“Especially in urban environments, you’re not going to see a lot of new construction,” Belcher said. “You’re going to see a lot of attempts to try to optimize the existing infrastructure that we have.”
A perfect example now in use in major urban centers like New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles is technology that simplifies the hunt for the ever-elusive parking space. Studies have shown that a significant percentage of urban traffic congestion — 30 percent, to be exact — is caused by drivers circling in search of parking.
Smart parking technologies use wireless sensors to keep tabs in real time on available parking. This data is then available to drivers via a smartphone app, helping ease parking search congestion.
Many municipalities also are looking into demand-based parking rates, intended to be high enough to ensure some spaces remain available, but low enough to entice some drivers to use them. A pilot in San Francisco devotes all revenue from demand-based parking toward public transit.
A similar prediction is offered for the widespread adoption of congestion-based toll collection. Now in use in major cities including Washington, D.C., the practice discourages peak time travel when major bridges and roadways are likelier to resemble parking lots, while simultaneously generating money from drivers willing to pay a premium for a prime-time shortcut.
A proposal being considered in Northern California aims to help ease congestion and pay for transportation improvements using GPS trackers installed in vehicles. Drivers would be taxed per mile traveled, with surcharges for driving during periods of heightened congestion. This too, experts say, may be the wave of the future, with such a model eclipsing the gas tax as a primary means of funding transportation infrastructure.
Growth in hybrid vehicles and increased investment in alternative fuels also could significantly alter the U.S. transportation landscape in the future. Vehicle charging infrastructure likely will become more prominent as the U.S. looks to develop more renewable and sustainable fuel sources. Another promising new technology places solar panels under the road surface to generate energy that can be added to the power supply.
First awarded FHWA monies for prototype construction in 2009, Idaho-based Solar Roadways also proposes embedding LED lights in the road surface to make nighttime driving safer. The company also may add heating elements to help combat the accumulation of snow and ice on roads in colder climates. Using a subsequent injection of federal funding, the company is building a solar parking lot to further test the technologies and ready solar roadways for broader use.
These solar-powered transportation surfaces are expected to have a minimum lifespan of 20 years, during which time, co-creator Scott Brusaw anticipates the energy-producing capacity of solar cells will continue to grow. Such improvements, he said, will allow solar roadways to produce even more energy, keeping up with growing demand.
“We believe that the infrastructure will move away from petroleum-based asphalt ‘dumb’ roads and overhead power lines,” Brusaw said.
Technologies like this offer a more sustainable path forward, lessening the burden of repairing and replacing crumbling roads.
“The return on investment from smart infrastructure is significant,” said Belcher. “You get a higher rate of return on a lot of technology deployments than you do on new asphalt.”