Beyond Concrete and Rails to a Safer, Less Congested Future

The same week that Uber revealed more about its plans for flying cars, a plan to build a new light-rail line in Austin was “leaked” to the press. You have to give rail planners credit–they won’t give up on their dreams of bringing 19th-century technology back to the future. 

It was only three years ago or so that Austinites rejected going $600 million into debt to build a 9.5 mile, $1.4 billion light-rail line. You might have thought that when Texans went to the polls the next year to approve spending billions of their hard-earned tax dollars each year to build more roads, the rail advocates might have given up. 

The thing is, though, that despite the different outcomes, spending billions on engineering and concrete isn’t all that more up to date than putting rails down the middle of Austin’s Lamar Boulevard–or between Houston and Dallas. Both reflect an outdated approach to transportation—hardly the direction a city and state already serving as 21st-century leaders should be heading.

In 2016, 3,773 people were killed while traveling on Texas roads, more than died from either homicide, breast cancer, or non-traffic injuries. Yet there was no large public outcry blaming government for these deaths–as would surely have happened if private businesses operated the roads. We simply accept the fact that people are going to die on government owned and operated roads.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but re-adopting 19th-century rail technology isn’t going to reduce traffic deaths—or congestion. By the 1940s, Austin and other Texas cities had eliminated trolley lines—the urban rail of the day—and replaced them with buses, which are less expensive, more flexible in their routes, and thus can carry more passengers than rail. Today, though, Austin wants to stand athwart history by spending billions of dollars to replace buses with rail rather than investing in ways to reduce congestion and make roads safer. 

At least the choice Texas voters had might actually help reduce congestion to some extent by building more roads. But billions of dollars per year of increased spending on concrete and engineers without reform of our transportation still represent 20th-century thinking that ignores the great advances in transportation technology that are already appearing today.

Most of us have cars today that can control our speed or tell us when other cars or objects are too close. Some cars can already drive with little help, and fully-autonomous cars aren’t that far behind. Uber expects to be operating its flying cars by 2023. In 20 years the way we think about transportation will have completely changed.

Many may see such claims as fantasy. But the same rapid pace saw the adoption of cars go from zero to 60 from 1895 to 1915. The same is true for personal computers from 1975 to 1995. The adoption of new technology often surprises us, yet before we know it, it becomes the new normal.

The new normal for transportation will change our lives dramatically. Cars will travel down highways at high speeds within a few feet of each other, greatly reducing congestion even during rush hour–when they are not flying over our heads. Traffic lights for cars will disappear—computers won’t need them. One hour commutes will drop to 30 minutes, with the “driver” being able to read emails or reports on the way. More importantly, deaths at the hands of drivers—including drunk drivers—will rapidly diminish.

All of this requires new investment, though, which means that we need to change our spending habits to pave the way for this future.

Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute recommends that we eliminate funding for rail projects, end centralized, long-range transportation planning, and stop efforts by the government to mandate new technologies in cars.

Instead, Texas should “cooperate in the development and use of consistent road striping, sign, signal, and similar standards that can be read by autonomous vehicles.” Additionally, the Texas Department of Transportation should turn road design and construction over to the private sector and focus on directing state transportation funds toward this future.

We are not finished building new roads. But Texas’ roads of the future will be far safer and move traffic far more efficiently if we are willing to change our ways and let the market lead the way. Who knows, maybe one day we can get government out of the transportation business altogether. 

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