Transportation infrastructure and the internet have a lot in common. Both are networks of pathways that ferry things from place to place. For transportation systems, those things are people and goods. For the internet, they’re packets of data. Both have to handle multiple types of traffic across multiple mediums. For transportation, there are cars and roadways, planes and runways, trains and railways, boats and waterways. For the internet, there are bits of electromagnetic signals transmitted through fiber, cables and radio waves. Both are experiencing increasing rates of usage that threaten capacity. For transportation, much of that usage is due to growingfreight demand from e-commerce. For the internet, it’s largely due to growing video consumption. Most important, both serve a critical connective function and are vital to the social and economic welfare of the nation.
Unlike the internet, however, our transportation network’s capacity woes cost the U.S. economy $305 billion in 2017. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ Infrastructure Report Card gave the country’s transit systems a D- grade and its roads and aviation infrastructure Ds. As private and public infrastructure leaders look to address these deficiencies, they would do well to look to the internet for strategies on how to improve transportation efficiency.
When it comes to roads, for instance, two out of every five urban interstates face issues with congestion, with trucks accounting for around 7 percent of that traffic but nearly 18 percent of congestion costs. Due to their larger size, slower acceleration and additional safety considerations, trucks have a disproportionate impact on the roads they share with cars, buses and emergency vehicles. Our roads today force all of these different types of traffic into a single channel at a time. Although roads have lanes, these lanes typically do nothing to separate different types of traffic, and specialty lanes like bus lanes or carpool lanes aren’t universal and not every type of traffic has one. Yet, why should all of these types of traffic share the same lanes or even the same roadways? The internet, conversely, uses a number of approaches that compartmentalize traffic temporally and spatially to mitigate congestion and safeguard efficiency.
One such technique is multiplexing, which uses a number of different methods to combine multiple data signals so they’re easier to send through a single channel such as a cable or fiber optic. Space-division multiplexing essentially assigns each signal a distinct physical pathway within a larger channel. Time division multiplexing transmits different datasets in alternating sequences to prevent clogging the channel. Frequency-division multiplexing and wavelength-division multiplexing send signals together but at different frequencies to avoid congestion. Another approach to ensuring efficient signal communication is the allocation of spectrum for different radio frequencies. In the United States, the FCC assigns various frequency bands to types of wireless traffic. WiFi internet as an example has two bands, 2.4GHz and 5GHz. This ensures your WiFi signal isn’t impeded by AM or FM radio signals.
While one could argue that today’s transportation landscape includes multiple channels in the form of long-haul, intermediate and local transit options, these systems are still largely fragmented and could hardly be called a network in most cases. For example, many high-volume airports like LAX, LGA and IAH still aren’t connected to intermediate transit options, despite the fact that Los Angeles, New York and Houston all have light rail systems (although development of a Metro rail station at LAX has been underway since 2014). Instead, people flying into these ports of call have to rely on cars and buses—methods of transportation that are often excruciating at peak times and are better suited for last-mile transit.
The internet, on the other hand, consists of a series of interconnected and interdependent networks that each play a role in moving data across the country and distributing it to individual customers. Tier 1 networks like GTT Communications and Level 3 Communications, which was taken over by CenturyLink in 2017, own and operate the internet’s primary fiber lines. These are the net’s main pathways that connect people across countries and across continents. Tier 1 networks pass on data to intermediary Tier 2 networks, which typically pay to access to the Tier 1 fiber. The Tier 2 networks then sell access to Tier 3 networks—the internet service providers that sell directly to customers, such as Charter, Comcast and Cox. Each of the networks in this arrangement serve an important function. Tier 1’s typically move traffic over long distances, Tier 2’s distribute that traffic at a more local level and Tier 3’s carry it the last-mile to the customer.
Interestingly, the transportation systems of the future could look a lot more like the internet than the ones we have today. Private companies are working to increase the number of actual channels available to us and create a more networked model. Companies like Uber, Airbus, Boeing and Rolls-Royce (the manufacturer of jet engines, not the automotive brand which has been licensed by BMW since 1998) are all working on vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicles that will turn low altitude airspace into a viable transportation channel. Emerging high-speed ground transit options like Musk-inspired Hyperloop concepts and Boring Co’s Express Loop are also looking to offer alternatives to cars, trains and airplanes. Beyond creating new channels for traffic, these technologies will improve how people move from city to city and within cities, pushing transportation closer to the edge, similar to how edge computing is pushing data processing closer to the end user.
The transportation networks of tomorrow may see high-speed options like the Hyperloop compete for the Tier 1-like role that airplanes serve today. Hyperloop transit would bring “Tier 1” transit closer to the edge by eliminating the need for space-inefficient airports that need to be built miles away from the urban center. On a more local level, VTOL taxis may play a Tier 2-like function, moving people across a metropolitan area faster than commuter trains and light rail systems and integrating more seamlessly with airports. Uber has actually already started considering how its flying taxis will interface with airports. VTOL vehicles would alleviate congestion on the ground by distributing traffic across more channels and reserving roads solely for last-mile transport and freight delivery. These flying taxis would also provide a faster means of moving across town or from neighborhood to neighborhood, enabling people to get farther on a single pathway rather than having to navigate a series of highways and side roads. They’re also more modular than light rail systems, requiring a lower footprint and fewer fixed assets. Within a municipality, autonomous cars and buses may perform Tier 3-like duties, ferrying people the last mile and depositing them at their destination. Together, these technologies could offer a more integrated transportation network in which each channel specializes in a specific use case, rather than the current amalgam of overlapping systems that sacrifice efficiency for optionality.
This vision for transportation would have varying degrees of impact on different cities. In highly condensed urban areas like New York City, for example, walking will likely continue to serve as the go-to last-mile option. In sprawling cities like Houston, however, a multi-tiered and multi-modal network could have a transformative impact on urban mobility. In fact, the advent of these types of technologies may do far more to drive economic activity in geographically diffuse cities than densely developed ones.
Admittedly, the comparison between our transportation systems and the internet is an imperfect and flawed analogy, but one that can nonetheless catalyze more creative systems-level thinking. It’s vital that public and private sector infrastructure leaders take a more holistic and networked view of our transportation infrastructure. Rather than simply treat transportation as a series of options to get different types of people from place to place, we need to look at it as an interconnected set channels optimized for different functions. In that sense, we need the future of transportation to look, at least structurally, more like the internet.