Why The Future Of Transportation Depends On Changing Infrastructure

Oct 15, 2015
Originally published on October 15, 2015 6:42 pm

The combustion engine is dominant. In the United States, according to the latest estimates from the Census, more than 76 percent of us get to work alone in a car. The numbers are not quite as lopsided in some big cities, where public transit and other options are more widely available.

But in urban planning circles, many people look at growing urban populations and the congestion on city streets with concern. What will be the transportation mode of the future?

University of Rochester astrophysicist and NPR commentator and blogger, Adam Frank, thinks about cities from a planetary point of view. He's interested in the effect that our urban environments have on the natural one. He's thinking about climate change. He tells NPR's Kelly McEvers to have a more environmentally friendly form of transportation, we have to create new infrastructure first.

This interview is part of the NPR Cities Project.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Think about this today as you're heading home from work or wherever you're going - how would you get there 20 years from now? The future of transportation is the subject of this round of the NPR Cities Project.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Becoming a world-class city.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Keep the transit system running.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We have to move people a lot more efficiently.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Come take a ride of the future.

MCEVERS: Right now in the 21st century, we rely on networks to get around, networks of roads and railways, networks of power lines and pipelines that provide energy to those roads and railways. And to get where we're going, we rely on all of that infrastructure without even thinking about it. NPR science blogger and University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank has been thinking about it, and he's with us now.

Hi Adam.


MCEVERS: OK so you think a lot about infrastructure. Why should we think a lot about infrastructure?

FRANK: Well, there's one basic reason, which is that, you know, there's all the calls to rebuild the infrastructure that we built in the last century because a lot of it is crumbling. But there's even a deeper and more important reason, which is that climate change is basically pushing us to the need to have different ways of getting around, and that means we need to rebuild the networks that you were talking about in order to get that done.

MCEVERS: OK. So Adam, where are you exactly?

FRANK: So to start with, I'm standing on the Erie Canal Towpath. The canal, right here in front of me, got started here in 1808. Back then this was the cutting edge in transportation. It was how goods and people got moved by barge across New York. But, of course, to do that they had to build the canal first.

MCEVERS: OK Adam, it sounds like there's something else there too.

FRANK: Yeah. Well, running across the canal is a railroad bridge. That's where I'm standing right now. It's part of the railroad lines that came along though Rochester in the 1800s, and there's a train coming right now. So these trains - like the one that's just running under me - they became the new thing, and the canal became the old thing. And it was these rail networks that became the main way of moving people and goods. But, of course, you couldn't have the rail networks without all of the infrastructure being built underneath it.

MCEVERS: OK this sounds like a history lesson - the canals and then the railroads. What else are you looking at, Adam?

FRANK: All right. Well, beyond the canal and the railroad, I can see I-390, which is part of the national infrastructure of highways that were built starting in the 1950s. And beyond them, I can see airplanes flying over, and they're landing just beyond the hill at the Rochester International Airport.

So you got the canal, the railroad, the highway and airport. And each one is a system, right? It's an infrastructure built at enormous cost out of metal and stone. And each one is a product of enormous human genius, all of them designed to sort of service civilization, move goods and information around as quickly and efficiently as possible.

MCEVERS: OK so we started with canals then we went to railroads then we went to highways. I mean, it sounds like we keep - you know, we're keeping up with the times. I mean, what's the problem?

FRANK: Yeah. Well, here's the thing, right? We seem to be standing at a pretty singular moment in human history. We've been building these infrastructures, you know, ever since we started building cities 6,000 years ago - canals of ancient Sumer, the roads in ancient Rome, ports in Elizabethan England. Each one came along with - as opportunities, and new technologies appeared.

So yeah, our cities, fueled by fossil fuel, are really no different. But now there is something which is different. Now we've realized that, you know, this old infrastructure that we're using -which, you know, helps us get around - is also driving the planet into climate change. We keep burning that fossil fuel because we have this huge infrastructure for transportation built around it.

MCEVERS: OK so what would a new infrastructure look like?

FRANK: Well, so the thing is, we have to switch infrastructures again. It may seem sort of overwhelming, but on one level - and that's sort of the point of being here today - it's not that big a deal. I'm looking at four different examples of infrastructure we've built in the last 200 years, and we've built them pretty fast. So think about the fact that in 1890, there were no gas stations, and then by 1920, there were gas stations everywhere. We're able to change these infrastructures pretty fast when we need to. And so I think the interesting thing is that this is the first time that we have to think about the planet as a whole, not just efficiency and speed. And, you know, as an astronomer, I think that's pretty cool.

MCEVERS: That's astrophysicist Adam Frank.

Thanks so much.

FRANK: My pleasure.

MCEVERS: You can catch more of Adam's commentary about science and society at npr.org. The blog is called 13.7 Cosmos and Culture, and the Cities Project is on Twitter at @NPRCities. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.