Complete streets are designed to create safe access for all people — pedestrians and bicyclists, motorists and public transit riders. But at the Urban Land Institute’s fall meeting in Washington, D.C., Brad Davis, a principal at Alta Planning + Design, argued we really need “Complete Streets 2.0” that deliberately enable both physical and online connections and make room for “micro-mobility” systems, such as e-scooters, and the rise of autonomous vehicles and delivery robots. Otherwise, we could have autonomous mayhem, as amusingly depicted above.
“Micro-mobility involves small, human-powered vehicles, such as dockless bikes and e-bikes, skateboards and e-skateboards, and scooters and and e-scooters,” Davis said. In cities like Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., micro-mobile transportation, particularly e-scooters and dockless bikes, are now ubiquitous. In 2018, there were 84 million trips made with micro-mobile options, with e-scooters accounting for almost half of all trips.
Davis said the explosive growth of popular e-scooters raises questions about public safety. According to a recent study by Consumer Reports, e-scooters have been tied at least 1,500 injuries in 2018; another analysis found they caused 11 deaths over the same time frame. E-scooter users can injure both themselves and pedestrians who happen to be in the way on sidewalks. As a result, cities are attempting to limit their use to designated zones or to day times only. Other regulations aim to limit their use on sidewalks or reduce their speed. Like many major city governments, Davis wondered “should e-scooters be allowed on sidewalks?”
If cities relegate e-scooters to bike lanes, it will certainly increase traffic in those narrower corridors. As such, Davis called for bike lanes to be expanded into protected “personal mobility ways.” Both micro-mobility users and bicyclists would then be protected from vehicles; and pedestrians would be protected from all of higher speed forms of transportation.
Davis also raised the idea of creating “micro-mobility hubs,” perhaps around subway or bus stations, where these app-based on-demand transportation services could be clustered.
However, there is also a need to “spread or distribute access” to these services to ensure equitable access to low-cost transportation options. Oakland, California and Philadelphia have made strides in expanding access to new technology-enabled micro-mobile transportation systems.
Rutt Bridges, founder of Understanding Disruption, reiterated the need for Complete Streets 2.0 to include dedicated, protected two-way bike lanes with flex post or planted buffers, stating that 860 bicyclists were killed in 2016 because of collisions with vehicles.
The percentage of trips by bicycle haven’t increased beyond 10 percent in many of the top bicycling cities because of the still-widespread perception that bicycling near vehicles is unsafe. “The number-one concern is getting hit by a car.”
Some 30 percent of bicyclist deaths were at intersections. Bridges believes many of these could have been prevented with the latest Dutch intersection design, which allows for clear sight lines for both motorists and bicyclists as they are turning. This model could also protect other micro-mobility users.
For Bridges, another reason we could need Complete Streets 2.0: autonomous delivery robots.
Instead of plodding down sidewalks, as they have been in London and Washington, D.C., delivery robots could be assigned to their own tight two-way lane, perhaps adjacent to bicycle lanes. “This would reduce accidents with pedestrians and bicyclists.” Given they use LiDAR, 3D mapping, and artificial intelligence in ways to similar to autonomous vehicles, they would require very little space on either side to make their way. “They can lane keep within an inch,” Bridges believes.
A surprising number of robot delivery vehicles are being tested in urban and suburban settings. On one end of the spectrum are the many small Wall-E-like robots that can make small package deliveries. Test robots by Starship Technologies have been awkwardly starting and stopping and looking a bit confused at crosswalks in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C. for the past two years.
In the middle are a bit larger autonomous delivery vehicles like Cleveron’s, which could deliver packages to a storage unit in a homeowner’s driveway, protecting goodies from Amazon from thieves.
And at the other end of spectrum are van-like autonomous deliver vehicles, such as Stop&Shop’s Robomart, which is like a mobile grocery aisle.
And there is also the “mothership” approach: Mercedes-Benz has partnered with Starship Technologies to create a system in which small delivery robots would be driven to a neighborhood in a van, otherwise known as a “mothership,” then fan out to make deliveries. After the robots returned to the van, the mothership would then move on to the next neighborhood.
For many, micro-mobility represents more autonomy and freedom than slower, dedicated, shared subway or bus but they could also help speed the collapse of mass transit. Ubiquitous delivery robots could cause people to stay at home more instead of venturing out to grocery stores and local markets, putting more pressure on retail. These technologies may meet short-term, individual needs but further separate us from shared community infrastructure like buses and local markets where human connections are made.
In another session on how to create “‘authentech’ relationships in the smart city,” Chandler Hogue with Gemdale, said there is a new movement underway to develop “human-focused technology, instead of technology that leads us.” These technologies are aimed at tackling the epidemic of loneliness and depression correlated with increased social media use.
Chris Bledsoe, a founder of Ollie, which has built app-enabled “all inclusive co-living” facilities geared mostly towards Millennials, said there is a widespread feeling that “technology has connected our phones but not us.” He said: “we are now more digitally connected than ever, but do we feel better off?” Residents of Ollie’s 422-bed co-living building in Long Island City pay not only for rent but also an app that helps identify roommates they would likely gel with best, along with access to inclusive activities organized around topics such as “wellness, sustainability, and discovery.” For example, Ollie organizes kayaking trips for residents, which could be tied to a beach clean-up, or a snowshoeing expedition, followed by a whiskey tasting event. “We are filtering human to human connections in order to foster community.”
And urban planner Kevin Clausen-Quiroz explained how the Anaheim city government started Fran, a new free, app-driven ride share service that offers rides around its downtown. In comparison with the isolation of riding alone in Uber or Lyft, the service is meant to enable serendipitous meetings and help build community connections. During certain events, Fran operators host “Fran pool karaoke.” Clausen-Quiroz was quite persuasive on the case for more free neighborhood rideshares like Fran. “These micro-transit systems serve a need: it’s community-oriented transit.” It’s also technology that purposefully pushes people together instead of further into their own self-curated little bubbles.
Complete Streets = Vision Zero.
The Vision Zero Initiative seeks to reduce traffic deaths to zero–certainly a worthy goal. However, I looked throughout its web site and couldn’t find anything about how they propose to achieve that goal. Instead, there is a lot of mumbo jumbo along with a few poorly chosen statistics about how safe roads are in Sweden. The lack of specific recommendations combined with the misuse of data leads me to believe that this initiative is no better than a cult trying to get money out of gullible government officials with the promise that, if they pay enough, they’ll get a magic formula to safer streets.
The statistic they most commonly use is number of traffic deaths per 100,000 residents. The problem with this is that this number is bound to be higher in countries where people drive the most. Considering that commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, you could just as well argue that countries that have totally destroyed their fisheries due to overfishing have superior policies to ones that still have healthy fisheries. However, there are better ways of improving safety than destroying the utility of whatever it is that might be dangerous.
Only by searching other web sites, including Wikipedia, do we learn Vision Zero’s secret: they make streets safer by slowing traffic down to a crawl. In other words, they greatly reduce the utility of the automobile. We know from various research that slower speeds means lower economic productivity.
Yet there are better ways of making streets safer without reducing people’s mobility and income. The Vision Zero people brag that, since adopting the policy in 1997, fatality rates in Sweden have dramatically declined. Yet, in that same period, U.S. fatality rates per billion vehicle miles (a better measure than per 100,000 residents) declined by more than a third.
Far from being some new Swedish discovery, safety has, in fact, been a high priority for traffic engineers ever since the profession began. Fatality rates in the United States fell by 50 percent between 1910 and 1922; another 50 percent by 1939; another 50 percent by 1958; another 50 percent by 1986; another 50 percent by 2008; and 15 percent more since then. There are many reasons for this steady decline, but slowing down traffic isn’t one of them. Instead, the reduction in fatalities is mainly attributable to safer road and automobile designs.
There are many cases where faster is actually safer. The safest roads in our cities are the interstate freeways (4.1 deaths per billion vehicle miles), followed closely by other freeways (4.7), while the most dangerous are local streets where traffic is slowest (11.3). Despite faster average speeds, one-way streets are safer than two-way, even for pedestrians.
One of the biggest one-year declines in traffic fatalities in American history was in 2008, when fatalities fell by 10 percent. One of the most important factors in this decline was the 1.9 percent decline in driving due to the recession. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, this resulted in 10 percent fewer hours of congested traffic per day and 15 percent less fuel wasted in traffic. Less congestion meant faster traffic speeds and fewer fatalities. (The other big declines were in 1932 and 1942 for similar reasons: less driving, less congestion, faster speeds, fewer fatalities.)
Contrary to the hoopla, even slowing down cars is not going to reduce traffic deaths to zero unless, of course, cities reduce speed limits to zero. But the real point of the “Vision Zero” name is not to set a realistic goal but to silence potential opponents: “If you are not for Vision Zero, you must want to see people die in traffic.” While there’s nothing wrong with seeking to make roads safer, there is something wrong with following a cult that treats its prescription as a religious dogma and demonizes anyone who disagrees.
Despite the questionable assumptions, the Vision Zero cult has attracted a lot of followers. Portland has joined, of course. So has Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington. Officials in many of these cities spout off about the zero-fatality goal without mentioning that this goal is unattainable and the real effect of their policies will be to reduce people’s mobility.
Let’s make roads safer. But let’s do it cost-effectively in a way that doesn’t reduce mobility.