Transportation options are looking different – sidewalks should too

An article on Mobility Lab last year about Uber and urban form proposed: can we extend the disruption in transportation to a disruption in urban design?

Since that post, cities, public transit authorities and the U.S. Department of Transportation have further defined formal roles for ridesharing services and smartphone apps.

Innovation in urban planning, however, lacks that same sense of opportunity. Because ride-hailing and ridesharing services use existing infrastructure, perhaps planners see little, if any, planning role. Others might think the density outside of cities is so low that tech-enabled rides from the likes of UberPool and Lyft Line would be financially infeasible.

This is a mistake. In fact, transportation technology is only one of many disruptions already affecting cities, from changes in their economic structures to the impacts of climate change. With simultaneous shifts, are there ways to help cities adapt to take advantage of opportunities and become more resilient, using transportation as a starting point?

Planning models

Visuals always help, so Sarah Lewis, head of design for the urban design startup GreaterPlaces, developed a sprawl retrofit model to show how placemaking and technology would fit together. This model not only demonstrates design for emerging transportation modes like on-demand rides, but also experimental, adaptive strategies for a smarter, more resilient future.

Mobility Lab H

Source: Sarah Lewis, AIA, CNU. Click for full size.

Strategies for land use and transportation planning


Few (if any) planners specialize in comprehensive sidewalk design. But sidewalks are the new urban-planning frontier, as more and more uses – including ride-hailing pick-ups and drop-offs – vie for plaza, sidewalk, and curb space. A partial list includes:

  • Private autos: parking (on and off street), parking meters
  • Shared autos: parking (designated), parking (point to point), car charging
  • Taxis: Stands, parking, dispatch and repair
  • On-demand rides: pick up/drop off/staging
  • Public buses: stops – pole, stops – covered, off-board ticketing
  • Fixed rail transit: stops, stations, elevators
  • Private bikes: racks, repair stations, bike lanes (protected, unprotected, sharrows)
  • Shared bikes: docks, parking for rebalancing vans, bike lanes
  • Delivery: short term parking, loading zones (on and off-street, reserved and unreserved)
  • Pedestrians: sidewalks, ADA ramps, crosswalks, signalization facilities (cross buttons).

All this is added to traditional streetscape elements and the growing demand for outdoor “living rooms” for urban dwellers, such as plazas, seating, fountains, trash and recycling, sidewalk cafes and their “sandwich boards,” walk-up windows, public art, kiosks, newspaper boxes, mail boxes, street trees, and planters.

Clarendon crowded sidewalk

One block from the Clarendon Metro station in Arlington County, Va., pedestrians must navigate increasingly crowded sidewalks.

Utilities are also in the mix as well, with needs for space such as utility boxes, light poles, fire hydrants, wayfinding and signage, and other features.

In the future, other elements will compete for public space: monitors and Internet of Things-type connected hardware, embedded sensors, bioswales for shared storm-water management, and district energy facilities.

For now, sidewalk space allocation mostly occurs on an ad hoc basis. For example, new bike- and carsharing stations get negotiated one at a time. Retail owners tend to resist ceding back valuable sidewalk café space or dedicated parking once these kinds of uses have already been installed. With every unplanned addition to the sidewalk, cities risk losing the fundamental design purpose: enjoyable, convenient, and safe pedestrian travel.


There is currently a wide-ranging (and welcome) discussion among planners on pricing and right-sizing parking supply. Parking placement is just as important: cities need a hierarchy of parking-space allocation among private, shared, fleet and other cars and shuttles, as well as facilities for electric-vehicle charging.

Parking for driverless cars, too, is a planning wild card for the future. While some observers predict a reduced need for spaces – which could be located away from activity centers – car storage essentially shifts from spaces to streets, as empty cars circulate and look for their next riders. This will test everything from road pricing to road maintenance, as constantly moving cars stress infrastructure.

Economic development–

The planning profession’s obsession with fixed and predictable land and building uses no longer works with shifts in demand for flexible housing, work, and retail spaces. In addition to elevating sidewalk and curb design, we need to create new plan, code, and use categories for flex space. These new urban spaces serve as laboratories and demand-response pads for parking, festivals, food trucks, markets, popup civic space, modular buildings and more.

Because experimental urbanism is a new paradigm, cities need incremental development strategies to iterate density, use mix, infrastructure, and economic development. Too many small-area plans rely on one big, catalytic building, when in fact, smaller buildings can be a better, low-risk first move. Fortunately, the sprawl repair and suburban retrofit movement already provides a foundation for adapting buildings, centers, and corridors to modern, sustainable uses.

Make no mistake, there are big hurdles. Innovation requires cities to align and update numerous plans, many of them tied to federal funding and regulatory permits. Many risk-averse offices see hazards in an experimental approach, particularly if any decisions set precedents. Finally, the question of how to pay for sidewalk upgrades and street maintenance looms large.

But doing nothing with so many changes already underway is the greatest risk of all.

The above illustration is part of GreaterPlaces’ new Kickstarter, City Design Method Cards + mobile app – a new platform for city design to connect people seeking ideas on cities with civic innovators worldwide. 

Photos, from top: A Capital Bikeshare station in downtown D.C. (Dan Malouff/BeyondDC, Flickr, Creative Commons). Sidewalk planning graphic (Sarah Lewis, AIA, CNU). Sidewalk in Clarendon, Arlington County, Va. (Lisa Nisenson).

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