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City of Tomorrow by Jonas de Ro, 2012

Great Scott!

Today is October 21, 2015 and any of you on Twitter or Facebook have by now been burried in fun facts and comparisons making you keenly aware that it is “Back to the Future Day” – the exact date Marty McFly landed in the future. That colorful 1980s vision of 2015, complete with 3-D movies, hoverboards, the Cubs winning the World Series, and lots of Pepsi.

So in honor of this historic occasion, we’re taking a look at the future of transportation infrastructure, since it is inexorably intertwined with condemnation and its use in the US.

MAGLEV

The most likely of the future tech to find its way into american transportation in the next few decades is Maglev. Maglev is magnetic levitation, typically of trains, which allows ridiculously high speeds. If you want to really understand and dig into the science side of Maglev, check out this awesome handbook*.

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Maglev in Japan. Photo by Yosemite via Wikimedia.

High speeds means more buffer and, consequently, more right of way. Surprisingly, as far back as 1992 the U.S. GAO has been looking at the potential avenues of right of way acquisition for Maglev. Some of their suggestions seem more realistic than others (using abandoned rail ROW seems like it may work – using existing utility easements is unlikely to give enough space and will likely require additional condemnation). Here in Orlando, there’s talk of a Maglev train running from the airport to the Orange County convention center, and possibly beyond.

FLYING CARS

“Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

Doc, “Back to the Future” While 1980s visions of 2015 included a Delorean levitating above suburban neighborhoods, we’re not quite there yet.True, there have been quite a few forays into flying cars, including the new-ish Terrafugia models which look pretty cool. However, all of these concepts are the ‘crossover’ between airplane and car. Even if these are suddenly the hot new personal transportation option, I wouldn’t anticipate much of a change to infrastructure, other than maybe a local airstrip opening behind your neighborhood Wal-Mart (or maybe in the parking lot).

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LEVITATING TRANSPORTATION

What is really intriguing is the technology we see in that iconic Back to the Future scene – a levitating car with VTOL (vertical takeoff and Landing) capabilities. What would this do to right of way?

While personal levitation vehicles seem far fetched, Lexus is at least toying with the technology. Check out their cool hoverboard video here. The video leaves the impression you can use this anywhere, which is not the case. Since this technology is magnet based, it requires changes to the surface being “skate-hovered” or driven – i.e. the insertion of magnets or magnetic materials into the paving.

Equally intriguing is the Omini hoverboard which uses wind rather than magnets. This video shows why this technology is probably not going to be a viable transportation option for a while. In its current configuration it is about as loud as a Kiss concert and about as stable as the backwards brain bicycle.

But what happens to roads and right-of-way in a world with VTOL cars? We’ve seen iterations in a whole slew of ubiquitous in the future movies – The Fifth Element, Minority Report.

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Terrafugia in flight. Photo courtesy of Michael Pereckas Milwaukee, WI via Wikimedia.

Without some sort of “right of way” the sky becomes an all out free for all. No traffic signals seems like a bad idea, and no designated routes as well. Do hovercars fly above current highways? Do current highways eventually become parks, greenspace, buildings, or houses? Will condemnation of air rights be in order?

NON-CARBON VEHICLES

Tesla, Leaf and the monthly news stories of “car of the future runs on seawater” could have an impact on transportation infrastructure as well. New access points for battery recharge or governmentally encouraged alternative fuels will change the landscape of your typical highway exits and rest areas. The technology being used in these new cars is intriguing as well. Tesla in particular brought hands free driving to its vehicles this week. Not surprisingly, it had mixed reviews. However, experts in transportation will tell you traffic locked into the same speed will alleviate congestion much more effectively than adding lane after lane after lane. See this Australian video explaining the mathematics behind traffic jams. (how about that 2 week traffic jam in China!)

As the technology changes and shifts, transportation infrastructure can be expected to do the same. However, our highway system servicing the internal combustion engine have been around for 70+ years and is undoubtedly going to be here for a while. Even after we are all rehydrating our food and installing flux capacitors.