Let's All Stop Obsessing About the 'Next Great Thing' in Urban Transportation

Instead of coveting some trendy system, let's spend a little more time fixing the ones we've got.

It looks like Tel Aviv is really moving forward with this whole futuristic floating pod idea. Reports have surfaced that the city hired a U.S. consulting firm "to get the ball rolling, or pod sliding," as the Times of Israel put it. The pilot program, being developed by a company called SkyTran, could launch as soon as 2014, according to a Hebrew news article that I'm sure Wikipedia translated accurately.

History is full of examples of the next great transport idea. Today it's the floating pod, yesterday it was Elon Musk's Hyperloop, last year it was intercontinental airless tubes, back in 1908 it was Thomas Edison "perfecting" the electric car battery, and so on. Little mystery why we enjoy these stories so much. Living and working in the present can be hard. Living and working in a future city rendered without car traffic (or, for that matter, many other people), looks almost fun.

Nothing against this particular plan for floating pods. If nothing else the science seems sound, with NASA engineers having cooked up the concept. But the truth is transportation has very rarely changed with a great deal of speed or spectacle. The shape and pace of life today might stun someone who just woke up from a century-long cryogenic nap, plus woah like when did the Dodgers leave Brooklyn?, but the basic elements we use to navigate that life aren't astonishingly different.

The past is witness to mobility's incremental transformations. The very first railroads in this country were drawn by horses. The car itself was called the "horseless carriage." Automated vehicles, believe it or not, were being devised in ancient China. Bicycles have been in America since the late-19th century and some places still won't grant them their own lanes. Midtown Manhattan is filled with the chimes of what are essentially rickshaws.

All I'm saying is the leap from pedicab to pod, even in the most advanced city in the most advanced country in the world, would be an overwhelming one.

In fact, for all our occasional frenzy over futuristic transport modes, the real future of transportation may be the bus. Matt Yglesias at Slate reminded us of this just yesterday in a post about the relative dearth of bus-rapid transit in the United States. And BRT is hardly the only metric of bus progress out there. Simply reconfiguring a system that only runs downtown into one that reaches multiple employment destinations can make travel in some metro areas far more efficient.

This isn't to say we should give up all our visions for the future. The world needs dreamers, yes, and when their dreams do arrive, often in the form of new technology, the rest of us need to be prepared to discuss the social implications before it's too late. The fact that we don't all yet own a Google driverless car doesn't mean we shouldn't consider what happens when we do. The fact that we probably don't need a floating maglev pod transit system doesn't undermine the potential significance of maglev technology.

But it could undermine our ability to address the problems of the present. Psychologists have studied the human tendency toward fantasy, and they've found that imagining a crisply rendered future has the unintended effect of dampening our motivation to achieve it. By editing out the "obstacles, problems, and setbacks" we'll face en route to that goal, our fantasized futures might actually frustrate any real progress, as work from Gabriele Oettingen of New York University has found [PDF].

In other words, we're far better off with good expectations than great fantasies.

Again, this isn't to say we shouldn't think big, and it certainly isn't an argument for the status quo. Rather to say that a visionary might just as easily be someone who strives for the achievable instead of the incredible. As Jarrett Walker pointed out this weekend in a great editorial for the San Francisco Chronicle, we have enough of a fight on our hands to reprioritize urban transport by 2040 just using the modes and space we have today, let alone incorporating brand new ones.

Which brings us back to Tel Aviv. Strange that the city is attempting an unattempted form of transport when it's only just begun to build something as basic as a subway system. And evidently there are enough problems with the city's existing rail transit plans to occupy sharp minds for the next several years. A few of us can set our eyes on that next great transport system; the rest should probably stay focused on improving the ones we've got.

Image courtesy of www.skytran.us.

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