirty years ago, those who envisioned the Internet as we know it today were met with more skepticism than encouragement. Today, smartphones have emerged as powerful computing devices, revolutionizing the concept of mobility.

Smartphones already play an important role in transportation, providing commuters with Bluetooth connectivity, GPS and mapping systems, bus and subway schedules, digital boarding passes, mobile parking payment – the applications are endless.

“There are a lot of moving pieces and it’s not just your car that is becoming more automated,” notes Steve Kuciemba, National ITS Practice Leader in the US for WSP. “The whole concept of mobility has evolved. Technology and connectivity are much more important today than they were a few years ago.”

With that in mind, how can officials responsible to plan the transportation infrastructure of the future be better prepared? What key factors must they take into account?

“We do risk analysis, build scenarios and develop transport modelling based on existing land use patterns and how people move around,” explains Mr. Kuciemba. “We plot all journeys on the network and we try to understand where and how people will move around 20 years from now.” In fact, transport agencies already have a pretty good grasp of the major trends that are shaping the future of transportation.

“There is a measured and sustainable growth in population, and there is also a farmland protection policy in place that we must respect,” explains Antoine Belaieff, Director, Regional Planning at Metrolinx, the agency that coordinates transport in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area.

Up to 5 Years

“The first thing to accept is that the future is going to be very different,” notes Lauren Isaac,  formely Manager of Sustainable Transportation in the US for WSP, and the author of Driving Toward Driverless. “If a government agency is building something today, it needs to plan 30 years ahead with the idea that connected and automated vehicles will be available and could lead to fewer cars on the roads.”

While having fewer cars on the road is a long-term goal, how can automated vehicles be integrated into short-term transportation planning? “Investment is a very long process in transportation and, once you’re committed, it’s hard to change it,” says Antoine Belaieff. “Before you invest, you want to make sure that your decision is the right one.”

Mr. Belaieff suggests that autonomous vehicles can be short distance transportation solutions that will support commuter trains and subways, rather than replace them. In the meantime, transport agencies still need to plan for parking facilities to accommodate people who are using commuter trains.

The challenge lies in planning for those current needs, while taking into account that these structures may not have the same use in fifteen years. “I can start looking for answers with the objective of having better knowledge of the possibilities and their associated costs in two or three years.”

However, one of the most pressing issues facing transport agencies is that they must become more flexible by adapting their cultures and structures to an evolving future. “Today, most transportation organizations have three departments - planning, operations, and maintenance – and they don’t necessarily work together,” explains Steve Kuciemba. “Shouldn’t we be preparing organizations to be capable of reacting rapidly to changing environments and to work closely together?”

10-15 Years

When it comes to the future of transportation, multi-tiered planning is essential. There needs to be a focus on the larger, less certain possibilities of the future, while planning in the short term for current needs and gradual adaptations.

When Metrolinx, Canada’s largest transportation agency, wanted a framework to guide its next steps and to help identify possible future actions, it turned to Daniel Haufschild and WSP.

The collaboration produced a thought provoking white paper called New Mobility. The report’s conclusion was clear: “The impact of changes to policy often take time to implement, and each new line on a rapid transit map requires years of planning, engineering, design, and construction before any of the benefits can be realized.”

“If Metrolinx wants to ensure that the changing mobility landscape is one that will benefit the region as a whole, then they must take the lead in setting up the framework,” says Daniel Haufschild, Vice-President, Urban Mobility Transit Planning for WSP in Canada.

Again, a quote from New Mobility: “Policies should be developed to proactively address land that may become available due to changing infrastructure needs such as reduced demand for parking facilities. More generally, this means planning in a way that enables mobility choices and technological advancements to work towards a public good.”

20 Years and Beyond

Transport agencies and transit authorities understand that three major factors may have significant impacts on future development: electrification, automation, and the sharing economy. And while it may be premature to alter engineering standards in order to accommodate automated vehicles today, anyone planning infrastructure needs to add an element of flexibility to their visions.

“They need to recognize that even though there might be a 20 to 30-year plan, they must be prepared because technology and markets evolve,” says Scott Shogan, Connected/Automated Vehicle Market Leader in the US for WSP.

By remaining flexible in their planning, transportation authorities can have an important say in this changing environment. “We have let the traditional automobile shape our cities.” says Scott Benjamin, Principal ITS Engineer for WSP in Australia. “This time, we must look at the challenges surrounding land use in a larger, holistic way in order to make the right decisions.”

Planning - quote skinnerScott Benjamin’s envisions infrastructure where traffic will flow in areas that have the least impacts. He sees city centers working to minimize traffic on urban roadways and other areas where there are high levels of pedestrian and cyclist traffic. “We need to establish a more sophisticated form of hierarchy which takes these needs into consideration.”

That is exactly the vision that Scott Benjamin’s team is implementing with Austroads, the Association of Australian and New Zealand Road Transport and Traffic Authorities, with a mandate to identify opportunities for automated vehicles in Australia and New Zealand.

Congestion, pollution, and other negative aspects of traditional vehicles must be dealt with. In fact, for transportation authorities, the time to plan for the future is now. Decisions must be taken swiftly to ensure that the window of opportunity to impact the implementation of self-driving vehicles remains open.

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