Tech is good, but we need transportation planning for the city of the future

This article was originally published by Expert Sure and CleanTechnica.

What does transportation in the U.S. city of the future look like?

Mobility Lab gets asked this a lot because it’s clear that people have had it with the crushing traffic that dominates most of our cities, and 3 out of 4 people are frustrated by their lack of transportation options.

As Forbes recently pointed out, the average traffic delay – time spent in stop-and-go traffic – per commuter is 42 hours each year, up from 18 hours annually in 1982. We’re losing patience, getting less healthy, being unproductive, wasting money, and polluting the air. And from the flip-side perspective, a new report has found that reducing the time employees spend in cars is one of best things a business can do for itself, for a whole host of reasons.

So people and businesses are slowly getting around to realizing they need to change their transportation habits, and this mindset is starting to have a huge impact on the way people everywhere – but especially in dense cities – take their daily trips.

It starts with tech

It’s safe to say technology has been the top enabler of this trend. And all the talk about the on-demand economy and electric and autonomous vehicles is actually a lot more interesting and sophisticated (and realistic) than the many years we all spent infatuated with flying Jetsons cars as our vision of a transportation future.

Traffic smartphone apps such as Waze suggest the most efficient route from point A to point B, adjusting along the way based on real-time speed and traffic information from other “crowdsourcing” users.

Dozens of transit agencies have apps that offer real-time travel information. And after a media investigation discovered that nearly 10 percent of buses are late to Boston’s public schools, a new app called Where’s My School Bus? was designed so parents could know if their kids were missing class.

And when package-delivery drones like those proposed by Amazon get off the ground, they hold the potential to decrease the number of truck trips on city and suburban streets.

Austin is creating an app that connects cyclists to traffic signals, which the Texas city hopes will encourage more bicycling by making lights turn green faster as bicycles approach them.

Zurich, Switzerland, has long had success alleviating traffic in this realm. If too many cars are coming into the city, sophisticated traffic signals are timed to vastly discourage people from driving in. With commuter rail strategically running alongside these roads, people can bail out of their cars and jump onto transit. It’s highly rational, it works, and the city is way more enjoyable because of it. More and more places – like New York, London, Paris, Copenhagen, and Buenos Aires – are utilizing car-free zones.

Lyft Line and uberPool have a huge opportunity to play a role in reducing the total number of miles driven on U.S. roads. While these new offerings are similar to traditional carpooling, which has been around since the need to ration rubber in World War II, the ability to hail a ride with more certainty from a smartphone is proving popular.

Public transportation really needs to catch up. Once trains, light rail, streetcars, and buses become interconnected services on our smartphones, we’ll see an uptick in ridership. One of the major drawbacks to transit is that it is perceived as unreliable. But if we can check real-time arrivals, pay, ride, and transfer to all the other transit possibilities from the comfort of our smartphones – or smart wallets,” as San Francisco transit innovator Tim Papandreou calls it – the need to own a personal vehicle will decrease.

Singapore has an “ez-Link” card that travelers can use to pay for buses, trains and taxis, while London’s Oyster card does some of the same things.

RideScout recently announced its plan to launch something called RideTap, which will be a pilot in Portland to demonstrate on-demand rides to complement the existing transit infrastructure. In other words, TriMet users will be able to book a Lyft on their smartphones to connect them from the end of their train ride to their destination.

The planners are a-changin’

Speaking of bikeshare, that is one of the major innovations helping planners see that cities are changing before their very eyes. Since 2009, when there were virtually no bikeshare systems in North America, more than 50 cities and towns – speaking conservatively, since there are also so many systems on college campuses – have added them to their transportation networks, most recently Birmingham, Ala. Even planners in smaller jurisdictions are finding flexible bikeshare options that best work for their size and resources.

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One of the many presenters for Mobility Lab’s Transportation Techies in the Washington, D.C., region

Planners regularly attend Mobility Lab’s monthly Transportation Techies events (highlighted here in this Washington Post feature) and help advocate for governments to open their transit data to make systems more usable for more people. And events like our TransportationCamp – which is now happening in various cities around the country and world – and grass-roots planning by groups like ioby and Cards Against Urbanity are opening old-school planners’ eyes to the creative thinking about what people want from their cities of the future. (Like welcoming and enjoyable bus stops, for instance.)

Mayors in cities all over the country are listening and beginning to be less afraid of saying “yes” to pilot projects that can often become bigger when constituents see success and private partners assist with funding.

Driverless cart before the horse?

Then there are driverless cars – the supposed answer to all our transportation troubles. Transportation-demand expert Todd Litman projects that these won’t fully impact traffic congestion, automobile accidents, and car ownership until 2060.

But we think that is wildly conservative. Large numbers of people will be using these vehicles over the next decade, and we hope to see good data soon thereafter on whether driverless cars are taking trips off the road and reducing vehicle miles travelled.

Equally important is that so much of the focus on automated cars has been on the tech, while not enough attention is being paid to what the impacts will be on people and our built environment. If these vehicles remove the stress of the commute, then that’s likely to induce a lot more people to ride in them, in turn taking them out of transit modes like buses, subways, and bikeshares. The trend might actually create a net increase in vehicles.

The cars will be able to cluster closer together in platoons on roadways and urban streets. The likelihood is that we will have much greater density of cars in urban environments, which could potentially diminish the quality of the environment that so many of us are striving for with transit-oriented development, complete streets, walkable activity centers, and livability and sustainability initiatives. This area needs to be studied, and good policies need to be put in place before the driverless cars hit the road en masse.

A good thing about our newfound sharing-economy mindset is that it sets the stage for fleets of autonomous vehicles to succeed, since many people are no longer automatically thinking they have to have their own driverless cars. Potentially there might actually be fewer cars on the roads.

Innovation will drive slower-moving policy

We know these are the innovations that will shape our transportation in the city of the future. The question is how it will happen.

If the right people aren’t at the table – like idea man Gabe Klein, for example – cities could end up looking like Cairo, Egypt, where people drive bumper-to-bumper, making the streets look like seething, inhospitable rivers of metal. That’s a worse-case scenario, but if we have the ability for cars to travel two feet apart, it’s also pretty realistic.

How we plan affects how quickly we get market absorption. For the most part, we don’t have the space to build new roads and highways in cities. And as the abyssmal level of federal transportation spending has gone on for many years now, and our infrastructure crumbles, we don’t have the money to build new roads.

So creative spending on relatively inexpensive throughways like bicycle infrastructure and walkable communities makes a lot of sense. And the intangible benefits of refocusing on modes other than drive-alone cars make spending in those directions even wiser.

Photos: Top, crowds cross in Tokyo’s Shibuya district (Warren Antiola, Flickr, Creative Commons). Middle, Matthew Johnson speaks at a Transportation Techies Metro Hack Night (M.V. Jantzen, Flickr, Creative Commons).

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Terry Nobbe

I may be old fashioned, though I still cry a little bit for China, a country that 25 years ago was a country of cyclists. Their cities have since regressed to be like most modern cities with auto exhaust and coal fueled electricity that dirty the air horribly.

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