The Highway of the Future Is a Pleasant Path through the Woods

Let’s assume that over the next hundred years everybody does the sensible thing and lets their cars (including electric cars) fall into ruin. Bye bye Passat and Accord. Bye bye Hummer and Prius. In their place people will only use pedal power and electric bikes. Furthermore assume that these vehicles weigh between 15 and 100 pounds, they  are no more than four feet wide, their top speed is 20mph, and their range is about 50 miles. This is a pretty short range, so in order to go cross-country people will ride trains. In this future, train stations will be 1 to 25 miles apart all over the country. How will these changes affect our landscape? What will this future look like?

Roads, overpasses, bridges, etc. will only have to bear loads two orders of magnitude less than they did during the loathsome auto era. That is, they need only support 30 pound vehicles rather than 3000 pound vehicles. All this infrastructure will be correspondingly less thick, less expensive and even unnecessary. Goodbye clover leaf and other concrete monstrosities. Hello covered bridges.

In this future, snow will be white. No more snow gray from auto exhaust. And no more snow plowing. We may want a big machine to compact the snow, but our vehicles will be light enough that they can ride on top of the snow instead of having to rely on snow plows to laboriously push the snow aside.

Under this scenario, pavement for suburban and country roads pretty much becomes unnecessary. Heck, you may even be able to grow grass on your “road” if there isn’t too much bike traffic. Roads closer to the cities may require crushed stone. Only the very center of cities will require pavement. Our highways will be scenic paths through the fields and woods.

Roads can be much narrower. One-way streets will be unnecessary. Multi-lane highways will be unnecessary. We will have to come up with some use for the exorbitant number of lanes previously deemed necessary. Hotels? Roadside taverns?

A vehicle going less than 20mph and weighing less than 100 pounds can stop very quickly, can swerve around obstacles, and won’t necessarily harm something or someone it does run into. Flattened possums, raccoons, and squirrels on the roadside will become unknown. And in this future you will be able to let your kids and pets wander freely throughout the neighborhood (like people used to do a century ago). And kids will be empowered in other ways: since these vehicles of the future are not so dangerous as cars, kids will be able to drive them at an early age. Teenagers won’t have to wait until they are 16 to get their wheels. Kids can drive themselves to the soccer game—soccer moms are no longer necessary.

Parking lots will be minimal. The malls of our present era will look ridiculous. Think of all the former parking lots that will be opened up for parks and playgrounds. Get out your jackhammer, we can start now.

City centers of the future will be walkable. Traffic jams will be a thing of the past. People of the future looking at photographs of our traffic jams will either laugh or scowl. Why don’t pedestrians and bikes form traffic jams? A mass of slow moving thin vehicles can perform a very human dance to get through a bottleneck. Think about all the people moving past each other in Grand Central Station, sub-consciously negotiating with each other to get where they are going without stopping. Now think about the same amount of people sitting in their cars staying in their lane on a highway stretched out for miles and miles waiting to go forward. The future will be more like Grand Central Station: happy chaos rather than ordered misery. People will discover what bike couriers in big cities have known for a long time: it is faster to get across town going 10 mph continuously on a bike than going stop and go at 30 mph in a car.

In the future, traffic signage can be minimal. First of all, it can be much smaller. Have you ever looked at a billboard close up? They are enormous! But that’s what it takes to get someone’s attention who is whizzing by at 65 mph. What size does the same sign need to be to be seen by a bicyclist going by at 20mph? Smaller. Secondly, the navigation technology of the future will make it very difficult to get lost. If you can see on an electronic map where you are and where you want to be, why do you even need signs, except maybe street signs? Thirdly, slow-moving thin bikes make many signs unnecessary. We won’t need one-way signs since bicycles are thin enough to go both ways on almost all streets. If we’re all going less than 20mph we can yield instead of stop, so we won’t need stop signs or stop lights on almost all streets. And we won’t need speed limits since they are built into our electric bikes’ electronics. Think about what that will look like—a city without signs.

You might say “What about delivery trucks? What about garbage trucks? What about fire engines, police cars, and ambulances? What about tractors, fork lifts, backhoes and dump trucks? Surely you are not so naive as to think we can do without these things?” We’ve grown so used to internal combustion engines that doing without them has become inconceivable. Consider the alternatives. Do we need delivery trucks? One possibility is that we’ll just need less things in our future slower-paced lifestyle. We certainly won’t need mail. And we can certainly bike to the post office (which will be near the train station) to get medium-sized and even large packages. You would be surprised what it is possible to carry on a bike. I have seen photos of people carrying refrigerators on their cargo bikes. Do we need garbage trucks? If you know there is no garbage truck coming, you quickly learn to compost, repair, reduce, reuse and recycle. And you may suddenly feel like petitioning manufacturers to quit with the over-packaging. In the past what often happened is that if you didn’t want to repair something yourself the local tinker would take it off your hands. If there is any trash left you can take it to the transfer station near the train station. Do we need fire engines, police cars, and ambulances? Here is the only instance where I say yes we do. They can even be gasoline powered. All the bicyclists will get out of their way when necessary. Do we need heavy machinery? In the future agriculture and architecture will be much smarter and much smaller in scale. Today we harvest crops with big machines, transport them to a factory, package them and then transport them to a grocery. In the future people will simply bike out to the fields and pick the crops. Duh. Today we bring bulldozers, cranes, trucks, etc. to prepare a home for occupation. In the future we will simply carry enough steel tubing on our bikes out to the site to erect a modest geodesic home. A few more trips and we can trick it out with insulation, furniture, and solar power. How much space do we really need for living? How much stuff do we really need? If you don’t have a car to carry all that crap do you still want it? The future will be a time of reckoning. Like “I reckon I don’t need all these back issues of National Geographic. I reckon I don’t need my CD collection.”

It goes without saying that energy use for transportation in the future will be extremely low, maybe even entirely human power and renewable resources. Batteries for electric bikes will be charged using one blanket-sized solar panel per person. A day’s worth of sun would be enough to power several 10-mile trips. And a person can use the same batteries to power all the lighting, personal heating units, and electronics they need. People will be completely off the grid and out from under the thumb of OPEC. We’re already losing the telephone poles. There go those unsightly utility poles too, except maybe for the trains.  The trains of the future will require centralized power. However, the power can likely be generated from solar, wind, and hydroelectric sources.

Sound impossible? Believe it or not, the technology for this futuristic scenario already exists. It simply requires the will of the people to make it a reality. I gave up driving this summer. Instead I bought a “cargo” bike that I use for errands less than 10 miles away. My bike can carry 400 pounds up steep hills, which equates to two adults or my 9-year-old daughter and four bags of groceries. My bike has a top speed of 20mph (as required by law to be considered a bike) and a range of 20 to 40 miles depending on load and hills. My bike battery can be charged entirely from a solar panel in about a day. My bike was rather expensive (several thousand dollars) but if it were mass-produced it could easily cost less than a thousand dollars. But it won’t be mass-produced unless there is a demand for it—I encourage everyone to go out and buy an electric cargo bike.

When we became an auto-centric culture a hundred years ago we gave up more than we realized. We gave up the outdoors. We gave up clean air. We gave up quiet streets. We gave up safety. We gave up simplicity. What did we get in return? We got convenience. We got speed. We got unprecedented comfort. Do we really need these things? I for one want to get back what was lost.