Cities on the move
Image courtesy of http://sf.streetsblog.org/.
Last month I biked-trained-biked south to the Google campus to participate in “Cities on the Move,” an all-day gathering of people that care about and work on urban mobility issues (practitioners, politicians, techies, and academics). Organized by Paris-based New Cities Foundation, the event included topics such as “what will shape the future city,” “the technology of transport,” “adapting the city,” and “what should drive a better quality of life.”
Not surprisingly, the day was kicked off by Google[X]’s Captain of Moonshots, who is working on the newsworthy driverless cars. Google vernacular note: everyone at Google gets to title themselves, and “moonshots” are the pie-in-the-sky projects from Google[X], the semi-secret group dreaming up the next major technological advancements like Google glasses, etc.; look out!
Below is a summary of takeaways from my experience of the event:
Next generation mobility planning (potentially including driverless cars) has the power to “warp space” and realize three significant benefits:
- Value Creation. Historically, the corner store next to the bus stop fares better (artificial value increase) than the one a few blocks away; what happens when transit no longer occupies a fixed route?
- Use/Productivity. Can driverless cars enable parking-dependent uses to occur on parcels traditionally parking constrained?
- Value Capture. How can classically underfunded transit systems realize a portion of the real estate value increase they enable? See transit-oriented development, even real estate hikes along Google bus routes in San Francisco.
Competition between cities has often revolved around economic opportunity and quality of life. In the near future, three additional factors to consider:
- Dynamism. Flexibility within a strong, thoughtful framework has long been a touchstone of smart planning. But, how do we design mobility and cities with a hyper dynamism that can accommodate technologies even Google[X] has not dreamed of yet? Captain Moonshot believes cities will change and evolve more in the next 30 years than they have in the past 300.
- Access. Today we focus on people reaching jobs, goods, and services better and faster than before. What will the city look like if all of the goods and services come to us instead? And when what was once seen as inconvenient now is convenient (i.e., having your autonomous car membership pick up your favorite pizza, even though its location across town without parking was a prior barrier).
- Zero Commute. Autonomous vehicles could help envision a city with seamless (less handoffs between modes or routes) or little commuting. I am spoiled, enjoying a five-mile bike ride to work that does not feel like a commute, but for many others a significantly streamlined or zero commute might drive relocation and inspire businesses and investment to follow. Cities willing to champion this innovative ecosystem could realize a new form of competitive advantage.
The public realm as contested space and a driver of truly egalitarian, urban happiness might center on three concepts:
- Shared Streets. With fewer, more efficient autonomous vehicles on the road can we realize truly shared right-of-ways where technology enables greater equality? Currently ~25–40% of land in the average city is occupied by streets and parking lots. In San Francisco, one of our major thoroughfares is successfully banning automobiles, which allows the needed space for the separated bike lanes and wider sidewalks that encourage more biking and walking.
- Shared Vehicles. Can public policy keep autonomous cars from being toys of the super wealthy and instead something most can access through more of a car-share model? Today, one shared car typically represents a removal of 25–30 private cars from crowded streets, improving air quality and congestion. [An MIT study estimates that Singapore could reduce its taxi fleet by 70% if all were computer destination directed.] Also, car sharing encourages fewer car trips (and more walking and biking), in part because when one has to spend ~$10/hour to drive, using a car to get a $4 cup of coffee does not pencil out. Could autonomous cars improve this statistic even further by eliminating the unavoidable car share barrier of the physical car pods? Or, will driverless cars result in a further choked city of zero-occupancy vehicles running around at their master’s bidding?
- Focus on the Journey. Whatever the mode, how can we enhance our chaotic, energetic cities by shifting the mobility conversation to quality instead of just efficiency. Advocates of the active groundplane unite: if your walk to work passed through a lovely square, along a tree-lined street of gallery windows, and by your favorite coffee shop, would you mind if it took ten minutes longer than driving? I would bet not.
The day ended with four break-out groups hashing out new priorities and visions for urban mobility. Our group landed on the theme: “a high-quality city for everyone, one that uses (but is not used by) technology.” I feel pretty great about that—now, to keep working on it.
Lisa Fisher (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an urban planner and associate principal with AECOM’s San Francisco office, focused on sustainable urban regeneration. She also serves on the board of directors for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, the city’s largest advocacy organization.