Considering alternate futures

FDOT prepares for the impacts of emerging technologies



Considering alternate futures

By Brad Thoburn, Assistant Secretary for Strategic Development | Florida Department of Transportation

Departments of transportation are responsible for anticipating the future of transportation and evaluating the most efficient, effective ways to incorporate emerging technologies into their long-range plans. Meeting the immediate needs of our transportation system while predicting the impacts of today’s advances 10 or 20 years down the road is a complex exercise, requiring creative approaches.

The Florida Department of Transportation has always been at the forefront of assessing emerging technologies and their roles in enhancing mobility. To ensure long-range transportation plans effectively serve their communities, transportation planners need to be able to respond to various scenarios. They need to ask the what-if questions, such as:

  • What if transit agencies purchase fossil-fuel-burning buses with a 12-year useful life, and they face near-term obsolescence due to energy shifts or impacts of shared mobility?
  • What if drone deliveries and urban air taxis shift traffic volumes and infrastructure demands on urban roadways?
  • What if an agency is on the front edge of developing real-time passenger information or mobile ticketing, and a third party figures out how to put all those things together faster and cheaper?
  • What if the tremendous investment in vehicle autonomy leads automakers to achieve level four or five sooner than later?

FDOT formally updates Florida’s Transportation Plan (FTP) every five years, but the department is always exploring what-if questions like these and many other future-looking questions. By continuously updating implementation strategies and evaluating performance, Florida’s Transportation Plan never sits on the shelf. It is a living document, evolving with the transportation ecosystem. Practices, such as scenario planning, enable planners to evaluate the what-ifs and better prepare FDOT to pivot and respond to the disruption and rapid change emerging technologies and other disruptions create.

Below are some of the variables the industry should consider in planning for a disruptive future:

Political policy shifts. Federal funding priorities and policies tend to swing from one extreme to another. What if these swings continue? How can we best plan for a volatile political landscape?

Public-private partnerships. Technology advances are forcing DOTs to become nimbler and more responsive. Government was not built for speed or flexibility, but the private sector is if it’s to survive. Given the right circumstances, are there opportunities to better leverage public-private partnerships as sources of innovation and transfer the risks a DOT should not otherwise bear?

Governance. Cities, counties, states, regional entities and the federal government have separate roles in providing mobility. As technology advances, those lines of responsibility are beginning to blur. Will government agencies need to step back and re-evaluate their place in the mobility ecosystem as we go forward?

At the very least, these potential scenarios heighten the need for stronger partnerships. For example, most transit agencies are operated by a county or an independent authority. Most micro-mobility services, such as bike share and scooters, are permitted and regulated by cities. The transit industry talks about integrating these modes as one solution to the first-mile last-mile challenge. But how would that happen? Can existing entities transform or even merge to serve as the mobility integrator?

The emergence of air taxis is another area where jurisdictions may overlap. The market for noiseless electric air taxis is expected to mature during this decade and soar to $1.5 trillion globally by 2040, according to Morgan Stanley research. Adding drone deliveries to the mix creates a new level of complexity. Will this change the regulatory relationship between the Federal Aviation Administration, state aviation offices and local land use and zoning?

Land-use policies. The traditional view of transit-oriented development involves high-density mixed-use development within a quarter mile of a premium transit station, usually rail transit. Should land-use planners look to develop “mobility-oriented design” in the world of shared, micro and urban air mobility?

Big data. Big data has the potential to help optimize investments and provide real-time operational value for the public and private sectors. For example, weigh-in-motion technology is already producing valuable data for freight planning and operations. The freight industry might be able to use data to optimize commodity flow, but when a system is as fragmented as trucking, it is difficult to harness big data. As connected and automated vehicles and other technologies emerge that make it easier to understand and evaluate the supply chain and optimize the movement of goods, will we see a consolidation of freight operators? Will consolidation make it easier to leverage big data and maximize the movement of freight? Considering the answers to those questions could help to eliminate bottlenecks and create opportunities for smoother flowing freight.

Predictive analytics. In a recent study, FDOT and University of South Florida researchers evaluated predictive models that use data, such as weather condition, traffic congestion, time of day and vehicle speed, to predict when and where crashes were likely to occur. In simulation and in real-world conditions, these models predicted crashes accurately up to 60% of the time. What if FDOT Road Rangers and law enforcement coordinated to mitigate high-risk situations? Could crashes be cleared faster or even prevented? What if that information could be used to develop techniques to slow traffic when conditions become conducive to a crash? What if common characteristics of crash-prone areas could inform future roadway design?

The time to imagine is now

Planning for the future requires asking many of these types of hypothetical questions. FDOT not only encourages its employees to imagine, our planning requires it. As transportation leaders imagine different futures, they can better mitigate risks and capture the potential of emerging mobility solutions.

Envisioning the immense potential for emerging technologies to improve safety and mobility, while optimizing the use of existing infrastructure is exciting. But, as innovations such as flying taxis, drones and robo taxis emerge, their planning and policy implications must be contemplated – even though most of the puzzle pieces may be missing. Asking “what if” during this era of rapid technological advancement is healthy, and it’s necessary if DOTs are to be nimbler and more responsive to change.


Brad Thoburn leads statewide transportation planning, modal development and research for the Florida Department of Transportation. He has more than 25 years of experience specializing in surface transportation and transit planning and public policy. Thoburn has led a major transit system overhaul; planning and development of roadway programs, bus rapid transit and commuter rail; and integration of transportation and land-use planning. He has extensive experience developing strategic plans and transportation policy, including approaches responding to emerging technologies and trends associated with autonomous and connected vehicles and shared mobility. Contact him at or (850) 414-5235.