“It’s critical that we understand the significance of things that are taking place and prepare for what may come,” said former Utah Department of Transportation CEO John Njord in the opening session of the 25th Annual CTS Transportation Research Conference. “For us to be relevant in the transportation business, at a minimum we have to be adaptable to change, and ideally we want to be leading change in the transportation industry.”
In his current position at Tom Warne and Associates, Njord has gained an in-depth understanding of the trends affecting the future of transportation in the United States while spearheading the Transportation Research Board’s “Foresight” project—part of the organization’s forward-looking NCHRP Report 750 Series. The project addresses a wide range of topics, including: What if the oil-fueled auto era ends and revenue from gas taxes dries up? What if engineering practices must be upgraded to ensure resiliency to natural disasters as global warming continues? What if technology such as self-driving cars eliminates or reduces the need for human drivers? What if tomorrow’s economy requires radically different freight patterns?
Perhaps most significantly, the project explores the possibility that Americans are losing their appetite for driving. Vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) per capita been dropping since 2004, without any signs of recovery. "It’s impossible to know whether that number will start growing again, stay flat, or continue to drop,” Njord said.
Other trends make the future outlook equally complex. In 50 years the United States will likely be home to 100 million more people, so even if VMT per person stays flat or declines, it’s likely total VMT will be larger than it is today. The population is also aging: by 2030, 20 percent of the population will be over 65 and will likely drive less. In addition, Millenials are staying home longer and waiting until later in life to get married and have children—all of which affects their travel behavior.
To help transportation planners consider all possible futures, the Foresight project encourages the use of multiple-scenario planning. “We need to begin considering all the possible scenarios and generating plans that are independent and distinct from one another,” Njord advised. “The act of thinking about these things is fundamentally important, because the shift that is now taking place means we’re going to have to do things much differently in the next 50 years than what we’ve done in the past 50 years.”