The Future According to Tony Seba

Disruptive technologies don’t come along all that often.  I can only think of a few in the last 100 years or so.

  • Edison’s light bulb
  • Bell’s telephone
  • Henry Ford’s assembly line
  • Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web

I wasn’t around for the first three, but I remember the fourth pretty vividly.  I read “Being Digital,” a book written by Nicholas Negroponte and published way back in 1995.  It offered a look at a future that turned out to be eerily accurate.

It’s that time again.   Transportation is about to be disrupted as in  Big Time Disrupted. There’s another book by another tech visionary that’s must reading in my mind.  It was published a few years back but I somehow missed it.  Maybe you’ve already read it.   “Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation: How Silicon Valley Will Make Oil, Nuclear, Natural Gas, Coal, Electric Utilities and Conventional Cars Obsolete by 2030” by Tony Seba is another look at disruptive change, this time in terms of transportation.  These are some of Seba’s more dramatic predictions…

  • We’ll need 80% less highway capacity.
  • We’ll need 80% fewer parking spaces.
  • Individuals won’t own cars.

All by 2030.  Absurd?  Perhaps, but so were those other disruptive technologies right up until the moment they were adopted.   That World Wide Web thing happened pretty quickly if I remember correctly.  Negroponte’s 1995 predictions were pretty much our day to day reality by 2010.

I suspect Seba’s probably mostly right on this.   I’ve felt this way for awhile now.  The current system is just too wasteful.  You can absorb it up to a point, but it eventually becomes too much of a drain.  That’s when things change and I think we’re at that point right now.  It’s a big part of the reason I chose to proactively build my life around cycling as transportation.

If you’re on the bubble or maybe just think this is crazy talk, I would ask you to consider the following.

  • We don’t have the money nor the desire to tax ourselves to fix existing highways, let alone build new ones.  We’re okay with it as long as we don’t see the cost but if we have to pay, well, no.  So if a technology comes along that allows us to avoid that, we’ll adopt it.
  • As far as parking goes, we’re already seeing new developments being permitted with no parking whatsoever.  This was unthinkable just a few short years ago.  Throughout my life, we’ve always overbuilt parking for the few days per year when the crowds are largest.  In hindsight, it is a horrible misuse of scarce land that leads directly to sprawl.
  • The cost of an automobile has risen to the point where most people, even some “car” people, are now questioning the fundamental value proposition and searching for alternatives.
Retail parking lots are almost always mostly empty. What an incredible waste of land.

The future according to Tony Seba is one that includes something called Transportation as a Service (TaaS).  When we need a car, we’ll dial one up using an app.  It will appear wherever we direct it to appear.  We’ll pay a metered charge, just as we now do for Uber or bikeshare.   We won’t need to buy tires or change the oil.   We won’t even need to put gas in the vehicle.   The recall notices won’t show up in our mailboxes.   Car insurance will no longer be necessary since we won’t be driving.   He says the average family will save over $6,000 per year.

Some of us will save more.  I believe the use of bicycles as transportation will explode as people realize they can avoid the metered charge by choosing to cycle or walk.  As more of us do so, all those empty parking lots and abandoned strip centers will be re-purposed.  That bicycle infrastructure some of us dream about will finally be built not because somebody thinks it’s a good idea, but rather because it makes fundamental sense from an economic perspective.  The land will be given a reprieve.   Our communities will be quieter, safer, better.

So I think this is something to welcome, not fear.  Tony Seba’s vision is an optimistic take on the future.  It’s a second chance…a do-over.  It’s an opportunity to fix what’s broken and that’s never a bad thing.



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