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The Future of Transportation is Here

Wonder what the future of transportation looks like? Just head to Phoenix, San Francisco, Portland, or Helsinki.

overhead view highway cloverleaf, picture
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Photo: National Geographic Creative / Alamy
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Mobility is evolving from the one-car-one-driver model to a host of alternatives.

Look down the road, just past tomorrow: That's the future, rushing at us fast. It's coming in the form of autonomous vehicles, new alternatives to the single-owner car, and smarter ways to get from point A to point B. New technologies promise to transform not only how we get around but also where we live and the landscapes we travel through. According to some projections, by 2030, there will be 200 million fewer cars in the United States and many of those still in use will be autonomous, shared, and electric. In some places, the ways we get around have already changed radically. Here are four cities—three in the western United States, one in Europe—where the future is happening now.

autonomous minivan in Arizona, picture
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Photo: Courtesy Waymo
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An autonomous vehicle in Arizona.

Phoenix: A State of Autonomy

With wide, smooth roads stretching to the horizon and consistently sunny weather, the sprawling desert city of Phoenix is a great place to test autonomous vehicles.

The political climate is inviting, too: In 2015, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey issued an executive order allowing the testing of driverless technology in the state. Companies rushed in to start trial programs.

Google offshoot Waymo—its name combining a new way forward and mobility—set up one of the biggest. In April 2017, it introduced 600 autonomous minivans in the Phoenix area that provide free lifts to users. Waymo also recently got approval to launch the country's first commercial self-driving ridehailing service in Arizona. The company says it plans to do so by year's end.

Which is not to say that all of Arizona's self-driving experiments have been successful. Sadly, one of Uber's autonomous vehicles was involved in a fatal accident in Tempe. The ride-sharing venture suspended testing nationwide for several months; trials eventually resumed, but not in Arizona.

Read More: The Road Trip of the Future

man in underground station as train passes in Helsinki, Finland, picture
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Photo: Maas Global
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Getting around Helsinki is easy without hopping in a car.

Helsinki, Finland: Upward Mobility

There are plenty of good ways to get around Helsinki, a cosmopolitan city with a small town feel and a robust public transportation network. For spur-of-the-moment travel, though, many people there still rely on cars.

"How do you give people the freedom of a car without them actually owning one?" asks Sampo Hietanen, CEO of Maas Global, a Helsinki-based startup.

Maas Global's answer is an app called Whim that combines multiple transit systems in a single service. Users plug in a destination, then choose from a menu of transportation options to get there: they can hail a cab, hop on a train or bus, rent a car or bike, and so on. The app handles route planning and payment.

The concept is simple, but its execution is complex, requiring the integration of multiple public and private services. Helsinki, with its open-minded politics and love of innovation, is a perfect fit. But Whim also wants to expand. The service was recently rolled out in Antwerp, Belgium, and Birmingham, England. By 2020, Hietanen hopes to take the service worldwide.

electric scooter rider on the San Francisco's Embarcadero waterfront with Bay Bridge in background, picture
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Photo: James Bueti
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Electric scooters are popping up all around the Bay Area and beyond.

San Francisco: Scooters and Their Discontents

This past spring, San Francisco's famous streets were inundated by the sudden arrival of the latest thing in ride-sharing: electric scooters.

The three start-ups behind that influx—Bird, Lime, and Spin—said San Francisco was in dire need of new transportation alternatives. City streets are frequently gridlocked. Public transit is suboptimal, to say the least. Scooters, the startups argued, could be a quick, cost-effective means for getting around.

But soon the scooters were causing problems of their own. Riders heedlessly wove their way around pedestrians on the sidewalk. They then dumped the two-wheelers haphazardly wherever they stopped. And it turned out the startups had never received permits for their new services—in part because San Francisco's city government had failed to foresee the need for such regulations.

And so, this past summer, the e-scooters vanished as quickly as they'd arrived, temporarily banned while city officials worked out how to regulate them. The scooter companies say their vehicles will be back as soon as those new rules are hammered out.

Read More: 5 Tech Trends Changing How We Travel

bikes waiting for riders in Portland, Oregon, picture
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Photo: Sarah Petersen / Portland Bureau of Transportation
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Bikes waiting for riders.

Portland: Anything but the Car

Portland's Tilikum Crossing is the newest bridge in a city famous for them. The cable-steadied span over the Willamette River serves light rail, buses, pedestrians, and cyclists—but not cars. It's an architectural beauty that doubles as a metaphor: When the rubber meets the road here, chances are it isn't an automobile tire.

A higher percentage of people bike to work in Portland than in any other comparably sized city in the country. Since the early 1990s, it has built 373 miles of bicycle lanes. Another 74 miles of bike-friendly infrastructure—dedicated paths as well as bicycle boulevards where cars are required to travel at low speeds and cyclists have the right of way—are slated for completion in the next four years.

"If you're moderately tolerant of automobile traffic, you can get pretty much anywhere [by bike]," says Roger Geller, bicycle program manager for the Portland Bureau of Transportation. "The goal is to get to the point where you don't have to be even moderately tolerant."

Up Next: 5 Ways to Spend Less on Gas

This article was first published in Fall 2018. Some facts my have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.