When a futuristic concept makes you go, ‘Whoa’

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Evening traffic on I-285 in Atlanta. (photographer: Hyosub Shin / hshin@ajc.com)
Evening traffic on I-285 in Atlanta. Will this interstate one day be filled with "Google cars"? (photographer: Hyosub Shin / hshin@ajc.com)

Evening traffic on I-285 in Atlanta. Will this interstate one day be filled with “Google cars”? (photographer: Hyosub Shin / hshin@ajc.com)

Imagine metro Atlanta 13 years from now being used as a testing ground for Google cars, “G-Roads” and other futuristic leaps in transportation.

If you can’t, a very forward thinker at New York University can.

A recent article in New York University Alumni Magazine reveals the bold visions of Anthony Townsend, senior research scientist at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

Townsend’s study, “Reprogramming Mobility,” explores the potential digital transformation of transportation in the United States by proposing scenarios for four locales known for their nightmarish traffic — Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles and New Jersey.

Here is Townsend’s scenario, in a nutshell, for Atlanta 2028:

“As a city defined by sprawl, Atlanta has stretched its tentacles even farther. Google is using the metropolis as a testing ground, selling electric autonomous vehicles and offering suburban homeowners solar panels to charge them. It gives drivers the option of working during their commute — and never, ever having to stop for gas. Google also has permits to operate several toll lanes of highway, restricting them to self-driving cars. These G-Roads can even charge cars’ batteries, and Google, which lays fiber-optic networks and owns the Nest home energy management system, works with contractors to build private housing developments for a complete domestic ecosystem. Thanks to automatic garages and Uber taxis, unused suburban parking lots have been taken over, creating dense, walkable edge cities.

But all is not well in Hotlanta: For those not zipping (and zapping) along on the G-Roads, congestion has grown worse. “Smart home” neighborhoods are exclusive, and those who can’t afford an autonomous vehicle are left with a floundering public transit system or Uber cars, which increasingly avoid poor areas. What’s more, it’s not clear that this experimental system of solar panels and electric highways will work in less sunny areas — or in states wary of Google’s monopoly. G-Roads may never extend past the Georgia border.”

Townsend and his team pored over research papers, news articles and essays to identify new or future products and services, such as vehicle-to-vehicle communications and automated parking structures, according to NYU mag.

But personal stories also fueled Townsend’s imagination, he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution when we asked how he came to envision metro Atlanta as the testing ground for Google cars and G-Roads.

“I had heard about the ‘Snowpocalypse’ and the hand-wringing that was happening in urban planning circles in the (metro Atlanta) region over auto-dependency,” Townsend said in an email. “Then a friend who grew up in the area told me the same thing had happened in the 1980s when he was a kid — his dad actually got stuck overnight at his downtown office.

“It struck me that Atlanta might never really turn its back on private automobiles, and would embrace the best opportunity to upgrade its infrastructure rather than restructure its entire land use pattern,” Townsend said.

“Reprogramming Mobility,” published in September 2014, takes a tough look at the possibility of unintended consequences in a digitally led transportation revolution. It has been widely read by staff and researchers at the U.S. Department of Transportation, Townsend said, although he added he isn’t sure how much attention the study has received from senior policymakers.

“We undertook the exercise specifically because we knew there was interest in long-range futures at the highest levels in (U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony) Foxx’s office, and that he had commissioned several studies internally,” Townsend told the AJC.

Do you think Townsend’s futuristic transportation vision for this region rings true? In your mind’s eye, what does the future of metro Atlanta commuting look like?


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