When Chief of PreCrime John Anderton is on the run from his own outfit in Minority Report, he jumps into his autonomous pod, rockets down the side of his apartment building, and then hurtles off into a multilayered system of freeways that loop ribbon-like through his city and even bend into high-speed Möbius strips. When Leeloo is on the run from her captors in The Fifth Element, she finds herself perched on the edge of a skyscraper, and glimpses a vision of a futuristic New York City that contains layer upon layer upon layer of flying cars, as well as a train that screams down the y-axis beside her, headed for the streets below.
These visions of what’s to come, which are in some regards outlandish (hopefully anything as orange as Leeloo’s hair won’t be fashionable in the future), do hint at something that is critical for building a true city of the future: three-dimensional transportation. According to the U.N., “54 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 66 per cent by 2050.” Airbus says we’ll reach 60% of the world’s population living in cities by 2030. What these numbers are pointing to is a general expectation for population, and population density, to increase dramatically over the coming years in cities. And for anybody who spends an already all-too-large chunk of their time sitting in his car like Peter at the beginning of Office Space, this can only mean more daily traffic, which literally sucks the soul out of one’s body.
But there is a way to stop the sucking of our souls into the spiritual drains that are traffic jams. In fact, there are two ways, according to Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk: “you have to go either up or down.”
Musk lays out the argument for making traffic grids 3D in the video clip above (beginning around 2:15), but the essential point is so simple and obvious. As Musk notes, having 2D (single-layer) traffic grids try to accommodate 3D buildings (e.g. tall skyscrapers, with high densities of people), simply doesn’t work. Especially when “everyone wants to go into the building and leave the building at the same time.”
This already defunct process, in conjunction with the projected population increases in cities, means that people are going to be spending more and more time in their cars. And other developments in vehicle technology, including fully autonomous driving, won’t directly address the traffic problem. (Although self-driving cars will probably help with traffic due to parking, and will also help to take some cars off the road.)
Thankfully, for the sake of our souls, there are researchers looking into ways to “go either up or down,” and some of them are even looking to biology, and the human body specifically, for inspiration.
Wanis Kabbaj, a “Transportation geek” and director of global strategy for healthcare logistics at UPS, gave an enlightening TED Talk in September 2016 (below), where he outlined the reasoning behind thinking of cities “as living beings.” Kabbaj says that it’s “absurd that we created cars that can reach 130MPH… [but] now drive them at the same speed as 19th century horse carriages.” Kabbaj also notes that in 2014, U.S. citizens spent an unholy 29.6 billion hours stuck in traffic.
Kabbaj agrees with Musk that the solution is to make cities’ traffic grids 3D. Most of the solutions he touches upon are focused on the “up” direction of making traffic grids 3D, and his overview includes “drones [perhaps like this one], flying taxis, modular buses, and suspended magnetic pods.” He also discusses cities built entirely around a driverless car system, where vehicles move around freely, like blood cells through your arteries (or like the pods in Minority Report).
Musk on the other hand, thinks that “down” is probably the way to go. To that end, he has actually begun digging a hole on SpaceX property in the County of Los Angeles, which has many roads and freeways that at peak traffic hours, qualify as one of the nine circles of Hell.
Tunnels are “key to a lot of technologies, [including] road tunnels, hyperloop tunnels, [and] train tunnels…” Musk told a crowd at a recent hyperloop contest, and he appears to be spearheading an effort to improve tunneling capabilities by 500 – 1,000%. He has also changed his twitter bio to “Tesla, SpaceX, Tunnels & OpenAI,” and has said multiple times that he’s really going to start some kind of “Boring Company.”
Boring, it’s what we do
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 17, 2016
Musk also told Vanity Fair that he is “not sure about… flying cars… [because they] would affect the skyline. And it would be noisier and there would be a greater probability of something falling on your head.”
Regardless of whether cities decide to go up or down in their quest to vanquish the horrid nightmare that is traffic, something needs to change fast. No human with a circulatory system this clogged up could ever survive, and besides, you may need to be able to get away fast in the future like Anderton or Leeloo, when you’re on the run from some big spooky organization.
What do you think about the idea of cities’ traffic grids transforming from 2D to 3D? Do you think up or down is the right way forward? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Images: Flickr / Oran Viriyincy