Life in 2050: A Glimpse at Transportation in the Future

By 2050, the ways in which we get from point A to point B will change drastically thanks to automation, machine learning, hyperfast transit, and suborbital spaceflight.
Matthew S. Williams

Welcome back to our "Life in 2050" series! In previous installments, we looked at how accelerating change and environmental issues will affect the future of warfare, economy, education, everyday living, and space exploration (in two installments). Today, we look at how people will get from A to B by mid-century, whether it's across town, from one city to the next, or one continent to the next.

Transportation is another sector that is expected to undergo a major revolution in the coming decades. In several respects, this revolution is already underway thanks to the introduction of autonomous vehicles, the wide-scale adoption of electric vehicles, the growth of renewable energy, and the advent of commercial spaceflight.

Between now and 2050, these technologies and trends will accelerate and lead to the creation of new transportation infrastructure, radically different from what we know today. All told, the following factors will contribute to this revolution:

  • Urban Sprawl and Clean Energy
  • Electric Vehicle Infrastructure
  • Hyperloops and High-speed Trains
  • Smart Highways and Transit Systems
  • Point-to-Point Suborbital Flights

Old Ways-New Life

Of course, the infrastructure of tomorrow will be built on existing transportation networks. This consists of urban centers with automated traffic control systems, mass-transit networks existing alongside road networks, highway and rail systems connecting major urban centers, and airports providing flights between nations and continents.

The problem with this existing infrastructure includes its dependence on fossil fuels and the fact that it is aging and in disrepair. According to an analysis conducted by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association in 2020, about 231,000 bridges in the US (more than 1/3rd) are in need of repair or replacement.

Similarly, a 2017 report published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranked 137 nations based on their economic competitiveness. As the report indicated, developed nations like France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Spain, the US, and the UK all suffered from the problem of degrading infrastructure. In particular, the state of roads and bridges was a major concern. 

However, the growing issue of climate change complicates matters somewhat. Rather than simply repairing their aging infrastructure, developed nations need to make upgrades any to their transportation networks with sustainability in mind. As the old saying goes, "necessity is the mother of invention."

Public Health Concerns

Aside from the increased demand for food, water, and utilities (like electricity) that this growth in transportation will entail, it will also lead to increased air pollution. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) 2012 report — titled "Environmental Outlook to 2050" — greenhouse gas emissions, particulates, and ground-level ozone will increase drastically by 2050.

This could also mean that the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution could double, reaching 3.6 million deaths annually (with most occurring in China and India). These statistics become particularly frightening when considering the younger generations that will experience higher levels of mortality as a result.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 1.8 billion children (93%) worldwide breathe toxic air daily, resulting in 600,000 deaths in 2016 alone. This problem will be made worse since much of the urban growth is projected to occur in the developing world. In these places, there is less access to medical care, and power is still largely generated by non-renewable sources.

In short, by 2050, urban air pollution is destined to become the leading environmental cause of mortality — ahead of pandemics, dirty water, and a lack of sanitation and access to medical care. Addressing urban transportation will therefore be a public health matter, as well as part of a global effort to combat Climate Change.

Sprawling Cities

The nature of urban transportation will change drastically, keeping pace with the changing nature of cities themselves. Between 2021 and 2050, urban populations will continue to grow, outpacing rural population growth. This will create a double-edged challenge, as more people living in cities will mean an increased demand for food, housing, education, and basic services.

Life in 2050: A Glimpse at Transportation in the Future
Megacity regions in the US. Source: Regional Plan Association

The expansion of cities will mean less arable land and green spaces for growing food, not to mention further burdens on our dwindling supplies of freshwater. However, there is a flip side to this situation since cities are hubs for innovation and development, which means larger urban populations could well foster new solutions for sustainable living.

According to a 2019 report compiled by the United Nations' Department of Economic and Social Affairs — titled "World Population Prospects 2019" — the global population is expected to reach 9.74 billion by mid-century. That's about 2 billion more people in just under thirty years. Beyond the number of people, there's also the question of where they will be living.

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Today, roughly 56% of the global population lives in urban centers instead of rural settings, which works out to about 4.4 billion people. According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), the global urban population is projected to increase to 6.6 billion by 2050, accounting for roughly 68% of humanity.

Similarly, urban growth will also mean that some cities will be overtaking others to become "megacities." According to the UNDESA, in 1990, there were just 10 megacities in the world, urban centers with populations of 10 million or more. Today, there are 33 megacities in the world, the largest of which include Osaka (19 million people) and Tokyo (37 million).

By 2030, the number of megacities is projected to reach 43, most of which will be located in Africa, Asia, and South America. By 2050, the Global City Working Group estimates that there will be 50 megacities, only five of which will be located in Western Europe or North America — New York City, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Paris.

While one in eight people (12.5%) live in the 33 megacities today, the majority of the world's 4.4 billion urban residents still live in smaller cities with populations of less than 500,000. By 2050, close to one in five (20%) of the 6.6 billion urban residents will live in one of 50 megacities around the world.

Getting around downtown

By 2050, sales of electric vehicles (EVs) will reach 62 million units per year, with a global stock of 700 million EVs. In terms of total sales, EVs will account for 56% of the global market, outpacing internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, which will account for the remaining 44%. This transition will be accompanied by drastic changes in the nature of infrastructure.

Charging stations will become more common than gas stations by 2050 and will benefit from the growing use of renewable energy and "smart grid" technology. By 2050, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) anticipates that 49% of global electricity will come from renewable sources, followed by natural gas (23%), coal (23%), and nuclear (5%).

Life in 2050: A Glimpse at Transportation in the Future

This will allow charging stations to be built wherever distributed power arrays are located. Biofuel stations will also become a normal feature thanks to the growth of carbon capture operations incorporated into future urban developments. These operations rely on titanium dioxide (TiO²) or biomass (in the case of BECCS) to chemically "scrub" CO² from the air.

In the case of the former, the captured carbon is then treated with water and an electrocatalyst to create ethanol as a biofuel. Combined with food waste that is processed to create biodiesel, older vehicles will be able to fuel up at gas stations that are considerably more "green." Carbon that is sequestered using the BECCS method can be used to generate electricity, heat, and more biofuel.

So, for many commuters in 2050, keeping the car charged (or "gassed up") will be a simple matter of pulling into a charging station located throughout the city or countryside — usually wherever a large solar array or wind farm is set up. Alternatively, biofuel can be purchased by pulling into an urban gas farm where fuels are produced on-site using urban air pollution!

Another fascinating development is the way electrical vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL), short takeoff and landing (STOL), and personal air vehicle (PAV) concepts will become more common. In an age where traffic congestion is a major concern, residents in major cities will be able to summon taxis not just from the street but also from the roof!

Similar to how people summon an Uber, Lyft, or conventional taxi on their smartphone, city-dwellers in the near future will be able to request air taxis from existing roof-mounted helipads or small landing zones around town. It's also likely that as air taxis become more common, designated "airports" will be built in urban areas.

Some current examples of air taxis and PAVs include aerospace the Boeing NeXT, the Vertical VA-X4, the EHang Autonomous Aerial Vehicle (AAV), the Jaunt/Carter PAV, the Volocopter VoloCity air taxi, the Lilium Jet, and the Personal Air and Land Vehicle (PAL-V). By 2050, electric flying taxis are likely to become a regular feature of urban living.

From city to city

Mass transit is expected to make a serious comeback due to the growth of cities, socio-economic changes, and demographic shifts — all of which will force major cities to upgrade their infrastructure or face urban decay. In a report titled "Future of Rail 2050", the engineering and consultancy group ARUP anticipated that several "megatrends" would play a role.

These include the potential for increased density, urban sprawl, and a lack of proper services that could lead to the growth of slums and the gap between the rich and the poor. "Currently, about 1 billion people live in slums, and the vast majority of these slums — more than 90% — are located in cities of developing countries," they state. "By 2050, the slum population could multiply to 3 billion."

The second trend is the way that population demographics will be shifting. As they note, by 2050, more than 20% of the world's population is predicted to be 60 years old or over (compared to 11% today). In addition, 50% of the world's population is anticipated to have achieved "middle class" socioeconomic status, which will also have a major impact on the mobility of urban residents.

Other "megatrends" include climate change and the need to provide services using more sustainable methods, smart technology, and integration, as well as the emergence of new technologies. Of the technologies that are expected to make an appearance in the near future, the Hyperloop is arguably the most auspicious and anticipated and could replace air travel in many areas.

In 2012, the Hyperloop became a hot topic after SpaceX founder Elon Musk shared his idea for a "fifth form of transportation" during a "fireside chat" with Pando. A year later, he published an alpha paper that detailed his proposal for maglev trains (magnetic levitation) in low-pressure steel tubes that took advantage of the low wind resistance to achieve speeds of up to 800 mph (1280 km/h).

Musk also indicated that he was too busy to pursue the project and made the alpha paper available to the public. Since that time, multiple startups and competitions have emerged to develop the technology and make Hyperloop fast transit a reality. These include Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), based in Los Angeles, which was the first private venture to launch (in 2013).

Then there's Hyperloop Technologies (aka. Hyperloop One) which evolved to become Virgin Hyperloop after being acquired by Richard Branson. Virgin Hyperloop has offices in LA, Las Vegas, and Dubai, with plans to create corridors in each region. On Nov. 8th, 2020, the company successfully conducted its first passenger trial using their two-seater Experimental-Pod-2 (XP-2).

There's also TransPod Inc., a Canadian company dedicated to designing and manufacturing ultra-high-speed tube transportation technology and vehicles with proposals to create corridors connecting Canada's major cities, with extension to American corridors. Founded in 2016, the Hardt Global Mobility in Delft, the Netherlands, seeks to create corridors crisscrossing the EU.

There's also DGWHyperloop based in Indore, India, which has partnered with government agencies, companies, and research institutes for the sake of building Hyperloop corridors that would connect India's major cities. Similar companies have been launched in the Netherlands, Spain, Poland, and elsewhere across the globe.

Between 2015 and 2018, a number of Hyperloop pod competitions were held to help advance the design of podcars. In 2016, when it was still named Hyperloop One, Virgin Hyperloop launched the Hyperloop One Global Challenge to determine where Hyperloop routes should be built. As of 2021, several governments have conducted field and cost assessments on which routes would be feasible.

Life in 2050: A Glimpse at Transportation in the Future
Source: ARUP

Between the increased demand for transportation services, the reduced costs (compared to conventional high-speed rail), and the improved speed and efficiency Hyperloop systems can offer, it's highly plausible that corridors will be established on several continents by 2050, with more to follow by 2100. Some examples could include:

Chicago-to-Cleveland Corridor: Also known as the "Great Lakes Corridor," this system is so-named because of the way it would connect several of the largest cities that make up the Great Lakes Megalopolis. Possible extension to Detroit and Pittsburg, and Windsor to Toronto (see below), would connect over 85 million people with a single network.

Delhi-Mumbai Corridor: Located in northern India, this north-south corridor will connect two of India's largest cities and economies. The Delhi-Mumbai system will be able to transport passengers and freight across this 870 mi (1400 km) corridor in just 3 hours to 62 minutes (the current rail network takes between 15 and 21 hours).

Moscow-St.Petersberg Corridor: This system will connect Russia's two largest cities and economic/administrative centers. Measuring 435 mi (700 km) in length, this stretch usually takes about 8 hours by train but could be traversed by Hyperloop in less than one hour.

New York-Washington D.C.: This north-south route would merge the largest economic hub in the world (New York City) with the US Capitol, not to mention the entire metropolitan axis that connects them (with Phillidelphia and Baltimore in between). It has also been speculated that a connection to Boston would complete a corridor for the Northeastern Megalopolis (aka. "BosWash").

This corridor measures 440 mi (708 km) along the Eastern Seaboard, connects over 52 million people, and typically takes a minimum of 7 hours by train. A Hyperloop system, however, could do it in (again) about an hour. A connection from Phillidelphia to Pittsburg would also allow for this north-south corridor to be joined with an east-west one running all the way to Chicago.

Toronto-Windsor Corridor: Located in southern Ontario, this east-west route is the busiest traffic conduit in all of Canada. The addition of a Hyperloop system to this corridor would not only mean extensive economic benefits. It would also alleviate traffic congestion and lead to an all-around reduction in air pollution.

An extension to Ottawa would mean a direct route between the US border, Canada's largest economic region, and the nation's capital. This more than 465 mile-long (750 km) stretch typically takes over 21 hours by existing rail systems but could be traversed in just an hour with a Hyperloop.

Similarly, proposals have been made for a Toronto-Montreal Corridor, which would connect two of Canada's two largest economic centers. Combined with the Toronto-Windsor Corridor, this roughly 600 mi (950 km) route could be crossed in 1 hour and 15 minutes. Possible extensions to Ottawa and Quebec city would link the most populous and heavily industrialized region of Canada.

Seoul-Busan Corridor: This proposed Hyperloop route would connect Korea's two largest urban areas and most important economic centers. The route measures less than 250 mi (400 km) but would connect over 36 million people (~70% of South Korea's population) and is one of the most economically vital routes in the world.

With a Hyperloop, this route could see passengers and freight moving from the capital of South Korea (and one of the largest economic hubs in Asia) and one of the largest port facilities in the world.

Smart driving, smart traffic

In the near future, commuters will benefit from smart highways, smart traffic control systems, and transportation networks that are optimized with machine learning and AI-driven analytics. Today, many cities already have Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), and that trend is anticipated to grow as more cities use "smart" technology to become more efficient.

These systems rely on sensors, cameras, cellular routers, and automation systems to monitor and direct traffic to reduce congestion. Within city limits and residential areas, these systems also coordinate traffic lights, pedestrian crossing zones, school zone signs, alert drivers of speed limits, and issue tickets to violators.

When paired with self-driving cars, these highway systems will also coordinate autonomous vehicles (which will be much more common) in order to reduce accidents and ensure commuters abide by safety regulations. This will eliminate the need for "speed traps" and for police and civil authorities to enforce traffic laws, freeing them up for more serious tasks.

The task of overseeing all this will fall to centralized processors that rely on machine learning to analyze traffic patterns and find ways to optimize the local network. This will significantly reduce the workload for transit authorities, reduce the associated costs of mass-transit systems, and dramatically improve efficiency.

Another traffic-saving measure could come in the form of underground tunnels that allow for automated freight transport. A perfect example is the Cargo Sous-Terrain system that is currently under construction in Switzerland. This $3.4 billion project will utilize a series of underground tunnels and automated delivery vehicles to eliminate freight trucks from highways.

Other countries are looking to realize their own underground freight transportation (UFT) networks using automated vehicles and freight delivery. In the US, there's the Boring Company that SpaceX founder Elon Musk launched in 2016 to create tunnel networks beneath major cities for automated cars, freight vehicles, and Hyperloop trains.

In Germany, there are plans to build an automated freight transportation system known as the CargoCap. This system, developed by researchers at the Ruhr-University of Bochum and the government of North Rhine-Westphalia, would utilize individual, intelligent vehicles (aka. Caps) to transport freight in congested urban areas.

Similar networks have been proposed for major cities in the US, the European Union, and China. By 2050, every megacity in the world is likely to have an underground option for driving, rapid transit, and automated freight delivery.

To the Kármán Line and beyond!

Among the many options for rapid transit that will be available by 2050, suborbital spaceflight is arguably the most ambitious. Alongside Hyperloop corridors that allow passengers to travel from one end of the country to the other in a few hours, commercial launch services that provide intercontinental flights in the same amount of time will make planes all but obsolete.

At present, there are three major commercial space companies that have shared their plans to offer flights using their launch vehicles. These include SpaceX, which hopes to provide point-to-point suborbital flights using the Starship. This would consist of their spacecraft taking off and landing at offshore facilities, allowing for flights anywhere in the world in "30 minutes or less."

For years, Richard Branson (founder and CEO of Virgin Galactic) has pursued a vision of realizing "space tourism" through suborbital spaceflights. This will consist of the passengers flying aboard a SpaceShipTwo above the Kármán Line — an altitude of 62 mi (100 km), the boundary where space begins.

However, Branson has indicated that the SpaceShipTwo fleet will be used to provide point-to-point transportation services between major cities in the future. Blue Origin has also expressed interest in expanding its suborbital launch services by adding more spaceports, which could also accommodate flights between cities.

The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) also has plans for a commercial spacecraft that could deliver suborbital point-to-point transportation services. The proposal was the subject of a video (titled "One Hour Global Arrival in the Space Transportation System") which CALT presented at the 6th Aerospace Industry Achievement Exhibition back in April.

The German Aerospace Center (DLR) is also working on the SpaceLiner, a hypersonic suborbital spaceplane that could accommodate intercontinental flights. According to DLR statements, the SpaceLiner could transport 50 people from Australia to Europe in 90 minutes or 100 passengers from Europe to California in 60 minutes.

As always, the main forces driving change between today and 2050 will be climatological and technological in nature. In terms of transportation, this will mean that existing infrastructure will need to be upgraded (and/or repaired) so it can accommodate more people while simultaneously reducing stress on the environment.

The solution to this problem, which is already being implemented around the world, involves adopting renewable energy, sustainable development strategies, machine learning and optimization, and some out-of-the-box thinking.