TRB Summarizes “Critical Issues in Transportation” for 2018

December 7, 2018

The Transportation Research Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has issued a new update of its periodic report, “Critical Issues in Transportation.”

The report, from the TRB Executive Committee, poses a series of challenging questions about potential critical transportation issues that may arise 10 to 20 years into the future. Unlike many TRB reports, this one is short and easily readable. The 63 questions are broken down into 12 subject areas:

  1. Transformational Technologies and Services. The report leads with the hot topics of autonomous vehicles, shared mobility services, TNCs, and a series of sub-questions about the human reaction to such new technologies, and the side effects of those reactions. (My favorite of those sub-questions: “Will transformational technologies encourage more or less low-density residential and commercial location?” It’s awfully hard to plan for future transportation needs if you don’t have an answer to that question.)
  2. Serving a Growing and Shifting Population. Some of the questions in this topic area related to my favorite question in area #1 – what if the Great Recession was an anomaly and urban population growth rates dip back down to their pre-recession levels? What to do about continued rural population decline, especially with a highway network that was largely established in the 1920s to connect rural areas with markets? Are purported “millennial” behavior trends on housing and transportation for real, or not?
  3. Energy and Sustainability. This addresses the usual questions on GHG emissions and electric vehicles, but also on framing the debate: “How can consideration of long-term sustainability goals be better incorporated into public policy debates and decisions about transportation?”
  4. Resilience and Security. These questions deal with the eternal security vs. efficiency tradeoffs, both in the terrorism field and the natural disaster/climate change field. Threats on the security side include drones, and especially GPS vulnerability to spoofing and blocking. And this question: “As a result of more severe massive storms and threats of terrorist attacks, large-scale evacuations will become more common. The transportation system, however, is incapable of evacuating entire metropolitan areas on short notice. What strategies are needed for better preparation, response, communication, and sheltering-in-place on a regional scale?”
  5. Safety and Public Health. This area contains a wide variety of questions, many about the traditional safety missions and the health of transportation operators. But this question is one that I personally have felt for some time needs to be asked more often, given the changing legal environment: “What might expanded legalization of marijuana and increased opioid abuse mean for impaired driving in the years ahead and for appropriate safety responses? In addition, how do other legal and illegal drugs affect driving performance and which drugs should drivers be tested for following incidents and crashes?”
  6. Equity. The questions involve access of the “unbanked” community to TNCs, the shift in poverty levels to suburban areas, and this one in the ETW wheelhouse: “As general revenues and sales taxes replace user fees, it raises basic questions because (1) sales taxes are more regressive than fuel taxes and (2) the funding for transportation services becomes disconnected from its use. What are the implications for both fairness and efficiency resulting from this trend? What are the full consequences of alternative funding mechanisms for transportation to the accessibility of those with the least resources? How can the inequities of existing user fees be ameliorated?”
  7. Governance. This topic area deals with questions on transportation decisions across municipal and state lines, but also with issues that cross the line between government and the private sector, such as who gets access to transportation data.
  8. System Performance and Management. These questions deal with performance measures, system preservation, and life-cycle costs.
  9. Funding and Finance. These are the tough questions, most notably: “How can political support be found for raising the federal motor fuels taxes or introducing alternative user fees to provide public infrastructure that serves interstate travel? What are the consequences of the trend away from user-fee funding and how can states and the nation as a whole steer toward more efficient, effective, sustainable, and equitable forms of user-fee funding for transportation services and systems in the future? How can funding be sustained for modes such as public transportation and inland waterways that cannot rely wholly on user fees?”
  10. Goods Movement. These questions deal with some longstanding freight issues like bottlenecks, port capacity, GHG emissions, and changes in the labor force, but also new questions like this: “How might freight demand change in the future from such varied influences as fundamental changes in trade policies to innovations in manufacturing such as three-dimensional (3D) printing?”
  11. Institutional and Workforce Capacity. These questions are all about shortages – of manpower, of in-house expertise at government agencies, of funding, of diversity.
  12. Research and Innovation. These last four questions deal with access to travel data, building a culture of innovation, developing more transportation teachers and researchers, and allowing unconstrained innovation in the public space.

Once again, that report can be downloaded here.

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