The Problem with our Transportation System is Us

(The following throwback article appeared in the July 1967 issue of Research Management, the precursor to our award-winning journal, Research-Technology Management, and was written by James P. Romualdi for whom Carnegie Mellon University named its annual Civil and Environmental Engineering Award.)

“Transportation—A Comprehensive Viewpoint”

By James P. Romualdi, Director of the Transportation Research Institute, Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pittsburgh, PA, 1967

To refer to a comprehensive viewpoint in transportation might appear highly redundant. Certainly, we know that an essential part of our civilization involves the transfer of people and goods. It vitally affects our lives and our commerce. It has shaped our history and will help construct our future. By its very nature it is comprehensive in the sense that it is inclusive; that it involves so many technological specialties and is entwined with our social and political structures.

But comprehensive also means to comprehend widely—and a brief acquaintance with the current controversies concerning the so-called transportation problem will serve to assure one that we do not comprehend widely. This is to some extent forgiveable [sic]. It is not easy to understand and guide such a diverse and ponderous social-political-industrial complex. Nevertheless, we are at fault. We have stressed some modes of transportation—even when signs of overindulgence cropped up—and neglected other modes, thus ignoring the concept of balanced transportation systems. Virtually no thought was given to the development of innovative systems.

Urban transportation in particular, along with urban development and water and air pollution, has been grossly neglected insofar as an intensive effort toward understanding and control is concerned. The total research budget for urban transportation—from both the public and private sectors—is barely measurable when compared to the research budget for air transportation. For example, the total 1963 research and development support in the civilian sector by federal agencies was $275 million for air, $24 million for highway, $15 million for ocean and waterway transport, and only $7 million for rail. Of this latter figure, the portion applicable to innovative concepts, as opposed to hardware improvement, is negligible.

Yet, it is interesting to note that a comparison of total travel time for airline passengers from city center to city center has steadily increased over the past twenty years for many of our short to medium length trips. The increased speed potential of the newer planes has been negated by increased surface time to the airport and increased departure delays. I am sure that many of us would settle for an old reliable DC-3 on most of our shorter trips if we could be whisked to the airport from a convenient location, in time for a direct connection with our flight, and be provided with equally efficient service at our destination—no more wearisome requests to be at the airport a half hour before flight time.

This apparent inconsistency of increased travel time with faster airplanes is not unique. It has its counterpart in numerous situations that reflect our inability to deal with complex social-technological phenomena. In one manner or another, they take the form of a fumbling of technological opportunity. Either the intense development of an acceptable technology is negated by the neglect of its effect upon its social or physical environment—or the technology itself is directly misused. The use of a newly acquired knowledge of mechanics to construct siege catapults ranks among our earlier examples. Television is one of our latest and most tragic. Imagine, for a moment, the enormous potential of one hour of prime time of a national network. Tens of millions of persons can simultaneously see and hear a program. The possibilities stagger the imagination. Yet this technological marvel serves up “Gilligan’s Island” interspersed with insipid commercials—a waste for which we shall sooner or later pay.

In the realm of foreign aid we see the gains of our economic and technical assistance wiped out by uncontrolled populations—and we see no immediate solution in sight. To consider a more extreme example, it has been suggested that the accumulated exhaust fumes from high-flying jets has created a slight thermal barrier over India. The effect appears small—a very slight change in average temperature. But it is speculated that it was sufficient to upset the delicate weather balance—and drought wiped out millions of acres of grain. Is it conceivable that the development of the jet has contributed indirectly to the death of thousands of Indians? I won’t attest to these conclusions—but the possible implications are sobering.

The automobile is yet another technological marvel that is finding itself in difficulties. It is a tremendously useful device and it has been developed to a very high degree of reliability—although we should give serious thought to the recent complaints that it is a package that does not adequately protect its contents. It is almost irreplaceable for a great number of transportation needs—but, it is a very poor means of commuting in high density areas. It is a good people collector—but a very poor people deliverer.


No matter how well we design our highways, the capacity of a single lane of traffic remains on the order of 1500 to 2000 cars per hour—each car carrying about two passengers. We cannot arbitrarily increase capacity for peak hours (with rapid rail transit, we just add more cars to the unit), so we design the entire system for peak traffic volumes. An enormous inefficiency. With an average of about 200 horsepower (HP) per car, we are providing about 100 HP per person for the downtown trip. It is interesting to compare this with modern rail transit vehicles which provide 4 to 6 HP per seated passenger. Pittsburgh’s new South Park Skybus, for example, seats 30 persons and is driven by two 60 HP motors—an average of 4 HP per person.

Furthermore, the automobile must be stored downtown during the working day—and this is a very formidable problem. As the old Packard advertisement said: “Ask the man who owns one.” The contribution to air pollution is reaching critical proportions in many areas—reflecting, in part, the 100 HP per person—and the destruction of useful space by parking garages and freeways has not yet gone full cycle. Even the suburban shopping center is not exempt. The convenient several acres of parking that we now provide will be looked upon begrudgingly as these suburban areas become the city centers of the future. We cannot, after all, continue to expand our suburbs indefinitely in a one-story horizontal complex. Yet we have fostered this mode of commuting transport to the almost complete exclusion of other modes of surface transportation.


My comments up to this point have been rather negative. It is easy to find fault in retrospect. In contrast, one must remember that within the aircraft, automobile, and television industries that I have just discussed are highly competent and creative persons. The problems of vehicle suspension, for example, could occupy the full time of an engineer with a highly specialized interest in vibration theory. Such persons have performed wonders in the development of vehicles that are near perfect in ride qualities—and in so doing, they have had the satisfaction of highly creative professional work. Similarly, the aircraft industry has its dedicated structural engineers involved with air frame design, and the television industry has talented writers and directors each applying his training to satisfy specific objectives.

But still the gulf between technological excellence and orderly urban growth widens. The problems of urban life have always been difficult and vexing. The disturbing fact is that they are not getting better, but appear to be getting worse. In spite of an industrial productivity that approaches the unbelievable, we are faced with seemingly unsolvable problems of a burgeoning population, crime, delinquency, urban and suburban blight, inadequate schools, poverty, pollution, and traffic congestion.

But, who is to blame? Must we ask the engineer or scientist—who has his hands full with the ever-expanding complexity of his own technical specialty—to become the spokesman for all of us? Should the designer charged with the responsibilities of developing jet engines refuse to continue until the problem of exhaust fumes is solved? These are moot points. The guilt is collective, and collectively we must attempt to reverse this trend.

There are a few clues available about our mass behavior that give us insight to one of the problems—and suggest certain remedial measures. I suspect that collectively we are terrified by the responsibilities that we face and frustrated by the widening gap between our technical prowess and our ability to control the social and physical environment. The problem appears so staggering that we often look for diversions—panaceas—something that would represent tangible evidence that our technology will not let us down after all. Thus, perhaps, the public’s fascination with the space race.

We do not hesitate to define bold objectives in defense and space research, and confidently assume that our technologists will build the devices to accomplish them. In these areas we seem to have complete faith in the concept of forced technological development—or forced creativity. But let the scene shift to the domestic sector and we find a great distrust in the products of forced innovation. To be sure, we are fascinated by air-supported high speed trains, monorails, automated highways, and the like… but these are the things that we lump together under the category of “breakthroughs.” Some day—so we surmise—they will be handed to us all ready to go, and again our faith in our technology will be vindicated. But try these schemes now? We are not quite so sure. We haven’t seen them in successful service yet! Too many things could go wrong! Are they feasible? Such are the oft-expressed doubts.

Please do not interpret my remarks to mean that we should rush headlong into every new scheme proposed. Certainly, we should subject them to rigid engineering and economic scrutiny. But to illustrate my point, assume for the moment that we had never heard of rail transport and someone proposed that we build such a system. His specifications call for passenger vehicles about 80 feet long, weighing 75,000 to 100,000 pounds, supported on small flanged wheels riding on two ribbons of steel nailed to wooden crossties. Speeds up to 100 mph are proposed. The objections would be too numerous to count! “One spike on the track would derail the whole show,” they would argue. “You couldn’t stop it within a mile,” the safety enthusiasts would add. Yet our nation was developed on the back of such a system.

Had we never heard of the privately owned auto, imagine the chorus of objections that would follow a proposal that everyone from the age of 16 to the limit be permitted to propel a two ton device, in close proximity to other such devices, in rain, snow, or fog, on a narrow ribbon of concrete, at legal speeds up to 70 miles per hour. Need we pursue this analogy any further? We are practically dedicated to this mode of transport!

Let me illustrate with yet another example. One of the most significant advances in current transport technology is the use of high speed computers in the scheduling and actual operation of guided transit vehicles. I won’t go into all of the details, but it is proposed that such vehicles be operated without a motorman. The vehicles will stop at and depart from stations, and otherwise pace themselves, under the complete control of a central computer. Feasible? Of course. But there is a reservation in some people’s minds about this scheme. A host of objections are raised. “What if there’s a cow on the tracks?” “With no motorman, how will a collision be avoided?” These objections can all be answered. The important point is that these doubts are based upon fear of the unfamiliar and a lack of confidence in the technological power that we now hold in our hands.

To digress for a moment, it is instructive to reflect upon some innovative systems that have been in operation in the past. In 1840, in Ireland, a system was constructed consisting of a train propelled by a piston that extended from the bottom of the train into an evacuated tube fixed between the rails. The top of the tube was slotted to permit the passage of the rod that connected the piston to the train—the slot being sealed by a leather flap which ran the full length of the tube. The system was highly successful—but their materials technology was not up to the times. Rats ate the leather flap and the idea had to be abandoned.

In 1870, a one block long subway was constructed in New York that worked on the same concept now proposed for our high speed inter-city ground systems. The car was designed to fit snugly against the sides of the round tube. A blower at one end of the tube propelled the car, and was then reversed to suck it back. It was constructed as a demonstration project to win a city-wide franchise—but the elevated line was selected instead.

And when we hear talk of monorails—whatever their current feasibility—let us remember that there is still a very successful nine-mile line in Wuppertal, Germany, that was built 60 years ago! It has carried over one billion passengers to date—and still makes a profit.

The monorail in Wuppertal, Germany, in operation since 1901


These are the innovative ideas—and they took courage to build. Because of the lack of the scientific predictability that we possess today, they were technologically risky propositions. But that didn’t stop their promoters.

For quite a long time now we have limited our inter- and intra-city transportation to the airplane, the rail vehicle, and the auto—and we can include the bus with the latter. Except for the refinement in details, these systems are little different now than they were just before the Second World War. Each serves a function—and each has a limitation. We are at the threshold, however, of really major changes in these basic transportation modes. Computer control alone will account for some of the basic change. But boldness in creative technology will account for the largest part. Automated highways could be with us in less than a generation. Large high speed trains, with special arrangements for the quick loading and unloading of private vehicles, will transport us at high speeds—perhaps on a layer of compressed air. Micro-transportation to the great number of urban travelers who do not follow the main radial corridors into our city centers.

Consider one current example that provides a view into the future—the Skybus built in Pittsburgh’s South Park by the Port Authority of Allegheny County and Westinghouse Electric Corporation. It is a small bus guided along its own narrow right-of-way. It is completely automated and is designed to operate around the clock at less than two-minute intervals. The coupling of additional cars together permits adjustment to peak hour demands. It is, in a sense, brand new technology. But let us stretch our thinking a little. Imagine that at the end of each run—in the suburbs or at intermediate locations—our guided and automatic electric bus is boarded by an operator. He drives off the end of the track structure on to a platform where he connects to an overhead power line (as in an old-fashioned street car), plugs in a manual steering console, and continues through the suburban streets as an ordinary electric bus. When he returns, he engages his vehicles into the automated guided system and takes over a newly arrived vehicle. Is this a bit far-fetched? Well, remember that the South Park Skybus did not exist a few years ago—and there has been no significant change in our technology in these past few years.

The Skybus train as it makes its way through South Park, PA
The Skybus train as it makes its way around South Park, PA

So far I have been discussing technical innovation. It is only a part of the overall problem, but it requires a comprehensive perspective far greater than that which we presently exercise. The issue goes much deeper, however. What are the social and economic implications of these new systems? What are the cost-benefit ratios? Who is to judge? And by what criteria? We hear that the increased property values along the new Toronto subway have already repaid that community for its capital investment. Yet in other quarters we hear the cry that new transit systems must be self-supporting out of the fare box. What are our community goals? On what basis do we establish the benefits of technical advancement? What is the cost-benefit ratio of a soft moon landing?—or the Eiffel Tower?

As we pose these questions, we find ourselves back at the root problem relating to our inability to deal with complex social-technological situations. We can no longer isolate the engineering aspects of large-scale systems and seek engineering optimization alone. We are obliged to relate to the effect of our transportation systems upon practically every aspect of urban and suburban life. We are faced, in other words, with a large-scale interdisciplinary problem—and when we mention the word interdisciplinary, we toss a good part of the overall responsibility for the solution of this problem in the laps of our colleges and universities.

Fortunately, there is a strong reciprocal benefit to be gained by this. To understand why, let us take a quick look at some of the problems currently facing engineering educators. Prior to World War II, engineering education followed fairly narrow paths in a number of disciplines and taught how-to-do-it courses for the most part. The technological explosion triggered by World War II soon led to serious problems. Students thus trained were soon obsolete in a rapidly changing technology. The solution adopted by many schools was to convert the how-to-do-it education to one relying heavily on basic principles. The courses were science oriented. Graduates thus trained were more adaptive to technological innovation.

However, by the same token, graduates thus trained have little familiarization with their role in industry or our economy. The difficult objective is to train graduates who can perceive economic and social needs, provide them with the skills and creativity to satisfy these needs, and still leave them with a durable scientific base upon which they can continue their technical growth. A partial answer to this need is to provide graduate students with intellectual workshops—or interdisciplinary programs—that will give them an opportunity to relate their skills to other disciplines—including the social and economic areas. In addition to establishing a foundation in their own specialty, they will be trained in engineering innovation, systems engineering, human relations, economics, and techniques of decision making and problem solving.

The reciprocal relation is obvious. Transportation provides an excellent workshop—or interdisciplinary program—as an aid to our educational program. The product, in turn, should enable us to make great strides in closing the gap between technological excellence on the one hand, and our inability to satisfy our social needs on the other.

When viewed in this sense, transportation—for all of its unique problems and potential—becomes one of a class of situations. We could also include water resources, urban planning, housing, and communications. These large-scale “systems” become workshops—workshops in which a student learns the skills that will enable him to intelligently design complex engineering systems that have far-reaching economic and social impacts on the community. He will learn creative innovation—and have the skills to devise new systems as needed. But he will also be able to judge his proposals on the basis of more than an engineering evaluation alone. With our future technical leaders thus educated, in the near future and in the next generation, we shall finally be able to turn the tide of the historical discrepancy that has existed between our ever-increasing technical potential and our inability to make our society viable.

This, I propose, is the comprehensive viewpoint.


Reference: Romualdi, J.P. (1967). “Transportation—A Comprehensive Viewpoint.” Research Management, Vol. 10, No. 4 (July), pp. 38-46.

*All pictures found in this blog were not part of the original Research Management article.

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