shutterstock future2Hardly a day passes without websites, newspapers, and TV news trumpeting our entry into an era of “self-driving cars” and “smart everything.” More and more, our everyday lives are digitally connected and facilitated, enabling us to shop from our phones, have up-to-the-minute travel information, and instantly share information with anyone, anywhere. As the digitization of our society grows and computing power becomes more portable and affordable, we continue to rush headlong into a future of both technological promise and societal challenges.

Within this context of technology-enabled and driven innovations and opportunities, the nation’s transportation needs are similarly rapidly evolving. The advances in information technologies and business processes are enabling new forms of integrated transportation services that span multiple modes providing both passenger and freight services. At the same time, planners and researchers need to recognize that the rapid pace of technological change and digital information systems in transportation is occurring largely outside the traditional institutional framework, meaning that the fundamental roles of the public and private sectors are rapidly shifting, with profound implications for long-term governance, operation, and management of mobility services. Perhaps more importantly, just as the e-commerce era has reinvented the world of freight and logistics to an “on-demand” industry, transportation network companies (TNC) and the information technologies associated with them will recast how people think of “mobility,” with less emphasis on mode-specificity and vehicle ownership, and more attention to solutions that enable users to have access to transportation modes on an “as needed” basis, consuming such mobility as a service.

As transportation professionals, we need to view needs and opportunities in the context of how and why the emergence of “mobility as a service” (MaaS) will alter the fundamental roles and operations of state departments of transportation (DOT), metropolitan planning organizations (MPO), and transit agencies. Mobility needs, options, and issues are affected by myriad dynamics, including demographic changes, urban/rural settlement patterns, land use patterns, domestic and international trade, and technology adoption rates. Roles and uses of new propulsion, control, safety, and operations coordination systems can also be viewed within this service model.

We can more fully understand the implications of these dynamics by considering “Alternative Futures” as part of a planning process. In simple terms, this approach allows planners to understand the effectiveness of investments, plans, and/or policies under different long-range future scenarios. With this information, we can anticipate and adjust for potential future changes in technological, economic, demographic, and climate patterns. Given uncertainty about the timing and magnitude of change, it becomes prudent to portray possible futures in terms of both needs and proposed interventions. This enables us to analyze consequences – both direct effects (on adequacy of public and private investments) and broader consequences for urban growth and economic development. A successful analysis of the impacts of alternative futures can both facilitate communication with local partners and stakeholders and encourage meaningful input to the planning process from the public and business communities.

The future is full of both predictable and unpredictable technological possibilities. We can never be 100 percent certain of how technology will affect transportation investment needs and opportunities. We can, however, use our planning tools to gauge the magnitude and direction of this change, thereby providing organizations and communities with a powerful means for understanding possibilities and proactively preparing for a positive future.