Uber’s new wave of urban design. Are cities ready?

Uber Urban Design

[quote_right][feature_box title=”TDM TAKEAWAY” title_color=”fff” header_color=”369″]Governments need to support and find ways to integrate sharing-economy systems into the traditional systems.[/feature_box][/quote_right]

As far as billion-dollar companies go, if Walmart is the poster child of sprawl, could Uber be the new face of smart growth?

Uber, best known for its smartphone-based taxi service, is expanding rapidly with initiatives less about individual rides and more about mass mobility. So far, reactions to Uber’s plans for driverless vehicles, “smart routes,” and shared rides seem pretty wary. Gizmodo’s Alissa Walker recently summarized concerns regarding equity, wages, and potential declines in public transit ridership.

While it is helpful to anticipate what can go wrong, it is even more important to get in front of trends to harness the benefits of tech-enabled mobility. Here is a short outline of what cities and suburbs need to do now to prepare for systems that are both public and private, driver and driverless, and solo and shared.

  • Understand What is Unfolding: If regions sit back and do nothing, mobility companies will still go forward. Companies are already collaborating with any willing partner, whether it’s a university (Virginia Tech in the Washington D.C. region), states, or cities. So the real questions need to address how services like driverless vehicles roll out and how soon this will begin to unfold.
  • Set the Big Picture: No, you don’t need to slog through a four-year-long visioning process, but cities need to set a vision and expectations related to equitable service, data sharing, and use of public assets and infrastructure up front. Cities need to envision the role each mode plays, including public transit like Metro, local buses like D.C.’s Circulator and Arlington, Virginia’s ART buses, active transportation, private cars, and future modes such as driverless transit.
  • Set the Priority on Transit: For the most part, the bigger the vehicle, the higher the mobility performance. Sure, driverless cars reduce the room between vehicles and supposedly help the flow of traffic, but all those cars still need the value drain of parking. Cities need to make sure conversations on driverless cars are less about individual vehicles and more about optimizing the economic power of land use plus transportation.
  • Design New Nodes: This is the most important point for cities. Uber uses “smart routes” to suggest collection points for multiple riders, thus reducing the time needed to pick up disparate fares. As mobility companies grow and proliferate (Split, for instance, is a new ride share company in D.C.), the competition for convenient curbside collection points will be fierce. Arlington is known for perfecting transit-oriented development for heavy transit. Now there’s an opportunity to invent a new kind of TOD for flexible transportation. Uber’s new moves to designate collection points underscore an important point: nodes and access to those nodes matter.
Congested City

This is also important because areas of town not considered transit oriented now become more attractive. Areas with some density, mixed uses, and pedestrian amenities form new nodes where travelers don’t come to transit, transit comes to travelers.

  • Rethink Infrastructure: If curbsides and new pickup “stations” in the public right of way become the hottest commodity in infrastructure, then cities need to figure out how to fairly appropriate and manage public property. Sure, taxis have picked up and discharged fares in the street for a long time. But as more travelers swap personal vehicles for hailed rides, we move the trip ends from parking spaces to streets and curbsides. This is not how we solve congestion.
  • Data and Performance: In pre-thinking what could go wrong, cities need to establish performance benchmarks for equity, congestion management, and other pressures beyond transportation.
  • Planning for Heavier Transit: The sharing economy (including rideshare and driverless cars) is all about taking advantage of existing unused assets like empty seats in vehicles or space on roadways. Think about it: Uber and Lyft are creating transit with no new infrastructure (with help from Waze to avoid congestion points). But at what point of roadway saturation do cities need to consider heavier transit? And what does that transit look like in cities and suburbs?

The disruption associated with Uber and Lyft is not confined to transportation. As these companies grow, their aggressive expansion plans are poised to send ripples throughout the entire municipal enterprise. Uber, perhaps unintentionally, has set off a new wave of urban planning. Are cities ready?

Photos by Daniel Lee and b k

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14 Comments or Mentions

8 Comment(s)

Ueli Brunner

How to plan for the unknown? What is the impact of driverless cars on road capacity? How much will demand increase when cars need no driver anymore? What is the role of public transport in this new world? And what will happen to railbound means of transport? Technology is advancing rapdidly, and business is moving ahead as well. How can planners and authorities prepare for the driverless car?
Join the discussions on http://www.ifomat.org – the International Forum on Mobility and Transport.


The driverless cars might just be personal cars hooked together like trains and pulled by a truck on favored lanes on existing roads. As part of the hook-up system, they’d have to agree to fill up with public travelers at certain times and places. Then they otherwise have the ability to unhook and drive to where transit doesn’t go…


Then there’s the issue of data collection about individuals’ travel patterns. As public and especially corporate-controlled transit systems get more finegrained, they’ll collect more and more data about who goes where when. These detailed databases need to be protected from misuse by advertisers, political groups, law enforcement, nosy neighbors … Uber’s data practices, and the issues they raise, are just the beginning but a clear signal that regulators need to get moving in order to catch up.


@thinksmall Agree personal data should be protected! Also consider how anonymous data could be utilized for good. When a city embraces these services, it should demand the big picture data in exchange. Planning for curbside nodes and complimentary heavy transit would be that much easier, and under-served areas could be identified.


Not sure that “…all those cars still need the value drain of parking” Couldn’t they just drive themselves to parking lots or garages in low-value land use areas in off-peak times? Much greater flexibility is allowed. For example, if a neighborhood gentrifies and values go up, vehicles storage could easily be relocated. That is much more difficult to do with a rail transit system.

I really like the idea of designing new nodes where cars could accumulate riders. Such a system could really improve conditions at Manhattan’s notorious choke points, namely the Hudson crossings. Imagine if more people just left their cars on the NJ side and got into car pools to get into the city. I think they’d be willing to pay more since they’d be guaranteed a seat. The PATH trains are currently packed during peak times. All those partially empty cars going into Manhattan could function as mass transit.

Lisa Nisenson

Parking with driverless cars will be interesting – but individual cars still need individual parking spaces. Many proponents note that driverless cars can be stored in remote locations until summoned. However, this can become a traffic problem. Perhaps unused underground parking in cities can be re-purposed, but this adds to costs. This needs more thought.


Yes, I can see that being a problem as they all come into a CBD around the time that demand rises. As I see it, their parking could be a lot more efficient in space usage, as they can be parked end-to-end, no lanes needed. Last one into a garage would be the first one out when demand goes back up. As existing garages and lots are converted for use by driverless cars, a surplus of parking space would likely be found, as projections of the overall reduction in vehicle fleets indicate, lowering development costs and freeing up more land for housing. Park and ride transit stations would no longer need parking, freeing up land for housing within walking distance of transit.

Karl Guenther Sr

I am a UBER fan; They handle parking by strategic statistical locations, awesome however the comments regarding the now congested subways, we need more. Like a highway throughput can be cut in halve just add signalling and cross streets.
Our team of consultants has further enhance the next generation of transit solving first needed revenue, then using a similar vehicle carrying people, we hope to be the next generation supported by smart phone systems and win financial partners and this contest: http://contest.techbriefs.com/2015/entries/automotive-transportation/5253



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