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Out of your dreams, out of your car: Where Phoenix transportation is heading

ASU experts weigh in; students invited to share their vision of future for cash prizes

City freeway
October 23, 2015

Transportation in Phoenix means one thing for most people: their car.

Most of the time it’s an expensive piece of equipment that sits in the garage during the day and the driveway at night. You had visions of soothing country rambles when you bought it, but reality is more often spent crawling through a vein-popping sea of red lights on a packed freeway.

Is it ever going to get any better?

Transportation experts predict the self-driving car will change everything, from commute times to ownership to pollution. Fewer people will own cars. They’ll rent them for short periods instead. Mass transit use — currently on the rise — will increase even more.

Student teams will present their vision of the Valley’s transit future for cash prizes at a February conference on “The Future of Transit.”

On Nov. 10, Arizona State University will host a screening event to determine which teams will present at the February conference. It's slated to take place at Wrigley Hall, home to the School of Sustainability and the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. The presentations at both the screening event and conference will be judged by local leaders from the transportation sector.

The competition is open to any college individual or team who prepare a presentation no more than 10 minutes long on the future of transportation in the Phoenix metro area. Registration is due Nov. 6; scroll to the end of this story for details.

When the Great Recession killed Phoenix sprawl, infill took off. The light-rail system is spurring transit-oriented development, where people live within walking distance of a station. That likely will continue to happen, said transportation expert Aaron Golub.

“You’ll have densification, people living closer to each other,” said Golub, a senior sustainability scientist with the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. “You’re likely to see increases in cycling and walking. …

“Urban driving in Arizona has been declining per capita. People shift to some of these other things. It doesn’t mean the driving is going down, but people aren’t driving as much.”

Newer generations don’t want to drive. They want to live in urban cores, said Margaret Dunn. Dunn is a graduate of the School of Sustainability and the owner of Dunn Transportation and Ollie the Trolley.

“That’s how our communities are developing,” Dunn said. “People want to come back to center city, they want to come downtown for live-work-play. … I think people now want to have a little bit of say-so in how they are moving about the community. It’s not just a car-centric, auto-centric environment anymore.”

Dominant systems of road, bus and light rail will continue, Golub said.

“People want to come back to center city, they want to come downtown for live-work-play. … It’s not just a car-centric, auto-centric environment anymore.”
— Margaret Dunn, graduate of the ASU School of Sustainability and the owner of Ollie the Trolley 

“We have had a significant increase in mass transit,” he said. “I don’t think the roads are going anywhere, but you’ll see quite a bit more public use (of mass transit).”

About 80 percent of people in the Valley drive to work, and the land-use system is oriented around people in cars, said Michael Kuby, a professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and an expert in transportation, energy and related subjects.

“Self-driving cars will be a very big deal,” Kuby said. “That should make us think: Do we want to be adding freeways and lanes now if these same lanes 20 to 30 years from now will be carrying a lot more traffic per hour?”

Apple and Google are both working on self-driving cars. Some new cars already have features that will be on self-driving cars, like backup cameras and lane-wandering detection. Self-driving cars are predicted to improve and sped up commutes because they won’t be texting, getting into accidents or spacing out. They’ll be moving along bumper to bumper. Volvo is already working on convoying trucks together.

“Cars and trucks can be organized into convoys with minimal space,” Kuby said. “It will be safer, but it will be a mix of humans driving older cars on the road and self-driving cars. The self-driving cars will be able to predict what the other self-driving cars will do but not what the people will do.”

Perhaps a fleet of self-driving cars will ferry people door to door, at a much cheaper rate than taxis because the cost of labor has been eliminated. Mostly our vehicles sit in the garage during the day and the driveway at night. What if your car dropped you off at work and then went to work itself, shuttling people around all day and then picking you back up at the end of the day?

“That’s a big expensive piece of equipment you have invested a lot of capital in,” Kuby said. “Your car could be out there replacing Uber drivers if you had a self-driving car.”

Perhaps drivers — if they are still called that 30 years from now — won’t have to own a car at all. When driverless cars arrive, you may be able to subscribe like you do to a cellphone plan, Golub said.

“That is likely going to happen,” he said. “Imagine a city where you take the bus to work, but for an unusual errand you rent one of these cars. ... It explodes the possibilities for not living with an automobile.”

Zipcar already offers a membership for occasional rentals — such as a Saturday trip to Costco or Grandma’s house — but use isn’t widespread yet. Local company RubyRide offers a personal-driver subscription service. Services like these have been studied, Golub said.

“The impact for the families that use these cars is enormous,” he said.

The whole energy side of transportation is changing, too. Every bus in the Valley runs on compressed natural gas now. Expect to see hydrogen-powered vehicles sooner rather than later.

“It’s an exciting time to be in transit.”
— Michael Kuby, a professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning

Hydrogen-fuel cars are now being mass-produced. Both Toyota and Hyundai have off-the-shelf hydrogen-fuel-cell cars. Toyota’s Mirai sells for more than $58,000. It has a range of 300 miles and emits water. It’s being sold only in California, where there are 10 filling stations.    

Shipment of hydrogen fuel cells globally rose 80 percent last year, according to Kuby.

“This is technology that’s really starting to hit the world,” he said.

For now, material handling — moving stuff on and off trucks and around warehouses with forklifts — is seeing the biggest inroads from hydrogen power. It’s much more efficient than recharging batteries. Hydrogen refuels very quickly — as quickly as a gasoline fill-up, Kuby said. By contrast, charging an electric car, even when optimized with a powerful charger, takes 20 to 25 minutes.

“It’s an exciting time to be in transit,” Kuby said.

What we won’t see in the future will be the Tomorrowland vision of monorails zipping above neighborhoods, Golub said.

“Generally people don’t like things flying over them — freeway overpasses, things like that,” he said. “Things like that are improbable.”               

'The Future of Transit' competition

What: Screening event for “The Future of Transit” competition.

When: 11 a.m.–3 p.m. Nov. 10. Registration forms are due Nov. 6.

Where: Wrigley Hall, Tempe campus, Arizona State University.

Who: Undergraduate or graduate students, individuals or teams.

How: A 10-minute presentation and performance in a question-and-answer session with the judges. Competitors may use any technology, props or example materials they wish, provided they clear all IT/AV and space needs with the contest organizer.


The School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning is a unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Science