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By 2050, transportation may be very different than today in Northwest Indiana and experts from across many platforms say that future is coming soon.

Already, app-based ride-hailing services like Lyft and Uber are changing the way we get around and self-driving cars are predicted to take over potentially as soon as 2035. These types of technologies and services could help us achieve our goals for a cleaner, safer, more equitable transportation system, or, if implemented incorrectly, may instead trigger more traffic congestion, sprawl, pollution and social inequities.

The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission (NIRPC) seeks to shape the adoption of emerging transportation technologies to ensure Northwest Indiana reduces tailpipe pollution and supports other community values. The metropolitan planning agency is charged with shaping transportation planning for Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties and is in the midst of finalizing its 2050 plan right now.

If the right transportation policies are in place, the benefits could be great. We could cut tailpipe emissions to near zero. Few people would need to own vehicles if the technologies are affordable and augment fixed-route transit, which would help cover the often problematic “last mile” to our destination. We would be able to convert parking lots and other auto infrastructure into higher and better uses, such as affordable housing, parks and protected bike lanes. Goods would be moved more efficiently and sustainably. And as study after study has shown, far fewer people would be killed or injured in vehicle crashes.

But, if a community-informed policy framework is not in place, the opposite could occur. If self-driving and ride-hailing vehicles are not green, they will continue to pollute. If the vehicles are not shared, they will add to traffic congestion, which is already occurring with ride-hailing services. If services are not integrated, they will undermine public transit, as well as healthy transportation options like bicycling and walking, which will drive up transportation costs for those who can least afford it. If these transportation modes do not pay their fair share into the system, our roads will crumble. As society continues to automate, in the transportation sector as well as others, jobs will continue to be lost if careful, strategic, collaborative planning is not in place.

Today, we find ourselves at a time of transportation disruption much like that at the beginning of the 20th century when the automobile was embraced without careful consideration of potential negative consequences. We now have the benefit of hindsight and science-based foresight which the public, private and nonprofit sectors must engage to ensure emerging transportation technologies are a benefit and not a detriment to our Region.

By creating the right policy framework now — before new transportation technologies are widely adopted and in partnership with communities that have not traditionally had a voice in transportation decision-making — business and government working with NIRPC will help put northern Indiana on the right path. This framework provides a near zero-emission transportation future where people and goods move safely and efficiently, where people of all ages, abilities and socioeconomic status have affordable and equitable access to essential services and good-paying jobs and the livability of the Region is enhanced while our precious natural resources are preserved.

Independent groups and committees are beginning to emerge with an interest in transportation planning, not only in Northwest Indiana and the rest of the state, but throughout the country, fueled in large part by the lure of tens of millions of dollars in funding from the Volkswagen Mitigation Trust.

NIRPC is charged with leading transportation planning and works consistently and effectively in partnership with local government leaders, community members and business leaders to ensure all stakeholders have a voice in how the future will unfold. Local groups interested in transportation planning should join NIRPC and its leadership to build on the countless hours of work by the many members of the subcommittees, committees and the full commission in making our Region even stronger.

Remember, it’s never too late to begin your environmental legacy.

Carl Lisek is executive director of South Shore Clean Cities and vice president of Legacy Environmental Services. The opinions are the writer’s.

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Porter County Government Reporter

Senior reporter Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.