The Commute of The Future

The commute of the future may include more tollways and smaller, electric cars.

February 8, 2009, 9:56 AM

Feb. 8, 2009 — -- The clogged traffic lanes along the nation's highways serve as a headache for millions of commuters, who spend an estimated 4.2 billion hours a year stuck in traffic. But the problem isn't a new one; in fact it goes back centuries.

"Caesar was having trouble with carts and chariots cluttering the streets during the day so he says, 'Ok, you're only allowed to come in at night.' This brings up a new problem; people are having trouble sleeping because of all the horses' hoofs at night," said Tom Vanderbilt, author of "Traffic."

But the solution to less congested highways and byways may come at a price.

"Highways will become toll roads. Your credit card will be constantly refilling the little box on your windshield that will be charged by the mile," said Chris Leinberge, an urban planning expert at the Brookings Institute.

Every errand, every outing literally would count, as the meter ticked away for each second you spend on the interstate.

"Imagine a kind of system where there's monitoring of traffic congestion in real time on a block-by-block basis and then prices are adjusted in real time on a block-by-block basis," said MIT Media lab professor William J. Mitchell. "So if you decide to run errands at rush hour, you'll pay more. And if you want to use the fast lane, you'll pay more."

While personal cars certainly always will be part of commuting, many cities have turned to public transportation to ease traffic woes.

Portland, Ore. has streetcars and Ithaca, N.Y. wants to try rail pods as a push for more foot and bicycle traffic, complete with dedicated bus lanes and creative light rail.

But as the satirical newspaper The Onion put it, 98 percent of Americans support mass transportation for others.

But the urban planners at MIT are betting commuters will be more likely to take the train, if there's an easy way to get from the train station to the office.

"Instead of everybody driving a private automobile, you'll start to see kinds of systems where you have stacks of vehicles around the city; where you walk up to a stack, pick up a vehicle, drive it to where you want to go and drop it off. It's like having valet parking everywhere," Mitchell said. Personal cars also will be smaller, lighter and electric. Dean Kaman is working on a tiny car made of plastic that can run on any fuel, including cow dung.

Yet smarter cars are only half of the equation. We also need smarter roads.

"Ninety percent of the roads and not congested 90 percent of the time," Vanderbilt said.

So it's not a lack of roads; it's the rhythm of our lives. Only 15 percent of American kids walk to school these days and many people don't hesitate to burn a gallon of gas to go get a gallon of milk.

This is part of what inspired Kaman to invent the Segway. He believed that the car is great for highway travel, but all wrong for city commuting.

The Segway was the biggest transportation breakthrough to come to market in a generation. When it launched, the maker hoped to sell 40,000 Segways annually -- but not as many have been sold in eight years. And the design wonder has become a comedic prop.

"You know the first time somebody got in a car they were ridiculed," Kaman said. "When you look at the first application of any technology is looks different. Most people don't like different. Most people don't like change."

While commuters wait for change to come to their traffic problems, they can take lessons from ants -- the most successful commuters on the planet.

Their colonies are more populous than Los Angeles or New York City, yet they go to work each day with no traffic jams and no road rage. That's because ants are of one mind. They all cooperate in service of the queen.

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