Superman Has It So Easy!

By John Eichberger | April 2017

New York City is known by so many different names – the City that Never Sleeps, the Big Apple, the Capital of the World, Gotham City and even Metropolis. Spend a little time there, and I guarantee you will come up with nicknames of your own, some flattering and others not so much.

Whatever your personal experience, I believe New York can be viewed as a time portal through which we can envision what urban living might be like in cities throughout the country in the next 20-30 years. The hustle and bustle, the traffic congestion, the gridlock, the blaring horns, the 20 minutes estimated travel time to go 0.4 miles (yes, when I saw that I got out of the Uber I had hailed and walked to my destination). Is this what all urban market have to look forward to? Current projections believe the American population will swell by nearly 100 million people by 2060 and it is generally assumed that the historic trends towards greater urban living will continue and likely accelerate, creating more towns like New York – at least in terms of mobility challenges, but without the extensive subway system.

Walking around the city, I thought about the way New York is portrayed to audiences throughout the world – bigger than life, glamorous, the central plot of numerous television shows (how many visitors look in vain for Central Perk or Monk’s Coffee shop?) and home to such iconic heroes as Batman and Superman. Of course the superhero reality is quite different from the visitor or resident of this great city. If I could fly above the chaos that dominates the NYC streets, or plow through obstacles with the Batmobile, it would never take me 20 minutes to go less than half a mile.

But we are not superheroes. We are bound to the Earth by a pesky thing called gravity and law enforcement seems to frown on distracted, let alone destructive, driving (just ask the officer on Times Square who another Uber driver almost ran over). So, we must figure out how to move from point A to point B without exhausting our bank accounts or our patience.

Enter the discussions about future urban planning. What effect will shared services have on personal mobility? What will be the long term benefits or consequence of ride hailing, car sharing, or autonomous mobility on quality of life? Will we get back time currently lost in gridlock? Will we breathe cleaner air by reducing congestion-related emissions? Will the economy grow and deliver financial benefits to the people? It is too early to state with certainty, but there are many who are betting that the answers to these and other questions will be overwhelmingly positive.

We can get a sense of what the automakers are looking at by reading the papers. Acquisitions, new service/product launches and partnerships in car sharing and ride hailing seem to be in vogue these days. And the potential for autonomous mobility is just now beginning to be really tested.

The writing is on the wall – mobility must evolve to satisfy consumer needs in American urban centers, congested markets in Europe and expansive growing markets like China and India. Perhaps the sharing model will yield quality of life benefits – or maybe it will usher in something new.

New York is a microcosm through which we can evaluate what is good and bad about urban living. While not as messed up as Bruce Wayne’s Gotham City, what happens when we add another 10 million residents? How can we eliminate the 20 minute half mile commute? Can we travel at multiple elevations and, if so, would Superman welcome traffic in his realm?

Although I have not decided where to hang my hat in terms of what direction the market may take to address these challenges, I am more convinced than ever that changes will come and they will come faster than we might expect. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work to make sure the future market is something we can get behind.

Note: The Fuels Institute looks at all of these factors and brings them into focus for market stakeholders. Research projects include “Driver Demographics,” “Shared Travel,” and the soon-to-be-released book “Urbanization: The Effect of Urban Development on U.S. Vehicle Travel and Fuel Demand.” In addition, the 2017 Fuels Institute Annual Meeting will dive deeply into each of these and other related topics. For more information, visit fuelsinstitute.org.

 

Read more from the April Issue of our Fuel for Thought newsletter.