US cities consider ways to transform transportation

San Francisco

The pilot would try to lure people from their own cars to shared, clean-running electric vehicles, either with drivers or without (if robot cars prove cheap and trusty enough). The carrot? Ease and relative speed. Those in shared rides can use new dedicated carpool lanes (either marked on the pavement or drawn virtually using navigation apps such as Waze) to speed trips. One possible location: side streets near entrances to the gummed up Bay Bridge, where shared-only lanes could shave crucial, aggravating minutes off trips.

Officials see a fat market: A lot of people can afford more than the current cost of transit, but less than an Uber or Lyft on every trip. They want to figure out how government policy and technology can speed development of that market. Drawing in bigger vehicles, with, say, six-passenger vans, might help cut costs.

“We can move the same amount of people with a tenth of the vehicles…It’s really going to open up our minds. We’re not going to need to have all that excess road space. It could be open space, gardens or playgrounds.” – Timothy Papandreou, chief innovation officer, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency


Create transportation hubs largely around the city’s edge to prevent downtown from being crushed by cars. Ultimately, “a strategic network of these hubs could eliminate the need for human-driven vehicles in the urban core altogether,” the city says.  Give the supercharged “park and ride” lots – they’re calling them Smart Stations – some style. Officials want them to be a “cool space . . . kind of like a critical mass of convenience,” the mayor says, with walk-in medical clinics and groceries waiting to be picked up from locked refrigerators. They want people pouring into the hubs using shared vehicles or transit, rather than their own cars. People can then head out on electric buses, trains, automated bikes or driverless cars. Among the likely locations: the neighboring city of Pflugerville, where many African American residents have moved, and the green-leaning Mueller neighborhood, a former airport. There’d be a station in the underserved Rundberg area, and a more central station downtown. Once passengers arrive in the city center, they might use a driverless-car service to bop around.

“We are in danger of losing the spirit and soul of this city…Our growth is outstripping our capacity. For Austin, Texas, figuring out the mobility challenge is existential.” – Mayor Steve Adler


The population has jumped by nearly 25 percent in 15 years, to 683,000. The city swells by 200,000 a day, with most trips starting or ending outside the city. Roughly a third of people live in poor neighborhoods with high unemployment. Building a single, mile-long lane along jammed Federal Boulevard cost $30 million.  \

Denver’s idea is to marry carpool services such as Lyft Line with light rail, commuter rail and bus lines, so people can more easily get to and from stations and drive less. In poorer areas in particular, the city plans to partner with Lyft and potentially others to promote “on-demand transit.” Since residents in disadvantaged northern neighborhoods and elsewhere lack the bank accounts and resources needed to sign up for ride-hailing services, the city will try to play matchmaker. Officials would help poor residents pay for Lyft trips that start or stop along transit lines. The ride-hailing company could then guarantee rates to encourage drivers to make more pickups in underserved areas. Along the way, the city would gather data on where the holes in service are and test the economics of driverless cars. Officials also want to set up wireless connections with trucks moving through poorer communities such as Globeville and Elyria Swansea, with coordinated red lights cutting travel times and pollution.

“We’re trying to make sure folks don’t feel the only way to get around is in a car. Being a Western city, that is how a lot of folks feel…The transportation system is a finite system. There’s only so much room on the road.” – Crissy Fanganello, director of transportation and mobility


“The traffic violence here, and we don’t use that term lightly, is significant. We actually had more people die on our streets than we had murdered last year.” – Maurice Henderson, assistant transportation director

78 takes of America’s future

From Akron to Yonkers, by way of Memphis and Miami, here are vision statements submitted by all 78 cities, or teams of cities, for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. Seven finalists were chosen in March. On June 9th, they held a live-streamed pitch meeting in Washington, and the winner will be announced later this month.

Design and development by Lazaro Gamio and Katherine Lee