Does your city have a scooter infestation? Connected, motorized scooters from companies like Lime, Bird, Spin, Skip and more, plus similar dockless bicycles, have for the past year littered streets in major cities across the US and generated heated debates over their usefulness. Regardless of your opinion of the machines, their success tells us one incredibly important thing about our cities: it’s time to decide how we’ll reshape them.
Dockless scooters and bicycles are what’s called a last-mile mobility option. They’re not meant to take folks miles across city lines so much as from a commuter parking lot, subway or bus stop to your office.
Most of the automotive industry and media covering its evolution agree that autonomous vehicles will make streets safer. Many of us are convinced, however, that the benefits of autonomy will be limited unless we close parts of our cities to cars and reverse decades of prioritizing drivability over mobility. After over 100 years of designing cities around the needs of vehicles, it will ironically be advancements in car design that force cities to rethink their layouts.
Redesigning block by block
Barcelona, Austin, TX, Paris, my hometown of Chicago and more cities around the world are already making efforts to change, designing new city spaces that cater to pedestrians first, then cars. In some cases, they’re even shutting out the cars altogether, forcing them to stay within designated areas around the perimeter of reclaimed pedestrian spaces.
Barcelona was one of the earliest to make a major change to its street layout in an effort to reduce dangerous pollution levels by reclaiming roadways for pedestrian use and sustainable modes of transportation, like cycling.
There, it’s working. Despite some early resistance, Barcelona’s “Superblocks” have over the past few years enjoyed public support while making impressive changes to mobility in the city. CityLab reported in 2017 that a study of one of Barcelona’s oldest Superblocks found walking increased by 10% and cycling by 30% while driving fell by 26%.
Cars still traverse these Superblocks, albeit more slowly and less frequently, but there is no parking, forcing cars to their own special areas in the city.
This is an ideal model for how cities will route autonomous vehicles in the future – keeping them within prescribed lanes in “safe” zones and forcing them out of the downtown area after dropping passengers close enough to walk, bike, scooter or use public transit to reach their destination.
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However, Barcelona’s Superblocks, Paris’ semi-regular car bans and other experiments in changing mobility habits are just that: experiments. How can we scale these projects up to cover entire city centers while also increasing the positive impact they have on overall mobility and environmental sustainability?
Connected cars as a stepping stone to autonomy
To start, individuals need more choices for their commutes and other A-to-B needs. While five years ago it would be exceedingly difficult for city residents to plan multi-modal commutes, today most of the technology is in place to deliver more transit choices. We just need to accelerate data-sharing programs between cities and the mobility companies operating within their boundaries.
SharedStreets, the data-sharing initiative Ford, Uber and Lyft joined together in September, offers a good example of how cities can lean on private industry networks to gather data that will help address safety issues and reconfigure transit service distribution based on actual usage. Uber will offer cities a dataset showing vehicle speeds, which could help identify unsafe corridors, while Ford and Lyft will share curbside demand for ride-hailing, which may help cities pinpoint areas underserved by transit.
Data like those provided by Ford, Uber and Lyft and data from cities’ transit administrations are already being combined into platforms that will one day simplify multi-modal trip planning for city residents.
New connected technologies like facial recognition and contactless payment tech in cars could further smooth the process of booking, using and paying for transportation options.
Consider this: you drive your car to a parking lot one mile from your office, just outside the downtown core. Your car’s infotainment screen displays timetables for the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line with a stop at your lot, and you can purchase a ticket from inside your car. Once you board the BRT you won’t sit in traffic — cities already use dedicated lanes for BRT — and you’ll get greens all the way, keeping your commute stress free and fast. If you want a little fresh air, you could use your car’s infotainment system to pay for a scooter or bicycle to ride that last mile instead.
Over time your car can automate this daily commute. Facial recognition systems coming to connected cars in the next few years will be able to verify your identity to authenticate and complete transit purchases automatically, and if you typically take a bicycle when it’s sunny but always ride the bus when it’s cold, your car can remember this preference and reserve your last-mile ride for you ahead of time.
Finally, autonomy will take this one step further — your self-driving cab can remember when you leave for work and pick you (and most likely a few other commuters) up then, authenticate your fare payments with in-car facial recognition, reserve and pay for your last-mile option and then hit the road again to go get the next commuter.
It’s a great vision for the future, and many cities are already taking the first steps to connect transit systems and traffic technology and open that data for private mobility companies to use. But for the full benefits of an autonomous future, cities, automakers, app makers, mobility companies and the general public will all need to get comfortable with new mobility habits. After just over 100 years of designing cities for cars, it’s time to reclaim city streets for the people. It’s up to city leaders to start the process.
Last week, Los Angeles’s Metro board, which oversees the second-largest transportation system in the country, discussed a proposal to charge drivers to use LA’s busiest and most traffic-clogged roads, a concept known as congestion pricing. One by one, the board members voiced their opposition to such a policy.
“I am deeply concerned.” “It seems punitive.” “I, too, am really uncomfortable.”
Critics have long deemed congestion pricing a regressive policy that charges car-dependent people more to drive. A well-timed new report—Pricing Roads, Advancing Equity—out today by TransForm and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), explains how congestion pricing can be employed as a tool to right engrained injustices in the U.S.’s current transportation system.
“What used to sound radical now sounds like common sense—road pricing is urgently needed to address climate change, traffic, and inequity in the transportation system,” said the report’s co-author Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm. “We believe road pricing can be a transportation equity solution. It can speed buses and carpools while providing revenue to make mass transit more affordable.”
Congestion pricing can be implemented in a variety of ways, according to the Pricing Roads, Advancing Equity report. But the one that hasn’t yet been tried by a U.S. metropolitan area is “cordon” pricing, which would charge drivers to access a designated part of the city, possibly with prices that fluctuate based on the time of day.
Although cordon pricing has been successfully introduced in cities like London, Stockholm, and Singapore, LA’s vote is the first time a major U.S. city has seriously entertained the concept. Previous attempts to introduce comprehensive road pricing—New York City is resurfacing a plan this year, Seattle is still exploring the idea, and San Francisco has studied it in the past—have all been met with sentiment similar to Metro’s board.
But it’s not about punishing drivers. It’s about making sure more people can get more places faster and more affordably, with less environmental impact and less stress.
Done right, notes the report, road pricing has generated revenue to fund better transit service, built out better walking and biking infrastructure, and subsidized fares for students, older adults, and people with disabilities.
Plus, with fewer cars traveling along busy corridors, road pricing can speed up vehicles that get stuck in traffic, improving travel times for drivers and increasing ridership for transit. Even for those who do need to drive long distances, congestion pricing will create less arduous commutes in the short term. In the long term, it would also fund more car-free options.
In fact, those ideas are central to LA’s plan. Metro’s CEO Phil Washington first announced congestion pricing as part of an even grander transportation proposal—using the funds collected from drivers to accelerate critical infrastructure projects, reduce the carbon pollution known to cause climate change, and make all transit free in time for LA’s 2028 Summer Olympics.
“We’re talking about saving mankind here,” he said at a recent meeting. “This is no small thing.”
Of course, the key to making a congestion pricing strategy work for all is to make sure it works best for a city’s most vulnerable communities. In other cities, according to the report, this has been achieved with exceptions for people with disabilities, refunds for trips like medical appointments, and subsidies for low-income workers who rely on vehicles for jobs.
In LA, the Metro board ultimately voted to study the equity issues, but only one board member, board chair Sheila Kuehl, floated the idea that perhaps LA’s current car-centric system was the more inequitable alternative. “If we want to think about equity, we ought to consider the cost of driving,” Kuehl said. “It would be better for people’s budgets if they could have the option of public transit.”
The cost of driving is about much more than people’s personal transportation budgets. Yes, lower-income families spend a higher percentage of their income on transportation. Lower-income families are also more likely to be killed or injured in vehicular crashes. Lower-income families, and particularly people of color, are more often targeted and ticketed by traffic enforcement officials. Lower-income families are more likely to suffer health issuesrelated to roadway pollution. Lower-income families are more at risk in the climate disasters accelerated by carbon emissions.
When those factors are included, the way we get around now doesn’t sound like a system that any leader can possibly consider sustaining.
At the state level, congestion pricing is being championed by New York City state senatorsand California legislators like Asm. Richard Bloom, who first introduced the idea of testing Go Zones—perhaps a much more palatable name than congestion pricing—last year.
“My constituents spend over 100 hours a year stuck in traffic,” Bloom told NRDC. “This timely report helps ensure that any pricing pilot that moves forward starts with a commitment to improve social equity and create more transportation choices for those who need them the most.”
Yet no major U.S. city has greater than 25 percent of its jobs accessible by a one-hour transit trip, in part due to housing affordability issues which have forced people to live further from job-creation centers.
In Los Angeles, the number of low-skill jobs that can be reached by a 60-minute walking, biking, or public transportation trip is only 5 percent, according to ITDP’s data. That means if you have a high school education, getting to virtually all the jobs in the city requires riding a bus or bike for more than an hour, or spending an average of $5,900 per year purchasing, maintaining, and storing a car.
“For households making less than $20,000 per year, reliable cars are a pipe dream: a huge expense that they can’t afford,” said Joe Chestnut, author of the ITDP report. “Without adequate transit, they will remain stuck in place.”
The average annual income of LA’s bus riders is around $15,000. It’s impossible to look at those numbers and claim that the status quo is fair.
Today’s study by TransForm and NRDC has essentially done the homework for any U.S. city that wants to finally address the true historical inequities in its transit networks. It’s time for leaders everywhere to change the conversation around road pricing and get serious about building out a transportation system that truly works for everyone.