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July 29, 2016  |  permalink

The Guardian: How Will You Commute in 2030?


On July 20, I was invited by the The Guardian to join a Web livechat (they still do those!) answering the question, “How will you commute in 2030?” As you can imagine, I had a lot to say on the subject. Here are a few highlights.

Asked to describe the future of transport in a paragraph, I couldn’t avoid the question of cars:

Globally speaking, I think the biggest change will be: more cars. A LOT more. I’m not excited by this prospect — in fact, I feel the opposite — but having recently studied trends in cities like São Paulo and Manila, the combination of rising middle class incomes and the separate of jobs and housing are driving unprecedented rates of auto ownership. New car sales in Manila nearly doubled between 2013-2015. Nairobi has seen the number of cars on the road double every six years, and so on. (And then there’s the autonomous car hype.) So, that’s the challenge.

But the real driver of change is the two-way communication and coordination capabilities of the smartphone:

“Cities are always created around whatever the state-of-the-art transportation device is at the time,” Joel Garreau wrote twenty-five years ago in his book EDGE CITY. Back then, it was the cutting edge combination of cars and PCs that spawned the suburban edge cities of Garreau’s title. Today, the state-of-the-art in transportation is the smartphone, meaning the ability to discover and coordinate modes is more powerful than any single mode on its own, as reflected in Uber’s $68 billion market cap. How will cities and transport agencies like TfL respond?

On the role of public transport in this brave new world:

Public transport is more critical than it’s ever been, and perhaps more in danger. It’s taken thirty years to evolve from the judgment famously (though falsely) attributed to Thatcher that, “a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure ,” toward Bogota Mayor Enrique Penalosa’s assertion that “an advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport.” My biggest fear is that autonomous cars (which will happen because the the tech is maturing and the social mandate to save lives lost in traffic collisions will demand it) and private mobility services will fatally undermine public transport in favor of private mobility services. Public transport operators need to think of themselves as the managers of cities’ total mobility systems, rather than the people who make the trains run on time. (Although that’s still important!)

Sheer physics means cities like London will always need excellent train and bus service — there’s simply no way to replicate their capacity. That’s also true for Tokyo, New York, and a few hundred cities with the density and land-use that works hand-in-hand with public transport.

What can public transport learn from Uber?

People want more reliable, frequent service. Period. You can keep your WiFi-equipped buses.

But I agree with Chris that reducing uncertainty and anxiety should be a primary goal. Maybe Uber’s greatest innovation wasn’t making it possible to summon a car with your phone, but being able to watch the car drive to your location — people find that proposition overwhelmingly appealing. People would be more inclined to use public transport if you could reassure them ahead of time that the system will get them where they want to go on time.

Also, the great selling point of “mobility-as-a-service” or other multi-modal subscription schemes could be the availability of cars in the network. I think people would also be inclined to rely more heavily on public transport if they know there’s a car for them when they need it. It’s a security blanket for commuters.

And what can we learn from informal transit, which is the dominant means of commuting across much of the world?

Elsewhere, I’m intrigued by what we can learn from informal transport, i.e. the 14-20 seat minibuses seen in Manila (jeepneys), Nairobi (matatus), Mexico City (pesero), Mumbai (auto-rickshaws), Bangkok (songthaew) and so on. What would happen if those were networked together?

The question was asked: why don’t we simply commute to someplace closer to home?

A complicated question! While there are certainly opportunities to reduce commutes through coworking and cloud commuting, the fact remains that London and other cities are what they are because of their ability to compress dense social networks of people together in space and time to share ideas. All of our lovely ideas about innovation spring from that.

That said, I think the notion of commuting daily to the same office (which only achieves a 40% peak utilization rate) is rather outdated. It will be interesting if neighborhood work hubs catch on (right now, they’re called coffee shops), and I know that in Manila, Regus wants to open hundreds of new locations so that when the freeway traffic becomes unbearable, you can exit and work from the near branch.

Finally, the moderator asked for the ideal solution for commuting:

The best way to commute remains walking. And I’m cheered a bit by the fact that here in America, there is a growing preference (as seen in rents and housing prices) toward infilling auto-dependent suburbs with more walkable, mixed-use environments. The only way to create a more humane commute over the long run is through significant changes in land uses, and that may take a while.

You can read the entire chat here.


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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a senior fellow at NewCities and the director of strategy of its offshoot LA CoMotion — an annual urban mobility festival in the Arts District of Los Angeles. He is also a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, a contributing writer for Fast Company and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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