By Diane Jones Allen, FASLA
The recent book New Mobilities: Smart Planning for Emerging Transportation Technologies by Todd Litman, founder of the Victoria Transport Planning Institute, is a toolkit for landscape architects, planners, local governments, and communities seeking to evaluate how to best incorporate the latest transportation technologies. Litman includes twelve categories of what he calls “new mobilities” that span from the beginning of civilization, such as walking, to contemporary modes, such as ride-sharing, to possible future approaches, such as long-range pneumatic tubes like the proposed HyperLoop.
Although the book is entitled New Mobilities, it’s a call for a return to an earlier era of transportation diversity in which a variety of modes shared the road — from streetcars to bicycles and automobiles. Only in the past decades have our streets become increasingly car-centric.
A reversal of this trend by expanding other transportation modes and technologies can create a more equitable, inclusive, and accessible transportation environment. Communities can achieve this through a new transportation planning paradigm based in comprehensive and multimodal planning. Most importantly, this planning must put communities at the forefront.
According to Litman, the new paradigm defines transportation as accessibility, centered in people’s ability to obtain transportation services and participate in activities. Transportation planning and design should reduce the cost of transportation while also improving opportunities for disadvantaged populations, our overall health and public fitness, pollution, and energy conservation.
Reducing traffic congestion, crash rates, and vehicle costs, which were the old planning goals, should not be the only considerations. We need multimodal systems that efficiently manage transportation demand and accessibility for all communities.
Rating New Mobilities
The toolkit at the heart of New Mobilities is Litman’s comprehensive evaluation framework.
For twelve new mobilities — active travel and micro-mobilities, vehicle sharing, ride-hailing and micro-transit, electric vehicles (EVs), public transport innovation, mobility as a service (MasS), telework, tunnel roads and pneumatic tube transport, aviation innovation, mobility prioritization, and logistics management – he evaluates a range of factors including: the user experience, travel speeds, affordability, infrastructure and congestion costs, crash risks, equity opportunities, health impacts, and disease contagion risk.
He rates new mobilities through a multi-criteria framework that incorporates quantitative and qualitative data and is more comprehensive than the traditional cost-benefit analysis often used by transportation agencies and planners, which often only considers monetized impacts.
New Mobilities argues many communities have strategic planning goals to reduce automobile dependence and total vehicle travel, create more compact neighborhoods, and reduce impervious surfaces. Some of the new mobilities — active and micro-mobilities, public transit, EVs, MasS, mobility prioritization, and logistics management — will support these goals.
But ride-hailing, telework, pneumatic tube transport, air taxis, supersonic jets, and tunnel roads will likely increase vehicle travel. They will not meet strategic planning goals without transportation demand management (TDM) incentives and Smart Growth policies.
Active and micro-mobilities, such as walking, bicycling, and small, lower-speed motorized vehicles (e-scooters, bikes, and cargo bikes) scored the highest in Litman’s evaluation. Active and micro-mobilities increase savings, provide social equity, promote health and safety, and decrease disease contagion risk. The only area where these modes scored low was in speed and time.
Public transit also scored high, only scoring low for infrastructure and congestion costs and contagion risk.
Ride-hailing and micro-transit mobility services like Uber, Lyft, and Via that transport individuals and small groups received a medium score due to infrastructure and congestion costs and issues with health and safety, affordability, and social equity.
The newest mobilities, including aviation innovation — air-taxis, drones, and supersonic jets — and pneumatic tube transport — high-speed tube transport network – along with autonomous vehicles received the lowest scores.
Litman argues these new technologies offer limited benefits, are expensive to own or use, and increase total vehicle travel and costs. He reminds us new technology is not always better.
Designing Future Transportation Systems
This is where the excitement comes in, especially for landscape architects and urban designers who are concerned with the design of the built environment and creating places in which people can move about safely, efficiently, and humanely — and be inspired while doing so.
The effectiveness of new mobilities is derived from the ability of communities to leverage them to achieve compact Smart Growth. Litman highlights a quote from author Daniel Sperling’s book Three Revolutions: “Automation without a comprehensive overhaul of how our streets are designed, allocated, and shared will not result in substantive safety, sustainability, or equity gains.”
This supports the notion that what we do as landscape architects is essential to providing efficient and equitable transportation to communities. Efficient travel is intrinsically linked to form, density, and where and how people live.
Resource-efficient, inclusive, and affordable transportation modes can provide a catalyst for more compact development. And form and density can also catalyze inclusive, multimodal transportation.
Litman encourages new policies to support EV use, including incentives for individual and shared EVs and their charging infrastructure. In addition, local jurisdictions could offer income-based EV supplements and encourage the use of EVs in city operations.
Other recommendations include focusing autonomous vehicle development towards shared and commercial vehicle applications, including micro-transit, buses, and trucks.
Local and state governments and transit agencies can create regulations to prevent private services, like Uber and Lyft, from displacing public transit on profitable routes, which can cause transit agencies to lose ridership and revenue, ultimately leading to reduced service.
Communities should adopt Complete Street policies to ensure all roads accommodate diverse users and uses. Community planning can provide more compact, mixed-use development in order to create fifteen-minute neighborhoods with more connected roadways and pedestrian and bicycle shortcuts, so most local destinations are easy to access through active modes.
New Mobilities also suggests funding reforms that allow new transportation technologies and service investments. One reform — least-cost transportation planning — enables investment in more cost-effective projects. This tool would allow transportation agencies to shift funds usually dedicated to roadway and parking facility expansions to improve resource-efficient modes or support TDM programs that encourage users to choose resource-efficient options.
Creating a New Narrative About Transportation
Local, state, and federal governments have made enormous investments in highways and forced property owners to subsidize parking. In these unhealthy and unsafe automobile-dependent communities, active modes (walking, bicycling, and their variants) and public transit receive scarce support.
I interject that we, as designers of the built environment, have done little to counteract car-centric transportation systems and must embrace our power to change the narrative.
Many of the communities we plan and design for want more affordable, inclusive, and efficient transportation systems. They are beginning to apply a new planning paradigm rooted in multimodal planning, TDM, and Smart Growth.
New Mobilities is hopeful regarding the future of transportation. But Litman also warns us that many new mobilities are no panacea. Some will actually increase congestion, exclusion, and costs. Therefore, we must be discerning, and communities must be willing to say no.
The book provides strategies for correcting the ills of the past and creating a future that is more multimodal and therefore healthier, and more equitable, sustainable, inclusive, and efficient.
As Litman states at the end of the book, “Our job is to frighten, reassure, and plan. We need to scare decision-makers and the general public about the potential problems that are likely to result in from unregulated new mobilities. We also need to reassure them that excellent solutions are available. We must help create a positive vision of a better future and identify the specific policies and programs that can achieve it.”
Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, is director and professor of landscape architecture, University of Texas at Arlington College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs, and principal landscape architect at DesignJones, LLC. She is author of Lost in the Transit Desert: Race, Transit Access, and Suburban Form (Routledge, 2017).