By Eric Jaffe, September 29, 2014
We tend to think of transportation networks as the result of large public works projects—hello, Interstate Highway System—but lately, private hands have been tinkering at the edges of urban mobility. App-based e-hail car services like Uber and Lyft are disrupting traditional city taxi programs. Smartphones are changing the way we wait for and pay for public transportation. And, of course, Google is on the verge of reshaping movement as we know it with the driverless car.
It's time to get the public sector talking again, says Anthony Townsend of New York University's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management. To start the conversation, Townsend and the Rudin Center have released Re-Programming Mobility—a report intended to provoke city officials, urban planners, and the general public into participating in the future of transportation, rather than reacting to it. Otherwise, he says, decisions made in board rooms today will impact the civic arena for decades to come.
"Really, what we're trying to do is provoke a far-ranging discussion that's much less one-dimensional than the kinds of futures we're hearing coming out of a lot of these companies trying to disrupt the marketplace," says Townsend.
Re-Programming Mobility conceives four fictional-but-fact-based urban-mobility scenarios set in roughly 2030. The 15-year window is far enough away for mobility to be uprooted—the U.S. interstates were largely completed between 1955 and 1970, after all—but still close enough to be reshaped by public input. While each scenario feels a bit far-fetched in its own right, together they offer plenty of food for thought to anyone concerned with the future of urban movement.
The whole report worth a read, but brief summaries of each scenario will follow here. (Full disclosure: I received an honorarium to review an early draft of the report.)
For years, metro Atlanta suffered terrible traffic congestion, brought on in large part by sprawl and decentralization. In response, Atlanta decided … to sprawl more. This scenario supposes that Atlanta resisted calls for transit and transit-oriented development and instead tried to "grow its way" out of traffic problems. Facilitating this shift are solar-powered roads run by Google—G-Roads—were driverless cars connect commuters to the city at 90 miles an hour. Congestion does fall in this scenario, but exurbs and edge cities expand considerably. From the report:
Atlanta had become a garden city on a once-inconceivable scale, providing millions of people access to both urban amenities and the countryside.
Los Angeles, 2030
Driverless cars have arrived in the Los Angeles of 2030, but they don't play nicely together. L.A. roads carry a mix of tiny Google pods, bigger luxury models, and low-cost Chinese knock-offs—each with varying degrees of automation and poor overall connectivity. The result is enormous congestion. (Adding to the problem, driverless cars now circle in traffic to avoid paying for parking, increasing vehicle-miles traveled by 30 percent.) Youth interest in transit has waned, because digital disengagement is just as easy in a driverless car as it was on a train. From the report:
No one had ever considered the risks of incomplete automation, and now planners everywhere are trying to figure out ways to accelerate the adoption of these technologies and avoid getting stuck in transition like LA.
New Jersey, 2029
Major climate events have crushed New Jersey's road network, but from the wreckage has emerged an incredibly sustainable mobility system based on bus-rapid transit corridors. Commuters can arrange a BRT trip on demand or rely on predictive schedules developed by Big Data. The suburbs have collapsed around BRT hubs situated within walkable areas near bike-share stations. Private cars still exist, but they're heavily tolled to pay for BRT upgrades, and commute time into New York has fallen considerably. The scenario concludes:
The nation’s most densely populated state, which had reached the limits of sprawl ahead of all others, was now a model of planned, transit-oriented development. By crafting a novel, uniquely American approach to mass transit, New Jersey had preserved its economy and its landscape.
In this scenario, Boston becomes a dense city to the extreme degree. Freed of possessions by the sharing economy, young people flock to micro-apartments just 135 to 160 square feet in size. The possessions they do own exist in local warehouses, with a system of driverless valets to pick up or drop off items on demand—a sort of "goods cloud." Autonomous bikes thrive, reducing the need for car-ownership and creating streets friendly to pedestrians by day. At night, however, driverless urban freight vehicles take over the roads to replenish and relocate the shared stream of goods. From the report:
In less than a generation, Boston had splintered into two new cities, living side-by-side but rarely touching—one of people and one of stuff, one existing by day, the other by night.
There's something here for everyone to like (and hate). Townsend says no scenario is intended to be a favorite or ideal, and expects the "real outcome" to be a mixture of each. "Really, the purpose of the scenarios is to try to get people to understand the messiness of the future," he says. "There's not a single technology, or a single decision, or a single economic force that's going to shape the outcome. It's actually the interplay of lots of different forces, including the policy and planning choices we make. That's what we're trying to call people's attention to."