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U.S. Commutes: The Way We Get To Work

What's In Store For Commuting's Future? (Hint: There's Hope)

Originally published on Wed December 25, 2013 6:04 pm

If you want to look into the future of commuting, you need only go to the graduate transportation program at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.

The program's creator, Geoff Wardle, says he started it because he sees a coming tipping point "where all aspects of transportation, whether it's of people or goods, is going to go through some fundamental changes, and we've seen the early signs of that even with the convolutions the automobile industry has been through recently."

In the program's design studio, you can see almost every pie-in-the-sky idea about transportation — some as out there as flying cars to hovercraft. Most are more (ahem) down to earth.

Student Russell Singer is working on a project to crowdsource car design — so instead of going to a big car company you could build your own car that fits your needs.

"What we want to do is get it almost to this level of simplicity, like a Lego car, where you can just kind of plug things together, and you can experiment with the function and the form factor of the vehicle without needing to be an engineer or highly trained transportation designer," Singer says.

The idea is that open-source designing could potentially make it easier to come up with breakthroughs of things like fuel efficiency.

Student David Poblano says one of the most important things he's hoping to see in the future is the connection between social networking and travel.

"The transportations systems and networks that we look at, they have a certain amount of demand and they kind of track how many people get on to the trains at certain times, but they don't necessarily know all the information about how you get from your home to the bus to the subway station to a taxi," he says.

Right now, Poblano says, we're all connected but our transit systems aren't. Think about it: If Facebook knows that you like golf, it'll show you ads for Big Bertha drivers. But if your transportation system knew what percentage of people were going to work on any given day and what direction they were going in, it could change the number signals to divert traffic through less congested streets and add more train cars or buses.

One thing to keep in mind, Wardle says, is that our current transportation is totally unsustainable. For example, 75 percent of commuters drive alone to work. Studies show we're likely to see another peak in the number of vehicles on the road.

"So as well as making life much better for people who commute, making it a much more seamless part of their everyday lives, we have to figure out how to do that in a way that this planet can support, " Wardle says.

That's something car designers and transportation designers might not have thought of in the past. And student David Day Lee says the biggest problem in transportation isn't really design or infrastructure; it's the way we think.

Consider how much the phone has changed, for instance. "This has become the device through which people do business, the device through which people can capture precious moments," Lee says. "And so, in the same way, mobility could be reimagined as a platform around which we can bring about changes."

For these changes to happen, all the students assume that to some degree or another our cars will be driving themselves. And every step toward driverless cars opens up a new realm of possibility for what your commute could be like. It changes everything.

Student Calvin Ku says he sometimes holds out little hope that commutes can improve. But, he says, solving transportation problems is akin to fighting a disease. "We can't stand in the corner and just crawl into a ball and hope it goes away," he says. "And you can see the range of ways of tackling transportation problems in [the graduate design studio], with these people here. If we can collectively work together, I think we can solve these problems."

That's the message from these students of transportation: Your commute will definitely get better. It has to.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning I'm David Greene.

Well, not a whole lot of traffic on the roads this holiday or suburban trains on the move, and that's a relief for many Americans who spend so many mornings trying to get from point A to point B. on this program recently, we've been exploring how Americans commute. Seventy-five percent of commuters now drive to work alone. In a minute, we'll look ahead to the future of commuting by car.

But first, let's go back over 40 years to hear how some elementary school students imagined today's commute.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Cars of tomorrow may be self-driven and self-cleaned.

GREENE: The car of tomorrow as envisioned by a fifth grader at Meadows School in Baldwin, New York in 1967. That recording was made during a school assembly, buried in a time capsule, then pulled out in the year 2000.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: A chauffeured-driven limousine for busing. Who knows? Maybe our sidewalks will move so no walking will be necessary.

GREENE: From chauffeured limousines for buses to moving sidewalks. And, of course, any young person who watched the futuristic cartoon "The Jetsons" - I did - might have predicted this:

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: In the year 2000, it will cars that run on fuel and oxygen. The cars won't have any wheels. They will look like flying saucers. The oxygen and fuel will make it fly like a rocket.

GREENE: Lofty predictions then for now but what's possible for the car of tomorrow? To find out, NPR's Sonari Glinton spent some time with graduate school students who are helping to create the future of transportation.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: If you want to look into the future, you need only go to Pasadena, California.

GEOFF WARDLE: Yeah this is our graduate transportation studio. We've got also a conference teaching room there, and there's a class...

GLINTON: That's Geoff Wardle. He runs the Graduate Transportation program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Art Center has long been known for car design because, well, car companies hire people. Wardle started this new program because recently he's come to believe that we are coming toward a tipping point when it come to transportation.

WARDLE: Where all aspects of transportation - whether it's people or goods - is going to go through some fundamental changes. And we've seen the early signs of that, even with the convolutions that the automobile industry has been through recently.

GLINTON: So in their studio, you can see almost every pie-in-the-sky idea about transportation. Some are as out there as flying cars - yup, there's still hope for that one - to hovercraft.

RUSSELL SINGER: Most are...

GLINTON: Down to Earth. Russell Singer is working on a project to crowdsource car design. So instead of going to a big car company you could build your own car that fits the needs of you and your exact location.

SINGER: But we want to do is get it almost to this level of simplicity, like a Lego car, where you can just kind of plug things together. And you can experiment with the function and the form factor of the vehicle without needing to be an engineer or highly trained transportation designer.

GLINTON: The idea that open-source designing could potentially make it easier to come up with breakthroughs on things like fuel efficiency. Meanwhile David Pablano says one of the most important things he's hoping to see in the future is the connection between social networking and travel.

DAVID PABLANO: The transportations systems and networks that we look at, they have a certain amount of demand and they kind of track how people get on to the trains at certain times. But they don't necessarily know all the information about how you get from your home to the bus to the subway station and to a taxi.

GLINTON: So right now, Pablano says we're all connected but our transit systems aren't. Think about it, if Facebook knows that you like golf it'll show you ads for Big Bertha drivers. But your transportation system, if it knew what percentage of people were going to work on any given day and what direction they were going in, it could change the number signals to divert traffic through less congested streets, add more train cars or buses.

WARDLE: I would say, the one big topic which is not been mentioned...

GLINTON: Geoff Wardle, the professor, interrupts our big ideas discussion.

WARDLE: ...is the fact that what we're doing at the moment, whether we like it or not, is totally unsustainable. So as well as making life much better for people who commute, making it a much more seamless part of their everyday lives, we have to figure out how to do that in a way that this planet can support,

GLINTON: See, that's something that car designers and transportation designers might not have thought of in the past. David Day Lee says the biggest problem in transportation isn't really design, or infrastructure - it's the way we think. Think about how much the phone has changed, for instance.

DAVID DAY LEE: This has become the device through which people do business, device through which people can capture precious moments. And so, in the same way, mobility could be re-imagined as a platform around which we can bring about changes.

GLINTON: For these changes to happen, all the students assume that to some degree or another our cars will be driving themselves. And every step toward driverless cars opens a new realm of possibility for what your commute could be like. It changes everything.

Calvin Ku, one of the grad students, essentially turned the microphone on me then.

CALVIN KU: Do you feel there's hope for transportation?

GLINTON: I don't.

(LAUGHTER)

GLINTON: Well, I drive in Los Angeles. I have no hope.

KU: I can, you know, sometimes feel the same way. I see it from my point of view as almost fighting a disease. We can't stand in the corner and hope it goes away. And you can see the range of ways of tackling transportation problems in this very room with these people here. If we can collectively work together, I think we can solve these problems. And Los Angeles is not without hope.

GLINTON: That is the message from these students of transportation; your commute will definitely get better. It has to.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Culver City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.