It's just not as simple as: stop prioritizing cars.
By David A. King, October 9, 2014
Cities of all sizes are reorienting their transportation priorities toward people over cars. Rebranding streets as "complete," "shared," or "great"
reflects a turn away from automobility as the only choice for urban
travel. Local transportation officials and planners now place a larger
focus on offering many modes of travel and consider quality-of-life rather than simply encouraging driving everywhere. Though cars are still dominant, the era of automobility seems to have peaked.
Yet continued reductions in driving require true multi-modalism: rather
than relying on one mode of transportation, or expecting that most
driving trips can be substituted for transit trips, people need to be
able to choose from a network of options, including not traveling at
The promise of multi-modal streets hides the fact that such a
dramatic shift away from the traditional American form of auto-oriented
personal urban transportation is much more difficult than just
accommodating drivers everywhere. Supporting many modes requires
including multiple actors in the planning process, all with different
priorities and preferences. More travel choices also means private
entrepreneurs will take the lead on some services normally offered by
the public sector: from taxi or bus services to parking management to
goods movement. And with the benefits of redefining and reallocating
street space in a multi-modal system come new political problems in
terms of fighting for that space, too.
Here are three of the biggest challenges cities will face as they
shift away from car-reliant transportation systems and toward
1. Moving Beyond Car Vs. Transit
As the cost of driving increases through higher gas prices, tolls,
and parking charges, more people will look toward alternatives. Yet less
driving does not necessarily mean more transit use. When people drive
less they travel by all alternatives more; they also telecommute and use
home deliveries. Greater use of alternative modes to driving adds
bikes, pedestrians, trucks, transit, and taxis to already crowded
streets. New thinking about the design and use of street space is needed
as new modes, actors, technologies, and uses change the function of
For too long, transportation options have been debated and presented
as a choice between autos and transit, as though these modes are perfect
substitutes. Of course they are not, which is one reason our cities
have such difficulty getting drivers to abandon their cars. An example
of binary thinking about cars versus transit and how complementary
multi-modalism is ignored is seen in Tyson's Corner, Virginia, where a new Silver Line Metro station recently opened. While it is nice that the area now has rail transit service, multi-modal concerns for reaching the station were ignored during design and construction. The usefulness and attractiveness of the Metro service is diminished through the challenge of getting to and from the station.
While these design errors may be
fixed in the future, it shouldn't be the case that pedestrians,
cyclists, taxi passengers, and other street users are an afterthought to
cars and public transit. Multi-modal planning should be the norm.
2. Accommodating Public and Private Modes
Whatever clear lines once existed between public and private
transport have blurred. Start-up technology companies, large
corporations, and informal operators offer meaningful alternatives to
driving, but also subvert the traditional public monopoly for supplying
transit services. Ultimately we don't know if private transit and
app-based taxi services will succeed or improve transit ridership—that
remains to be seen—but the increase in private transit operators is
certainly different and affects investment and regulatory decisions.
Private firms operating on public roads present similar issues as the shifting role of public space for private activities.
Mass transit and taxi medallions are set up as regulated monopolies
partly due to the fact that they use public assets for their operations.
From a transportation perspective, we should welcome more taxis and
buses and trucks if they can help minimize wasteful driving. The public
does give up some control over how their public assets are managed,
though, and confrontations between public transit and private operators
The commuter tech shuttles in San Francisco are a well-known example
of unresolved tension between private and public transit, as both
complete for scarce curb space to pick up and drop off passengers. While
publicly operated transit has legal claim on bus stops, private transit
service is growing rapidly across the country and needs access to
curbs, too. In any city with taxi services or app-based ride-sharing
services, curb space is critical for safe passenger access, but there
are few examples of multi-modal curbside management in practice. In
parts of dense cities, taxis, ride-sharing, and delivery trucks can
cause far more traffic congestion and dangerous conditions for
pedestrians than drivers cruising for parking spaces.
3. Balancing Transport Networks
Beyond new challenges for management and allocation of street space,
multi-modalism makes travel patterns less predictable and more difficult
to anticipate for investment and maintenance. How we travel around
cities changes as available alternatives increase.
One feature of planning for automobility, or really any particular
travel mode, is that there is a nice symmetry to travel. If you leave
your house in the morning as a driver, you are almost certainly going to
make all subsequent trips for the day by car, eventually driving back
to your garage. With many choices, however, we might leave home on foot
to the coffee shop, then take transit to work, then cycle to the store
and lug our groceries home in a taxi. For this example, one car has been
replaced by four separate modes of travel, all of which represent
choosing a mode for each trip based on what works best for each person.
There are two takeaways from the multi-modal travel day. First, the
choice between driving and transit isn't one or the other. To reduce
automobility, many alternatives must be provided, and not as a bonus.
The second takeaway is that multi-modal cities have a lot of one-way
travel. For shared-travel modes, this results in large imbalances of
vehicles across the networks, leaving many without the options they
expect when they want to use it. The rebalancing problem is hard enough for bike-share, let alone many different types of vehicles.
In the end, multi-modal transportation options reflect the abundance
of choice that make cities great. But having many choices means
balancing many interests. The issues facing cities as they expand
alternatives to driving are complex and should be treated as such by
local officials, advocates, and transport planners. Redesigning streets
to reduce reliance on cars and are big steps for cities, but these
efforts will fall short if they don't welcome all travel modes—from
walking and cycling to taxis and delivery trucks—as critical functions
of our streets.