Deep integration of equity, sustainability, and safety – and a good dose of creativity – will be needed to realize the efficient mobility solutions of tomorrow
On June 29, 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, a massive investment in mobility that drove commerce, tourism, and prosperity across the entire continental United States. The interstate system also contributed to the decline of unconnected cities, divided once vibrant neighborhoods, and often unfairly displaced people of color. Today, our roadways are decaying, cars and trucks produce 22.4% of the greenhouse emissions that contribute to climate change, and traffic pollution has been correlated to childhood asthma and cardiovascular diseases. We must do better with the next evolution in transportation innovation and rely on inclusive partnerships to drive more equitable outcomes.
Recently, I joined the advisory board of the Mobility Innovation Center (MIC) at CoMotion. The MIC’s mission is to catalyze the partnerships that will help build the transportation system of the future. This is an exciting time to think about transportation as we are amidst a great transformation about how people and goods move – one affected by remote work, news cycles, social media, and population growth. The cost of doing nothing is significant. For example, the Virtual Coordination Center (VCC) cloud-based system, developed with support from the MIC, enables public agencies to share a common virtual workspace during transportation emergencies in the I-5 corridor where every minute of lane blockage leads to four to ten minutes of traffic congestion and millions of dollars in lost economic value.
Technological innovation has a pivotal role to play in addressing transportation grand challenges. Among these, how do we efficiently and inexpensively move freight and folks? How do we connect low-income and underserved communities with high-paying jobs and metro areas? How do we reduce greenhouse emissions and pollution? How do we create a resilient infrastructure that adapts to nonlinear demands in use, and withstands natural disasters and severe weather patterns aggravated by climate change?
There has been much progress in the “greening” of transportation over the past decade. The Paris Accords, state-level policies, and customer demand have incentivized established companies, upstarts, and startups to develop better batteries and better power management algorithms like the software built by UW spinoff BattGenie. Vehicles of all sizes – from airplanes to buses, cars and trucks, and micro-mobility devices such as e-bikes and scooters – have benefited from these advances. What’s more, dynamic and inductive charging capabilities are being built right into roadways and the prospect of inexpensive green hydrogen as a replacement fuel holds much promise for deep decarbonization
This is, however, just the tip of the iceberg. Consider, for example, roads that are robotically printed or constructed from self-assembling building blocks. Imagine these roads undergoing self-healing or surface reconfiguration in response to physical damage or change in the weather. Picture ubiquitous sensors interfacing with the power and data lines that follow transportation corridors right-of-way to broadcast real-time information about local conditions to approaching traffic. And contemplate a network of terrestrial, aerial, and aquatic vehicles communicating with one another and with the hub cities envisioned by Cascadia Vision 2050 to enable seamless movement of goods and facilitate everyone’s access to rewarding jobs, quality healthcare, and the natural beauty of the greater Pacific Northwest.
With the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and Move Ahead Washington, new funding is available to support transportation and mobility that improves livability and quality of life in communities built through the lens of equity. The path ahead will require public-private partnerships like the ones that the MIC is tasked with accelerating. It will also take the creative juices of our community of innovators at the University of Washington. CoMotion stands ready to help.
UW Vice Provost for Innovation and Director of CoMotion