A group of panelists diverse in expertise and experience led a conversation about the future of transportation and mobility across the Chicago region at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) on June 22. More than 100 people attended "Harnessing Technology for Future Mobility," which was the third of five CMAP Alternative Futures Forums.

Moderated by Andrea Hanis, editor of Blue Sky Innovation at the Chicago Tribune, the panelists included Marshall Brown, architect and associate professor at the IIT College of Architecture; Karen Tamley, commissioner of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities; and David Strickland, a partner in Venable LLP Regulatory Group and counsel to the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets.  They discussed how new technology may change the way people get around, live, and work by 2050.

IIT senior vice president and provost Frances Bronet welcomed the crowd by highlighting the importance of coming together for discussion about the region's future.  "IIT is just one partner in a crescendo of collaboration," Bronet said.

In brief introductory remarks, CMAP executive director Joseph Szabo emphasized the necessity of leveraging innovations in transportation to drive the future success of the region. "For more than 200 years, transportation has shaped and reshaped the Chicago region many times. And once again, I think we're at a critical moment. Preparing for this shift requires attention on every front," Szabo said.

Reshaping travel trends

The panel discussed different possible scenarios for the future of transportation technology and emphasized that just as vehicles might look different, the transit systems will likely be entirely different as well.

According to CMAP's Innovative Transportation memo, automated vehicles may make travel faster, safer, and more convenient while also changing how goods are delivered and freight moves through the region.

But the shift toward new vehicle technologies may not necessarily minimize congestion or significantly decrease the number of personal vehicles, according to Brown, who believes that trends in personal vehicle ownership will be community-specific and age-specific.

"I think we generalize in this discussion and focus far too much on millennials." Brown said. He explained that many elderly people, residents with disabilities, and people who provide specialized services may still want to own their vehicles, even if they are self-driving. The emergence of self-driving technologies might even increase the number of vehicles on the road, he said.

Public spaces reimagined

The panel encouraged attendees to envision a future where public spaces have many different kinds of uses.

"In a world where cars don't kill you, which is a future that is coming toward us, we can actually start to remove a lot of the barriers and obstacles and signs and traffic lights and other kinds of things that cluttered up these spaces over the past century," Brown said.

Tamley agreed, noting the increase in accessibility for people with disabilities if, for instance, curbs were no longer an infrastructural necessity.

Brown said that parking lots are the single largest part of the urban environment that would change in a future with innovative transportation. If by 2050, cars can park themselves or a fleet of shared cars is constantly making different trips around the region, the need for individual parking at homes, public and private garages, and retail locations, may be drastically reduced.

"[Parking] is everywhere. It's next to every building, it's inside our buildings, it's on top of our buildings, it's under our buildings," Brown said. "A vehicle that can park itself really changes the game. It doesn't necessarily solve problems, but it changes the nature of the problem. How will all this space be used differently in the future, how it is reconfigured?"

Making transportation accessible, safe for all

Innovative transportation technology may open up mobility to populations that have a difficult time getting around the region today.

"Driverless cars will open up so many opportunities for people that don't have access to cars now," Tamley said. "For the disability community, it would be a utopia."

If disabled populations are taken into consideration from the beginning, Tamley said innovative transportation has the possibility to open new opportunities for people to get to work, doctor's appointments, and entertainment. New transportation technologies could also improve access for low-income residents in areas with limited transportation options.

"It has to be accessible from the get-go," Tamley said, "When you have to change things after the fact, it's expensive."

New technology may also help aging generations keep their transportation independence longer while still getting around safely.

Tamley said encouraging accessible, inclusive policies and technologies requires attention and persistence, but could open up a "new frontier" for people with disabilities.

 "There is this amazing potential to really help us be independent and get access to our communities, but we still have a long way to go to get there," she said.

Strickland, who is also the former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said he looks forward to how new transportation technology might save lives. In 2015, he said, more than 35,000 died in car crashes, with about a third of those due to drunk driving.

"We have an opportunity where our grandchildren may say, ‘We can't believe anybody ever died in car crashes,'" he said.

Increased safety could also change the way people interact with the streets in their community.

"There's a great opportunity for pedestrians to reclaim a lot of their realm. Throughout history, until about 1910, the street was a space that connected people. Now, at least in the United States, it's mostly a space that separates us," Brown said. We could turn that around, which would be amazing."

More on this Alternative Future

To learn more about Innovative Transportation, visit http://www.cmap.illinois.gov/onto2050/futures/transportation, where you can take a survey about what you would like transportation to look like by 2050. If you missed the forum, listen to it here or watch a recording of the event from CAN-TV.

Next: Transformed Economy

Register for the next Alternative Futures Forum Series event, "The Future of Economic Opportunity," hosted and co-sponsored by Cook County, the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, Southwest Conference of Mayors, and Will County Governmental League. The forum will take place at the Homewood-Flossmoor Auditorium (2010 N. Chestnut Rd., Homewood, IL) at 4:00 p.m. on Wednesday, July 19.