How technology can accelerate the transformation of transportation

April 1, 2021

This column published as "Reimagining the System" in April 2021 issue

Over the last century, we have been improving the U.S. transportation system—but it is far from perfect.

Interstates divide communities. Nearly 37,000 people die on our roads in a typical year. Our sector is responsible for 28% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Before COVID-19, Americans spent more than 100 hours a year on average in traffic. 

Twenty years into the 21st century, technology presents us with an opportunity to reimagine our system and transform outcomes for generations.  

In some ways, COVID gives us a glimpse of what it could look like with reduced greenhouse gas emissions, thanks primarily to less traffic. Bicycle sales, particularly for electric bikes, have soared; it has been great to see more people biking and walking, and we want to encourage using active modes of transportation. When making choices, however, people must consider the risk of getting hit by a car, which happens far too often to vulnerable road users like cyclists and pedestrians. If we broadly deploy vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technologies, we significantly reduce the chances of tragedy striking on rural highways and city streets. 

V2X technologies could eliminate or lessen the severity of up to 80% of non-impaired crashes. The National Safety Council just released estimates that 42,060 people died on our roadways in 2020, which is a shocking jump (8%) over the previous year, particularly given that traffic volumes were down because of the pandemic. With over 4 million estimated injuries last year, in addition to the tragic loss of life, deploying V2X would equate to millions of families being spared pain and loss. We have designed safer vehicles and built safer roads, but we have lost tens of thousands of people every year for decades. The only way to move toward zero deaths is by deploying technology at scale to finally make American roadways as safe as possible. V2X technologies will also help reduce congestion and emissions.   

Electrification and alternative fuel vehicles are also critical to reducing emissions. Traffic is choking neighborhood air, leading to higher rates of childhood asthma and early mortality, particularly in minority communities. Zero-emission vehicles will alleviate the negative health outcomes associated with congestion emissions. Micromobility was not in our vocabulary five years ago. Incentivizing behavior to encourage more people to walk, cycle, and scoot will free up valuable streetscapes with more space for people instead of cars. In addition, micromobility plays a key role in connecting people and neighborhoods long disconnected from fixed-route transit and provides mobility options previously not available to those communities.

Using smart technology has come a long way from signalized traffic lights and variable message boards. Today, technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), predictive analytics, edge computing, digital twinning, and machine learning are being developed and deployed, and some are already making a major impact. The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) and Waycare Tech launched a cloud-based AI system that will increase traffic safety and reduce travel time for area residents. It allows transit agencies, counties, and public safety organizations for the first time to share, view, prepare for, and react to real-time traffic information across 13 central Ohio counties on a single web-based platform. 

While many see autonomous vehicles as just the newest toys for the wealthy, these vehicles can help us work toward more equity in transportation. They can provide needed transportation for those who do not have easy access to public transit, food for those who do not have access to it, and the freedom that comes with mobility for people with disabilities and the aging.  

Just as we must invest in both our physical and digital infrastructure to achieve the benefits of technology, we must also invest in our transportation workforce. New technologies require us to prepare and retrain our workforce. We have an opportunity to keep workers safe, keep the systems resilient, and provide the resources and support necessary to train and develop a workforce that will support our 21st century transportation system.

About The Author: Bhatt is President and CEO at Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America).

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