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.