Some people are obsessed by French wines. Others love playing golf or devouring literature. One of my greatest pleasures in life is, I have to admit, a bit special. I cannot tell you how much I enjoy watching cities from the sky, from an airplane window.
Some cities are calmly industrious, like Dusseldorf or Louisville. Others project an energy that they can hardly contain, like New York or Hong Kong. And then you have Paris or Istanbul, and their patina full of history.
I see cities as living beings. And when I discover them from far above, I like to find those main streets and highways that structure their space. Especially at night, when commuters make these arteries look dramatically red and golden: the city's vascular system performing its vital function right before your eyes. But when I'm sitting in my car after an hour and a half of commute every day, that reality looks very different.
Nothing — not public radio, no podcast —
(Laughter) Not even mindfulness meditation makes this time worth living.
Isn't it absurd that we created cars that can reach 130 miles per hour and we now drive them at the same speed as 19th-century horse carriages?
In the US alone, we spent 29.6 billion hours commuting in 2014. With that amount of time, ancient Egyptians could have built 26 Pyramids of Giza.
We do that in one year. A monumental waste of time, energy and human potential.
For decades, our remedy for congestion was simple: build new roads or enlarge existing ones. And it worked. It worked admirably for Paris, when the city tore down hundreds of historical buildings to create 85 miles of transportation-friendly boulevards. And it still works today in fast-growing emerging cities. But in more established urban centers, significant network expansions are almost impossible: habitat is just too dense, real estate, too expensive and public finances, too fragile. Our city's vascular system is getting clogged, it's getting sick, and we should pay attention.
Our current way of thinking is not working. For our transportation to flow, we need a new source of inspiration.
So after 16 years working in transportation, my "aha moment" happened when speaking with a biotech customer. She was telling me how her treatment was leveraging specific properties of our vascular system. "Wow," I thought, "Our vascular system — all the veins and arteries in our body making miracles of logistics every day." This is the moment I realized that biology has been in the transportation business for billions of years. It has been testing countless solutions to move nutrients, gases and proteins. It really is the world's most sophisticated transportation laboratory.
So, what if the solution to our traffic challenges was inside us? I wanted to know: Why is it that blood flows in our veins most of our lives, when our big cities get clogged on a daily basis? And the reality is that you're looking at two very different networks. I don't know if you realize, but each of us has 60,000 miles of blood vessels in our bodies — 60,000 miles. That's two-and-a-half times the Earth's circumference, inside you. What it means is that blood vessels are everywhere inside us, not just under the surface of our skin.
But if you look at our cities, yes, we have some underground subway systems and some tunnels and bridges, and also some helicopters in the sky. But the vast majority of our traffic is focused on the ground, on the surface. So in other words, while our vascular system uses the three dimensions inside us, our urban transportation is mostly two-dimensional. And so what we need is to embrace that verticality. If our surface grid is saturated, well, let's elevate our traffic.
This Chinese concept of a bus that can straddle traffic jams — that was an eye-opener on new ways to think about space and movement inside our cities. And we can go higher, and suspend our transportation like we did with our electrical grid. Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi are talking about testing these futuristic networks of suspended magnetic pods. And we can keep climbing, and fly. The fact that a company like Airbus is now seriously working on flying urban taxis is telling us something. Flying cars are finally moving from science-fiction déjà vu to attractive business-case territory. And that's an exciting moment.
So building this 3-D transportation network is one of the ways we can mitigate and solve traffic jams. But it's not the only one. We have to question other fundamental choices that we made, like the vehicles we use. Just imagine a very familiar scene: You've been driving for 42 minutes. The two kids behind you are getting restless. And you're late. Do you see that slow car in front of you? Always comes when you're late, right?
That driver is looking for parking. There is no parking spot available in the area, but how would he know? It is estimated that up to 30 percent of urban traffic is generated by drivers looking for parking. Do you see the 100 cars around you? Eighty-five of them only have one passenger. Those 85 drivers could all fit in one Londonian red bus. So the question is: Why are we wasting so much space if it is what we need the most? Why are we doing this to ourselves?
Biology would never do this. Space inside our arteries is fully utilized. At every heartbeat, a higher blood pressure literally compacts millions of red blood cells into massive trains of oxygen that quickly flow throughout our body. And the tiny space inside our red blood cells is not wasted, either. In healthy conditions, more than 95 percent of their oxygen capacity is utilized. Can you imagine if the vehicles we used in our cities were 95 percent full, all the additional space you would have to walk, to bike and to enjoy our cities?
The reason blood is so incredibly efficient is that our red blood cells are not dedicated to specific organs or tissues; otherwise, we would probably have traffic jams in our veins. No, they're shared. They're shared by all the cells of our body. And because our network is so extensive, each one of our 37 trillion cells gets its own deliveries of oxygen precisely when it needs them.
Blood is both a collective and individual form of transportation. But for our cities, we've been stuck. We've been stuck in an endless debate between creating a car-centric society or extensive mass-transit systems. I think we should transcend this. I think we can create vehicles that combine the convenience of cars and the efficiencies of trains and buses. Just imagine. You're comfortably sitting in a fast and smooth urban train, along with 1,200 passengers. The problem with urban trains is that sometimes you have to stop five, ten, fifteen times before your final destination.
What if in this train you didn't have to stop? In this train, wagons can detach dynamically while you're moving and become express, driverless buses that move on a secondary road network. And so without a single stop, nor a lengthy transfer, you are now sitting in a bus that is headed toward your suburb. And when you get close, the section you're sitting in detaches and self-drives you right to your doorstep. It is collective and individual at the same time. This could be one of the shared, modular, driverless vehicles of tomorrow.
Now ... as if walking in a city buzzing with drones, flying taxis, modular buses and suspended magnetic pods was not exotic enough, I think there is another force in action that will make urban traffic mesmerizing. If you think about it, the current generation of driverless cars is just trying to earn its way into a traffic grid made by and for humans. They're trying to learn traffic rules, which is relatively simple, and coping with human unpredictability, which is more challenging.
But what would happen when whole cities become driverless? Would we need traffic lights? Would we need lanes? How about speed limits? Red blood cells are not flowing in lanes. They never stop at red lights. In the first driverless cities, you would have no red lights and no lanes. And when all the cars are driverless and connected, everything is predictable and reaction time, minimum. They can drive much faster and can take any rational initiative that can speed them up or the cars around them. So instead of rigid traffic rules, flow will be regulated by a mesh of dynamic and constantly self-improving algorithms. The result: a strange traffic that mixes the fast and smooth rigor of German autobahns and the creative vitality of the intersections of Mumbai.
Traffic will be functionally exuberant. It will be liquid like our blood. And by a strange paradox, the more robotized our traffic grid will be, the more organic and alive its movement will feel.
So yes, biology has all the attributes of a transportation genius today. But this process has taken billions of years, and went through all sorts of iterations and mutations. We can't wait billions of years to evolve our transportation system. We now have the dreams, the concepts and the technology to create 3-D transportation networks, invent new vehicles and change the flow in our cities.
Let's do it.