The Future of Travel

Our airplanes are running out of places to take off and land; our rail system is, for lack of a better word, a wreck; and our cars are currently powered by a nonrenewable fuel. What are America's options for getting from here to there going to be five or 10 years down the road? We asked industry experts to look into their crystal balls.

car speeding away down a desert road

Planes

In the future, the burning issue for the aviation industry will be where to land the planes needed to transport its hordes of passengers. Solution? Massive construction projects. "I think they'll end up filling San Francisco Bay to build a runway," says Paul Saffo, director of the Menlo Park, Calif., Institute for the Future. Nor would he be surprised if a new airport were built in the Bay Area, possibly at Travis Air Force Base.

Meanwhile, the world's two biggest commercial aircraft manufacturers, Airbus and Boeing, have chosen different strategies. Airbus is investing in 500-plus-seat planes, reasoning that bigger planes mean fewer of them on runways. Boeing is building planes with fewer than 200 seats, figuring that more direct flights will help ease traffic at hubs.

Some analysts think even smaller planes—10 to 20 seats—will play a crucial role. They will fly out of small airports, offering premium service to the wealthy who don't want to deal with the hassle of a congested hub. "Imagine how crowded hub terminals will be in 2010," says Columbia Business School aviation economist Ethan Krimins. "Larger aircraft would only provide minimal assistance and sufficient expansion of major airports is possible only rarely. We should take advantage of the thousands of well-maintained and less-crowded regional airports."

And the rest of us? We'll fly low-fare carriers like JetBlue and Southwest, neither of which offers first class. Major airlines will follow suit as they lose high-end clientele to small, elite airlines.

Trains

Imagine boarding a train in San Francisco and arriving in Los Angeles 2½ hours later. That's how Michael Dukakis sees the future. The former presidential candidate is now vice chair of Amtrak's board of directors, and he's convinced high-speed rail is a key part of our travel future. Dukakis says the popularity of Acela, which runs between Washington, D.C., and Boston, proves high-speed systems will succeed. "People are breaking down doors to get on Acela," he says. "We're just starting to see what high-speed rail can do."

But financially troubled Amtrak, the nation's primary passenger rail company, recently threatened a shutdown. "There's no hope for high-speed rail in the United States," says Wendell Cox, who sits on the Amtrak Reform Council, an independent federal commission. Cox says that while rail makes sense in densely populated Europe, it's not economical in the wide-open spaces of America.

But the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which functions separately from Amtrak, claims it's on track to construct a 200 mph system. According to its executive director, Mehdi Morshed, the first leg—likely San Francisco to Los Angeles—will be completed in 10 years.

In other parts of the country, Amtrak says it's improving existing tracks to speed up travel times. For example, Amtrak estimates that by 2010, Portlanders will be able to travel to Seattle in 2½ hours. Today, the trip takes 3½ hours.

Automobiles

For a century, the internal combustion engine has powered cars. Carmakers have been slow to roll out viable alternatives.

Then, two years ago, Toyota and Honda introduced cars with clean electric motors and gas-fueled engines. These hybrids get 50-plus miles to the gallon on city streets. Toyota has sold 30,000 Priuses in the United States. Next: a hybrid SUV from Ford.

In the long run, analysts are betting on virtually pollution-free fuel cell vehicles, which run on hydrogen. In a few months, Toyota will start leasing fuel cell SUVs to government agencies; it plans to sell the cars by 2010. Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Lab are developing technology to enable gas stations to make hydrogen.

Ray Smith, who works in Lawrence Livermore's energy and environment department, says that building a fuel cell engine currently costs about $30,000—and that's just the engine. But Smith is hopeful that the cost will come down over time. "In 10 years, we'll begin to see them on the road," he says. "In 20 years, I'm certain my grandson will drive one."

Photo Illustrations by John Lund

This article was first published in September 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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