Houston, cars, and traffic jams seem to go together and is a vexing problem for those charged with getting people from Point A to Point B. The problem is very common in large cities and the proposed solutions are, unfortunately, all too familiar.

Houston Metro’s Plan

According to the Houston Chronicle, Houston’s Metropolitan Transit Authority recently announced a $3 billion bond proposal to finance a 20-year transit plan that promises to add more bus lines, included dedicated bus lanes in lieu of expanding the city’s light rail system. However, advances in self-driving vehicle and electric engine technology could make the traditional way we think of mass transit as obsolete as the horse-drawn carriage, at least in urban areas.

The Real Future of Transportation

A hint of what is to come can be seen in the growing popularity of ride-share services. A person can call a car from Uber or Lyft on his or her smartphone and, within minutes, be on their way to any destination desired. Another ride-sharing company, Hitch, offers rides between cities, starting with Austin and Houston. Ride-sharing, while more expensive than riding the bus or train, is more convenient. The service can take its riders directly from their front doors to their workplaces, or anywhere else, without them having to trudge to a bus stop or train station.

Self-driving technology will make ride-sharing cheaper in that it will make a driver unnecessary.

Advances pending in battery technology will expand the range of electric vehicles and reduce the time necessary for recharging them. Electric vehicles will be cheaper to operate and maintain once the technology matures. Such cars could bring the suburbs within reach of commuters who want to leave the driving to a computer.

Some futurists believe that self-driving vehicles will end the private ownership of cars.

Why buy a car at great expense, while bearing the cost of maintenance, gas, and insurance, when you can just summon one the moment you need it? Ride-share companies will take care of all the incidental expenses of owning a car for you.

Self-driving vehicles won’t greatly add to the traffic problem. Their navigation systems, using artificial intelligence and a suite of sensors, will handle traffic with far more efficiency than a million or so drivers who have to go to work and back five days a week.

The vehicles will also be less prone to get into accidents since navigation systems do not experience road rage and have faster reaction times than human drivers. Fewer traffic tie-ups will occur as hundreds of vehicles will no longer be stalled in front of active accident scenes.

2038, the year Houston Metro envisions completing its transit plan, will be far different transportation-wise, than 2019. Fewer and fewer people are likely to put up with the time and inconvenience of taking the bus and train, maybe getting to their destinations in an hour or so, when they can take self-driving cars, which could range from one or two-person pods to autonomous SUVs, and get to the same place in 15 or 20 minutes.

With the advances in self-driving vehicles in mind, one has to wonder why Houston Metro is still stuck on what is in effect 20th-century technology to move people from place to place. Instead of proposing to spend $3 billion on modes of transportation that are likely to be obsolete in 20 years, Houston Metro should start planning for a city sans trains or buses.

What should the Houston-area road network look like by 2038? Should people with low incomes be granted vouchers to help them pay for their self-driving car trips? Could Houston Metro develop a city-wide monitoring and navigation aid that can focus on making the flow of traffic quicker and smoother?

Flying cars instead of buses

If the idea of self-driving cars is not futuristic enough, CNBC recently reported that Uber is working on what is in effect a flying taxi.

These aerial rideshares would take off from designated sky ports or the rooftops of buildings and fly serenely above traffic. These vehicles, which the company advertises will cost as much as a ride on UberX, are scheduled to start testing in Los Angeles and Dallas/Fort Worth in 2020 and enter service in 2023. NASA is lending a hand in developing the navigation systems for these air taxis, according to the Verge. Imagine, therefore, getting from Clear Lake to the south of Houston or the Woodlands in the north to downtown in about 10 to 15 minutes instead of 45 minutes.