With New Mobility, Design Is Even More Important

Escooter rider / Wikipedia

“New forms of mobility, autonomous vehicles (AVs), and e-commerce will impact everything we care about in cities,” said Nico Larco, professor of architecture at the University of Oregon and director of the Urbanism Next center, at an event at the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)’s Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C.

The event, which was held during the Transportation Research Board (TRB)’s annual meeting, was moderated by ASLA President Wendy Miller, FASLA, who is also a member of TRB’s AFB40 committee on landscape and environmental design.

Technology-enabled transportation systems have scaled up at an incredible rate. There will be even more rapid change coming, along with new forms of transportation not yet envisioned. The coming changes make smart street design that can create equitable access to multiple forms of personal mobility even more important.

A few examples of the shifts underway:

“There were 4.2 billion trips with Uber and Lyft in 2018; ten years ago, these companies didn’t exist,” Larco said.

In many cities, e-scooters essentially started in 2018 and, by the end of the same year, they accounted for some 38 million trips. “It took bike share systems nine years to reach the same number of trips.”

“Waymo is now testing driver less vehicles with select families in Arizona.” The company, which was formerly known as Google’s driverless vehicle company, has already purchased 82,000 vehicles from a Detroit manufacturing center that turns conventional vehicles into autonomous ones. “Waymo will run these AVs as part of their fleet.” (A recent Brookings Institution survey found that 61 percent of Americans are not inclined to ride in self-driving vehicles).

Waymo driverless vehicle / Wikipedia

E-commerce has increased to 14 percent of total retail sales in the U.S. In contrast, the number of walk-ins to brick and mortar stores has fallen 6-9 percent each year, and last year saw the largest number of store chains closing yet.

In 2018, some 15 billion packages were delivered in the U.S., which equals 118 packages per household, or one every three days. As the number of delivery packages continues to increase, what does that mean for malls and downtowns?

There are some 1-2 billion parking spaces in the U.S. The rise of Uber, Lyft, and other rideshare and carsharing services, which only need pick-up and drop off zones, will reduce the need for parking. And “when we have fully autonomous vehicles, the need for parking could be reduced by 80 percent.”

Typical suburban mall parking lot. Puente Hills Mall / Wikipedia

By reducing parking spaces, AVs could then generate demand for denser nodes in suburbia, create opportunities for urban infill in cities, and result in new parks and open space.

Furthermore, both commercial and residential buildings would no longer need to “carry the cost” of parking spaces. “Housing subsidizes parking, which means parking also increases the cost of housing.”

Without the need for parking spaces, the available land supply could also increase, and the price of land, particularly in suburbia and exurbia, could drop. So the net result of fleets of roving AVs could mean more vacant land, reduced property taxes, and lower revenues for communities — that is unless the AVs themselves are taxed.

Larco foresees considerable debate over curbside access fees for future rideshare, carshare, and AV services. Imagine crowded pick-up and drop-off areas in downtowns. How will access be guaranteed or prioritized? State and local governments will play an important role in deciding fees, perhaps by location, distance from popular destinations, or time.

With an increasing number of personalized modes of transportation competing for street space, a central challenge will be how to organize streets. If poorly planned, e-commerce delivery boxes will litter sidewalks, AVs could stop in bicycle / e-scooter lanes, and public transit could get squeezed out. “The new streets are a huge opportunity to show the importance of design.”

Furthermore, given transportation options will be more plentiful and ordering online will be even easier, location may be less important. The question that will increasingly matter is: “Where will you spend your time? Quality design is a magnet, so design will matter even more.”

(Learn more at Urbanism Next’s new hub called The Nexus, which explores the potential issues and impacts of new mobility).

For Sakina Khan, deputy director at the Washington, D.C. office of planning, AVs and other new transportation technologies pose new challenges as the capital city moves towards achieving “livability, equity, and safety,” which are the goals D.C. residents identified through surveys as the most important.

An update of the transportation, land use, and urban design portions of the Washington, D.C. 1,600-page comprehensive master plan is currently underway. As part of the process, D.C. is seeking to create more a more equitable transportation system, with multi-modal transit-oriented developments (TODs), traffic-calming measures to reduce traffic fatalities and accidents and achieve Vision Zero, and “transportation equity pilots” in the lower-income Wards 7 and 8.

Khan said D.C. has moved away from “vehicle carrying capacity” in their analysis of streets towards “person carrying capacity.” This reflects the increasing focus on personalized mobility options like e-scooters.

She discussed how critical access to transportation is to achieving a healthier population in D.C. Policymakers in the district are increasingly looking towards the “non-clinical social determinants of health, which account for 80 percent of health outcomes.” Non-clinical determinants of health could include access to good food, jobs, green spaces, and healthcare within walking distance.

In Ward 7 and 8, the city seeks to increase access to Metro through a subsidized taxi to rails program along with “heavy subsidies” for Capital Bikeshare, taking the subscription rate down from $85 a year to just $5 for low-income residents that qualify. The goal is to improve equitable transportation access and therefore health outcomes in some of the poorest neighborhoods.

Capital bikeshare / Wikipedia

As far as AVs, the city will incentive the use of shared rides instead of “zero or single rides.” Zero rides sounds fantastical, but fleets of AVs could roam the streets, waiting for rides, causing congestion. “AVs needs to be supplemental to transit, bicycle, and pedestrian networks — not a replacement.” The city is working with AV companies to map the entire district. But for Khan, it’s still unclear whether AVs will lead to infill or sprawl, and how they will impact jobs.

Ken Ray, ASLA, deputy director of landscape architecture at Toole Design, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, which has developed innovative multi-modal transportation systems like Jackson Street in Saint Paul, Minnesota, argued that as modes change — for example, from docked bike share to dockless bikes and e-scooters — the fight for access is increasingly happening at sidewalks, the curb, and in bicycle lanes.

Jackson Street Reconstruction, Saint Paul, Minnesota / Toole Design

To figure out a way forward, the city of Boston, which recently released its Go Boston 2030 transportation plan, is piloting micro-mobility hubs in eight neighborhoods. Toole Design is working with city’s new mobility team, other agencies, and neighborhood groups to plan, design and implement the new hubs. According to Ray, these projects are the “first-of-its-kind at filling last-mile gaps in Boston’s transportation network by co-locating transportation mode choices.”

Micro-mobility hub / Toole Design Group
Micro-mobility hub / Toole Design Group

Designing for a few modes of transit is fairly straightforward, but “if you have to layer everything, including package delivery, AVs, pedestrians, bicyclists, vehicles, and app-enabled transportation systems, the street fills up quickly.”

Ray sees these hubs as potential models for balancing modes if they can also broaden access for users in an equitable way. He described work Toole Design has done to create “neighborhood mobility stations, where dockless bikes and e-scooters could be gathered and made available in centralized locations.” With geo-fencing, it’s possible to incentivize app-based transportation providers to drop off e-scooters in specific locations.

But he also cautioned that more work needs to be done to reach urban populations who are low-income or don’t have a credit card or smart phone and therefore can’t access app-driven forms of transportation. To be truly equitable, these systems need to provide other options as well.

In San Francisco, Toole Design is working with SPIN, a dockless bike provider, to redesign an equitable access program required by the city government to “lower barriers to entry.” The approach requires them to sign up one “access user” for every five scooters deployed. One issue is that SPIN had a “burden of proof” issue, forcing potential users to “jump through hoops, which is a huge barrier to sign-ups.” The redesign project aims to increase the number of SPIN access users by redesigning access points to make the process much easier.

SPIN equitable access hub / Toole Design

In the Q&A, Larco said state and local governments need to work with technology companies through collaborative pilots that can help undo the combative relationship companies like Uber have had with cities.

Miller and Ray also made an argument for using design, prototypes, and pilots to find solutions to complex street design challenges.

Ray said “things are changing so fast that policy can’t keep up. It’s important for policymakers to set goals and principles but allow landscape architects flexibility in meeting goals where possible.”

Khan argued that future transportation infrastructure design must be “start with people first.” This will help reduce the “huge disconnect between how we live and the infrastructure we have now.” Key goals include “sustainability, resilience, equity, and economic opportunity.”

Larco believes that “urban planners are looking ahead to the issues that AVs and other technologies will bring. Developers are just starting to, but architects and landscape architects are still far behind.”

In an 100 percent AV future, space freed up by the reduced need for parking could be transformed into green spaces, making cities more livable and healthy. But with this AV future, which would create demand for narrower lanes moving vehicles faster, there could also be “pressure to add more lanes,” said Larco.

“It will be hard to fight against the economic potential of AVs and focus on the ecological potential.” There will be increased demand to “cram as much as possible into spaces,” but it’s important to remember the economic, social, and health benefits of nearby green spaces. “One urban park can raise the value of the entire block.”

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