Transportation Leadership 2.0 – Arlington, technology, and the future of place

What will it take to jump-start Arlington’s “plan B” for transit?

The county’s previous “plan A,” two streetcar lines along Columbia Pike and Crystal City, didn’t go as planned. Instead, the county unexpectedly cancelled both lines, leaving the community reeling with big questions of “why?” and “what’s next?”

In October, Arlington held its inaugural TEDx event at the Spectrum Theater in Rosslyn. The talks showcased a wide variety of topics reflecting “ideas worth spreading” in Arlington, centering on a theme of “connectedness.”

My talk addressed key ways the county can act now to ensure better transportation options in the future:

  • Several trends are converging that favor smaller, but more strategic, actions across business, non-profit, and government sectors, including transportation.
  • For transportation, strategic opportunities include (1) taking bicycle travel and infrastructure to the next level, (2) harnessing rideshare to create microtransit nodes in areas distant from Metro corridors, and (3) prioritizing pursuit of driverless transit.
  • Retool and expand public engagement for a more experimental future of iterative change.

Embedded in the talk are several key points worth a closer look – and the leadership needed to guide the restructuring already underway.

The big picture: In Arlington, we still brag about our vision of undergrounding Metro to take advantage of station areas. But that was 50 years ago. Today we are facing an entirely new set of challenges – and opportunities – related to our economy, transportation, and the built environment. What are the brag-worthy decisions we need to set in motion today?

The new world of work and commuting: Transportation planning still treats commutes as a two-stop deal – home and work. However, creative economies are built on the flow of ideas and “collisions” among people who spark opportunities via unexpected conversations and connections. Stanford University’s Steven Blank talks about “getting out of the building” to talk in-person with as many customers as possible. This is why biking and walking are so important to entrepreneurs, who need to meet with numerous customers a day. We are in the era of the continuous commute, so low- and no- cost connections are incredibly important. We need leaders to talk about bicycles and walking as economic engines.

TOD without the traditional T: Arlington is well-known for driving modern transit-oriented development around Metro stations. But what happens when transportation network companies, or TNCs, begin to mimic transit service with smaller vehicles? Shouldn’t we begin to capture the placemaking dividend where transit comes to you? This new kind of TOD poses a lot of questions and opportunities not only for cities, but for real estate developers. Remember how developers won’t build TOD along bus lines because routes can change? TNCs are expanding the concept of transit beyond fixed guideways; the developers who understand this win the next real estate economy.

The driverless transit imperative: Transit’s efficiency advantage over multiple cars exists whether there is a driver or not, as does the placemaking dividend related to nodes. Certainly driverless cars offer advantages over the current driver-directed auto trip, but to really understand the transit imperative, let’s talk pedestrians. Yes, pedestrian conflicts are technically wrung from the system as a driverless car automatically detects and stops for a pedestrian. This works great when there is one pedestrian and one car. But what if there are dozens of pedestrians (who can now cross carefree anywhere along the street without getting hit) and hundreds of vehicles in a chain reaction of continuous stops and starts?

The tech industry’s vision for driverless cars is all about flow. Pedestrians are an impediment to flow and become the “human factor” problem since cars are engineered (or at least marketed) to be blameless. Apple recently filed patents for cars that chastise pedestrians, solidifying this relationship. The conversation on driverless is shaping up to be all about cars. We need city leaders to call a time out and recapture the driverless conversation for public roads and public transit.

Infrastructure: The sharing economy’s defining feature is the use of existing assets – whether it’s cars or beds or tools. For transportation, TNCs rely on well-maintained streets for financial success. Moreover, ride-hailing services that mimic public transit depend on curbside infrastructure for pick-up and drop-off. As the gas tax and local discretionary funds face ongoing pressure, cities need to find new ways to raise funds to retool infrastructure.

Here too, there are opportunities. Uber’s Smart Routes suggest multiple riders converge at a single point so drivers only serve one pick-up. As noted above, new mobility hubs can coordinate the growing number of modes and options. Areas built around transportation options, financed by TNC and taxi ride charges, might offer a win-win-win for providers, cities and riders. New designs, built around flexible transportation, can coordinate available modes, land-use mix, parking and the necessary infrastructure.

Infographic of TEDx talk-excerpt

Excerpt from an infographic accompanying the TEDx talk. Click here to see the full version.

Most of all, we need civic leadership. Part of Arlington’s success story is the role citizens have played in shaping everything from funding issues to the bull’s-eye zoning concept along the Orange Line. Once again we need broad conversations on what the future economy looks like for our biggest sectors, what will happen to commercial and residential space over time (which might include mobile workplaces inside vehicles), and energy and climate impacts to infrastructure and our built environment. This is not a conversation for closed-door meeting rooms or expert panels, but for us all.

Photo: Pedestrians crossing Route 50 in Arlington (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab,

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