Timothy Bell for NPR
What does the future hold for I-95? One thing experts agree on is more traffic.
There's something about the highway that inspires dreams and endless possibility. When Interstate 95 was being built 50 years ago, high-speed roadways and high-tech cars were a fantasy of things to come.
In many ways that fantastical dream has become reality, but in other ways, not so much — especially on a crowded interstate like I-95.
These days, commuters fantasize about simply being able to move. Experts say the future's looking even bleaker.
"We haven't seen anything yet. Those things are going to get miserable," transportation consultant Phil Tarnoff says. "I hate to be a pessimist about this, but I think we're gonna refer to 2010 as the 'good old days' here in another 10 years."
Highway planners hope to ease congestion a bit by diverting some traffic to trains and boats, but they also take a kind of if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em approach. If they can't clear the crowds, they'll make cars more "crowd-friendly" by making them smarter.
Smarter Cars, Crowded Roads
Highway expert Dan McNichols steps into his 1951 Hudson, a two-ton curvaceous coupe that's way more beauty than brains. "It's a real lead sled," he jokes.
"I give a little prayer of thanks when the car turns over," he says. Unlike GPS- and computer-clad cars today, McNichols' "old lady of the highway," as he calls her, has no idea if something's wrong inside. And no clue where in the world she is or who else is around her.
Future cars, however, will have way more brain power to sense trouble and help avert it. As he zips down I-95, McNichols says that will allow even more cars to move even more quickly on even more crowded highways.
"You'll see cars flying in formation a little bit tighter," he says. "They'll be, like, bumper-to-bumper and it'll actually be just as safe, maybe, as it is to drive with four, five car lengths in between each car today."
Highways In The Sky
You'll also see highways become smarter, McNichols says as he rumbles along in his Hudson. Roads will sense congestion and automatically detour traffic. On-ramps will stagger cars to help maintain flow, and tolls will become invisible — but more expensive, especially at rush hour.
Also, he says, expect to see the private sector take over highways and divert some traffic onto new lanes that go down into tunnels and up into the sky.
"In the future, those lanes might be conveyor belts, carrying freight that are unmanned," McNichols says. "They might be truck lanes, they might be high-speed rail lines, but building up is definitely the answer."
Think Shanghai, where highways can go five or eight stories. But with the high cost of building those new roads, most future planning comes back to better managing the ones we've already got.
Highway expert Dan McNichols gets ready to load his 1951 Hudson onto the bed of a tow truck on I-95.
Highway expert Dan McNichols gets ready to load his 1951 Hudson onto the bed of a tow truck on I-95. Tovia Smith/NPR
Accidents Avoided, Though Not Averted
Experts say about half of traffic congestion comes from accidents and breakdowns, so getting real-time information is critical.
"If they don't get it cleared out of the way in 15 minutes, you've instantly got an hour backup behind that, and that triggers wild backups during the rush hours," McNichols says. "And I think we'll —"
Suddenly there's a boom and a rattle. McNichols' steering wheel suddenly jerks left and starts shaking violently. He wrestles the Hudson to the side of the road as three lanes of traffic barrel down on the crippled car.
"Wow — we just had a big, big blowout." He lands the car on the shoulder of I-95's travel lanes and gets out.
Cars whiz by as he stands in relative safety near the guard rail and calls AAA. It'll be 45 minutes before the tow truck can get there, leaving plenty of time to ponder how things might be different if this were 2060 instead of 2010.
"The cars of the future will be communicating with each other, getting out of each other's way," McNichols says, "letting other cars even farther down the road know there's trouble ahead."
Don't Say Goodbye To Traffic Jams Yet
"The technology exists today to do that, and it's pretty cool stuff," says Peter Appel, who's heading up the federal government's research into electronic systems that can help drivers drive.
"If you're starting to get too close to the car in front of you too quickly, it might indicate to your vehicle you need to put on the brakes right now," he says, "And, yes, the systems might start to do that for you."
But even the best technology can help only so much, says George Schoener, head of the I-95 Corridor Coalition.
"I think this vision is no guarantee that you're gonna end up with smooth-flowing traffic at all times of day," he cautions. "But it will certainly go a long way to avoiding the nightmare that we would have if we didn't change what we're doing currently."
For many highway drivers today, just avoiding that nightmare would be a dream come true.