I like to speak of cities and mobility in terms of “ecosystems” because, as we explored last week, they function much in the same way as nature’s ecosystems: there are sectors and industries (akin to habitats) and a select few jobs in each who fulfill incredibly complex and necessary roles (the niches in our urban ecosystems).
The role of urban planners is a complex niche, balancing the say of the government, the desires of the people, and the input of private organizations. And while there’s a lot of doing to be done in the field of urban planning, it’s also crystal clear that there’s equally as much undoing needed to allow our cities to thrive sustainably.
Just like our natural ecosystems, this requires swift, smart, creative action.
YOU CAN’T PUT EXPANSION ON AUTOPILOT
Even with autonomous vehicles being designed for autopilot, the design (or, rather, the redesign) of our cities’ mobility systems is undeniably a hands-on process.
You can fill a book with all the research indicating that, despite their inevitability, self-driving cars could pose as many problems as they solve. Samuel Schwartz and Karen Kelly do just that in their book, No One At The Wheel. The duo highlight that it’s not just car design that will change, but the design of our cities and how we interact with them will, too.
But letting such change happen organically and expecting the best is kind of like eating ice cream all day long and expecting great abs… it’s a nice thought, but not realistic.
Understanding that autonomous vehicles pose a potential safety threat to pedestrians and congestion threat to roadways, one way urban planners are working to get cars moving efficiently is by looking at where they stop: Parking.
More specifically, they’re increasingly looking to parking experts, who understand how the ebbs of traffic can streamline the flows.
“In the long term, fully autonomous vehicles will be radically disruptive, but may not provide congestion relief. In fact, congestion may worsen,” underscores a recent white paper by the National Parking Association (NPA). “… It’s critical that the parking industry drive operational improvements, taking advantage of congestion-related opportunities and preparing for the autonomous future”
One of the most exciting prospects of the urban-planning/parking-industry collaboration is the transformation of parking garages into mobility hubs. An integral cog in the mobility machine, “Garages will likely feature first- and second-story retail, and valet amenity services,” such as AV food or package delivery, automated charging stations, or AV fleet management sites, explains the NPA paper.
With mobility hubs strategically positioned in high-volume areas, pedestrians can access their mode of choice from a variety of mobility options, thus helping to create safer, cleaner, less-congested cities.
To do this, some urban planners may have to pave over the work of their predecessors.
MAXIMIZING OPTIMIZATION BY REDUCING MINIMUMS
In many cases, optimizing urban ecosystems today means reversing one of yesterday’s most popular and fundamental mobility practices: mandatory parking minimums.
Parking minimums became a de facto law in the early 20th century, “because of a lack of management of on-street parking,” explains renowned urban planning expert Donald Shoup. “If you can’t manage the on-street parking properly, you need off-street parking requirements.”
Because of these requirements, there are today eight parking spots per every one car in America. Put all that parking together and it would cover an area the size of West Virginia. That’s a lot of unused space bursting with the redesign potential for more housing, retail, or mobility lanes in wildly expanding cities desperate for room to grow.
But with our growing population, won’t we need more parking spaces? Well, not if we don’t need as many cars.
Cars were the craze in the early days of the twentieth century. America was a fiercely independent country, both in global politics and cultural ethos. The independence that cars gave the public also provided an opportunity to easily move across the country—or the county. While weeds grew in the driveway cracks of suburbia, so did a complacency toward commuting.
“A new report from the American Public Transportation Association has found that Americans are largely supportive of public transit,” explains GovTech.com, “Despite the explosive growth of [TNCs and] private-sector providers like bike- and scooter-shares… 82% of millennials agreed that public transportation is the backbone of a multi-transit lifestyle,” according to the APTA report.
Along with future-proof cities, mobility hubs, and redesigned roadways, public transportation will likewise serve as a buttress supporting the cities of tomorrow, let alone Tomorrowland.
Millennials and younger generations, with their “mode-agnostic” view of transit, are more apt to choose transit modes that suit the journey ahead. It’s a mindset that lends itself perfectly to urban planning’s goal of mixed-mobility.
While many warn that AVs and TNCs have the potential to reduce public transit ridership, couldn’t a new mobility ethos be able to increase it? The latest data and mobility theories say, yes.
Enthusiastically, so do I.
True, it will take a lot of effort. It will take nearly unending collaboration and bottomless creativity. But with new technology, regulations, and mobility mindsets, today’s urban planners—and certainly tomorrow’s—are well on their way to laying the foundations for a truly harmonious and sustainable urban ecosystems, city to city across the country and around the world.
– Smart cities are doable. But it may take a lot of undoing to get there.
– The parking industry (among others) will have to step up as mobility leaders amidst the challenges of an autonomous future.
– Transforming garages into mobility hubs will likely transform mobility itself.
– Today’s urban planners are having to pave over the work of yesterday’s planners—and quite literally, as we move away from mandatory parking minimums.
– Despite our affinity for cars, the coming generations acknowledge public transit as an urban mobility imperative, and are quite happy to use it in mixed-mobility environments.