How Should We Design the Future of Transportation?

A look ahead at the forces reshaping mobility — and what this means for our cities.

Nov 6 · 8 min read

by Derek A. R. Moore

SOM’s “terminal in a garden” at Bengaluru International Airport is designed to provide an uplifting sensory experience, while merging natural and technological systems to meet ambitious sustainability goals. Image © SOM | ATCHAIN

Technological innovations like delivery drones and autonomous vehicles might seem like tomorrow’s means of conveyance, but do they truly represent the road ahead? The new publication The Future of Transportation compiles insightful short reads on the interventions that are shaping new ways of living and moving. In the introduction to the book, architect Derek A. R. Moore proposes that mobility systems should do more than simply get us from A to B. We must design transportation infrastructure to address some of our greatest global challenges — climate change, rapid urbanization, privacy, and security — while enriching our lives on the journey.

Transportation today is roiled by innovation, disruption, and debate. From all corners of academia, industry, and practice, an extraordinary range of new technologies, structures, and services is being proffered as a utopia of future mobility. In the U.S., we also face a monumental transportation infrastructure deficit, brought on by obsolescence and neglect. Other regions of the world are constructing projects at a furious rate, but according to yesterday’s parameters. At the same time, there is a relentless pressure to reduce the cost of design, construction, and operation, coupled with an obdurate reluctance in many quarters to fund durable improvements. Too often, we see transportation design devolve into an architecture of ephemera, suborned by the worlds of information, advertisement, and monetization. All of this comes at the expense of collective human experience, let alone the opportunity to be “transported.” At this moment of flux, we should take the opportunity to widen the lens — to think broadly about the issues facing transportation design, and to revisit our core principles.

SOM has long been engaged in the planning, design, and engineering of the structures that surround, contain, overarch, or undergird the means of conveyance — airports, rail and bus stations, ferry terminals, bridges — along with the urban realm that they share with people. We hold two foundational tenets for transportation design. First, the architecture of transportation serves a civic purpose, both practical and symbolic: it should be an enduring, meaningful, and life-enhancing part of the public realm. Secondly, transportation design has a critical role to play in combatting climate change. By applying these principles, we can achieve another key outcome: the social equity and economic opportunity that access to transportation enables.

Today, a great deal of attention is focused on the automobile and its infrastructure. Roads, streets, and parking could see the most profound changes in the near future as the spread of “mobility as a service” and transportation network companies (Uber, Lyft, et al.) converges with affordable, electric, autonomous vehicle technology. What then becomes of our sprawling 20th-century legacy of asphalt and concrete? How do we design new cities predicated on a near-complete transition to new technologies and services? Can the space now allocated to parking be reclaimed, and virtually eliminated from new developments? Predictions for how this will play out range from messianic to cynical. Some of the early proposals for complete urban districts designed around these technologies, interwoven with the full array of digital “smart” services, have a decidedly dystopian feel, along with disturbing implications for privacy.

Olalekan Jeyifous contributed a series of illustrations that respond to the themes explored in “The Future of Transportation.” Images © Olalekan Jeyifous

Just as importantly, we must consider how the coming changes align with social and environmental concerns. Omnipresent automobile infrastructure could be further locked in place by electric autonomous vehicles operated by transportation network companies — to the detriment of more efficient and sustainable alternatives: fixed guideway and “thick corridor” transport, including light, heavy, and high-speed rail, trolley and tram, and even bus rapid transit. Some futurists have predicted the demise of rail as we know it, due to the mode’s costs and inflexibility. To be sure, there is less technological innovation in the pipeline for rail (setting aside hyperloop, which contends in entirely different realms of cost and application), but the capacity and speed of rail still make it the right mode for intercity and intraregional transportation, not to mention in large cities where metro systems bring huge benefits.

The key is devising a multimodal network in which each leg of a journey, long or short, is served by the transport mode best suited for it. There is still a compelling role for the autonomous, electric-powered descendants of today’s car within existing settlements shaped by the automobile. Elsewhere, however, new transportation networks will need to be configured in the denser, more energy-efficient urban environments of the immediate future. Let’s also engage a debate about the ownership of these networks — how public can they be, and how private is too restrictive?

The importance of transportation to our lives — and to the planet — is so great that we must treat it as a public benefit, a common space, and essential part of the solution to the challenges we face in the 21st century.

Advances in passenger aircraft have always been the principal drivers of obsolescence in airport and terminal design. The introduction of the Boeing 747 in the late 1960s prompted 50 years of terminal design and construction. Recently, Airbus announced the end of the super-jumbo A380 program, leaving many airports with oversized infrastructure. Longer-range aircraft (Boeing 787 and Airbus 350) are beginning to overfly the lavish transfer hubs of Singapore and the Arabian Gulf, leaving these global airports to contemplate a more regional future. These direct flights could dominate tomorrow’s networks, leaving some very large white elephants in their wake. In the next generation, it would not be surprising to see a completely different class of passenger aircraft, the size and shape of which would drive another 50 years of wholesale infrastructure changes. Does anyone doubt that drones are already scrambling our perception of both ground and air transport?

More illustrations from “The Future of Transportation.” Images © Olalekan Jeyifous

It is imperative that all future modes of transportation be powered with clean energy — whether using batteries, renewables, nuclear, or some technology yet to be invented. After the construction and operation of buildings themselves, transportation is the greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. As designers, we must privilege the solutions that move transportation to net zero. We’re beginning to see progress: a number of airlines are experimenting with biofuels, and an international convention on aircraft carbon emissions has started to take shape. Electric vehicles hold the potential to dramatically reduce emissions in cities. Still, the energy delivery infrastructure must itself be updated to meet the demand of new forms of conveyance — for instance, charging stations must be distributed widely enough to support the use of electric vehicles. As the global middle class — a population with an increasing propensity to travel — continues to grow, a staggering amount of new transportation infrastructure will be needed. A crucial consideration is the environmental cost of building new systems. Can we manage to reduce the total embodied energy — the initial expenditure of energy required for the extraction, processing, manufacture, and delivery of building materials — going into transportation construction while meeting this growing demand?

Mobility, in all its manifestations, is a ubiquitous force in shaping urban form and transportation buildings. We at SOM see it as a force to be humanized through thoughtful design. It should also be universally accessible — a human right, in fact. The importance of transportation to our lives — and to the planet — is so great that we must treat it as a public benefit, a common space, and essential part of the solution to the challenges we face in the 21st century.

This essay is the introduction to The Future of Transportation, the third volume in the SOM Thinkers series. Originating from a desire to start a public conversation about the built environment, the series poses provocative questions and speculations about architecture from perspectives outside its professional culture. The book includes writing by Henry Grabar, Oliver Franklin-Wallis, Laura Bliss, Darran Anderson, Nick Van Mead, Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, Alison Griswold, and Christopher Schaberg, and artwork by Olalekan Jeyifous. Purchase the book here.

Derek A. R. Moore, PhD, AIA, is a Director in the New York office of SOM. He oversees the firm’s Airports and Transportation practice and has played a leading role in the planning and design of large projects for airport and rail terminals in North America, Europe, India, and Asia. Moore holds advanced degrees in the history of art and architecture, and has lectured and published in a number of fields. He is a fellow of the American Academy in Rome and has taught history and theory of architecture at Columbia University.

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