Forget flying cars and jet packs, the future of transportation is in public transit and in making cars and roads more efficient, smarter and safer.
Cars are already getting smarter, according to Randy Iwasaki, executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority.
"If you take a look at the fatality rate in the United States in terms of highways and roads, as little as five years ago 42,000 people were killed (per year). Today, there's about 33,000. We've reduced it by 10,000," Iwasaki said. "I think the difference is in the vehicle, things like Onstar, cars reminding you to put on your seat belt."
Onstar lets people communicate directly with an operator to report a crash or emergency. Iwasaki said that's just the beginning.
"In recent years you'll have lane-keeping technology, cars that will keep you on the lane," he said. If the lane-keeping feature is activated, those cars won't let people pass unless they signal.
"In the future, cars may not allow people to pass if there's not enough room. This helps older drivers -- that takes some of the judgment calls out of the driver's hand and could put them into a computer," Iwasaki said.
He said cars will be able to communicate with the highway system and through it with other drivers.
"It will communicate with the infrastructure provider and other cars to say, 'Hey, there's a slick spot ahead,'" he said.
And the same technology that's being used in autopilot systems on airplanes will be shifted to cars and trucks. Iwasaki said that could prevent a car from getting too close to the vehicle in front.
As technology continues, he said cars and trucks will become more autonomous, with cars traveling close to each other at high speeds -- allowing more cars on the road. Trucks will be able to drive closer together in truck-only lanes to take advantage of drafting, fuel efficiencies that come from driving close. That, Iwasaki said, is already in the testing phase.
At least one car company has pioneered a system that won't let a car go into reverse if there's a pedestrian behind it.
Beyond that, Iwasaki said, self-parking systems in use by some cars will take that technology a step farther.
"In the future, you and your significant other will be able to get out and your car will park itself in a parking facility," obeying all traffic laws along the way, he said. That will let cars park more closely together.
Autonomous technology will also apply to public transit. Iwasaki said.
"A bus will drive itself, going 30, 35 miles per hour, and the bus will veer over to its right for a stop, and that thing will come -- without scraping a tire -- an inch away from a docking station," he said. "There's a pilot project in San Diego, running buses on the shoulder. That technology is driven by magnets, embedded in the pavement. In the future, those sensors will be embedded in the car."
For trains, Iwasaki pointed to Japan, where the goal is to have them arrive exactly on time. He said thanks to improvements in technology, trains there already run within 30 seconds of their projected arrival and departure times.
"What gets measured gets improved," he said. "With better measurements, it creates a benchmark for BART to improve efficiency."
Iwasaki and his counterpart, Art Dao, executive director of the Alameda County Transportation Commission, agree that it's unlikely new highways will be built. That, they said, will mean more partnerships between county and local governments to improve surface streets.
Dao said unlike the past, when the federal government paid for huge projects, it's "no longer the big brother."
"In order to survive, we need to be able to help ourselves. We need to be very innovative to address our local needs," Dao said. "Transportation is not about highways any more, it's about infrastructure development. The way to do that is through local government."
Dao said recent laws -- specifically SB 375 and AB 32 -- require greenhouse gas reductions of 15% by 2035.
That's responsible for the statewide push for transit-oriented housing.
"We have to figure out how to get people out of cars into mass transit," Dao said.
He added that will not only mean housing but improvements to mass transit, where people can expect buses and trains to run on time. Dao pointed toward Japan, where trains run within 30 seconds of the time they're set to be at any given station.
"We need sustainable, reliable, essentially user-friendly mass transit systems," he said, adding they need to be interconnected, too. Anyone who's taken BART and tried to connect with San Francisco's MUNI system can understand that need.
Beyond that, he said, "We need to get people out of cars and into other modes, not only mass transit, but also walking and biking."
That, he said will mean a push to create more trails, such as the recent extension of the Iron Horse Trail to link with Dublin/Pleasanton BART station on Owens Drive.
Dao pointed out that Alameda County has 20% of the total population of the nine-county Bay Area, but 40% of the congestion, something that's apparent to anyone who's been on Interstate 580 during rush hour.
"We have to increase the performance of our existing mass transit system," he said. "They're not interconnected, they're not reliable, and some would argue they're not sustainable by the way they're funded right now."
Dao acknowledges that people will still be driving -- he said 60% drive and still drive alone. To encourage carpooling and generate revenue, look for more express lanes, like the one currently in operation on Interstate 680 south between Highway 84 and Highway 237 that accepts a payment from drivers who are alone in their vehicles. That 14-mile stretch of Express lane has seen more than a million drivers since it opened in September 2010.
"The whole notion of express lanes is understanding that we're running out of options for adding additional lanes to our freeways. One way to squeeze more people in is to use the express lane concept," Dao said. "The more people in a car, the less cars there are on the freeway."
Despite initial complaints about added congestion, the average speed on the road during peak times has risen 7 to 15 miles an hour, according to a fact sheet about the lanes.
I-680 northbound on the same stretch will be the next express lane set to open with an environmental report due in July. Next up is Highway 237 in Santa Clara County, then I-580 from Hacienda Drive to Greenville Road eastbound and from Greenville Road to San Ramon Road/Foothill Road westbound, a total distance of about 22 miles. The I-580 work is set to begin in 2015.
Money from those express lanes will go to their maintenance and to expanding public transit, Dao said.
As we await those new developments, Iwasaki said current GPS technology that communicates accidents and slowdowns has already made a huge difference for drivers.
"An informed driver is a safe and efficient driver. If you know what's ahead, you're more likely to get there safe," he said.