Greg Lindsay's Blog

October 30, 2016  |  permalink

Now Arriving: A Connected Mobility Roadmap for Public Transport

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I’m pleased to announce the publication of Now Arriving: A Connected Mobility Roadmap for Public Transport,” a report published by the New Cities Foundation with support from the Toyota Mobility Foundation. In a nutshell, it explores what mass transit and other forms of public transportation must do in the face of imminent disruption by private mobility services such as Uber, Didi, Lyft, and Grab et al., along with the imminent arrival of autonomous vehicles and how they might be best deployed. Spoiler alert: public officials can’t simply curl into a fetal ball or ban them outright or earmark taxpayer dollars for subsidized Uber rides in lieu of building their own system. They must take maximum advantage of both these new technologies and their authority to operate, regulate, and manage transportation systems to offer an alternative that’s more comprehensive and appealing than any one mode or service. No small task, I know.

The report focuses on four cities — Washington D.C., London, São Paulo, and Manila — each of which represents a facet of the opportunity and crisis facing public transport. Washington is currently in the throes of the “Metropocalypse,” making the city the inadvertent testbed for alternate forms of connected mobility. Transport for London may just be the world’s best transport authority, but even it was not prepared for how effortlessly Uber subverted congestion pricing to jam its streets once again. São Paulo is gridlocked at every level, leading a small band of transport engineers, startups, and students to search for ways to find slack in the system. And Manila faces permanent gridlock as residents ditch riding smoke-belching “jeepneys” for cars. But what if the future of public transport is algorithmically-guided, electric, (autonomous?) jeepneys?

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The final section of the report is devoted to practical recommendations ranging from drafting “mobility-as-a-service” and autonomous vehicle roadmaps to rethinking zoning and abolishing parking minimums to incentivizing commuters to wait fifteen minutes to lessen the strain on the system. The entire report represents more than a year of research and more than hundred interviews with public officials, private mobility services, experts, and commuters themselves. It also represents the culmination of nearly three years of writing about the future of urban mobility, including but not limited to:

• New York University’s 2014 report “Sin City vs. Sim City.”

• That essay also spawned a March 2014 report for The Atlantic’s CityLab on SHIFT — a hyper-ambitious mobility-as-a-service startup that shut down in 2015 shortly after concluding beta-testing.

• Anthony Townsend — the author of Reprogramming Mobility — and I wrote an op-ed for Quartz arguing we should focus on autonomous buses rather than cars. They offer a quicker, cheaper, easier, and more effective solution to America’s transport woes than the inherent complexity of trying to automate every vehicle on the road.

• Near the end of 2014, I wrote a report for the University of Toronto’s Global Solution Networks initiative on such innovative public-private partnerships as Digital Matatus, EMBARQ, SMART, and G-Auto — a dry-run of sorts for “Now Arriving.”

• More recently, I spun out my Manila research into a lengthy feature for Popular Mechanics on jeepneys asking “Can the World’s Worst Traffic Problem Be Solved?”, followed by an op-ed in the Nikkei Asian Review asking whether the “to download the full report; I’ll leave you with the few first paragraphs below:

“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 Edge City. At the New Cities Foundation, we are intensely interested in the forces shaping the development of new and old cities alike, whether social, economic, environmental, or technological. The aim of the Connected Mobility Initiative is to explore the triple convergence of “mobility” — physical, digital, and socio-economic — and to propose strategies and steps toward more broadly sharing the benefits of this transformation while ameliorating its potentially corrosive effects on public institutions. In the 1980s and early 1990s, it was the then-cutting edge combination of the personal computer and automobile that spawned the suburban edge cities of Garreau’s title. Today, the state-of-the-art in transportation is the smartphone.

It’s not just that smartphones are ubiquitous, with annual sales approaching 1.5 billion handsets, compared to a total of 1.2 billion motor vehicles on the roads. They’re qualitatively different, doubling as a sensor and pocket supercomputer as well as the focal point of a vast data collection and analysis apparatus churning in the cloud. They’re also the locus of 21st century infrastructure spending, as America’s mobile carriers have collectively invested more than $500 billion upgrading the country’s cellular communications grid — roughly the modern cost of the Interstate Highway System. The smartphone’s ability to choreograph transport has supplanted the importance of any one mode, even the automobile. It will remake the city as surely as previous revolutions did.

The most important questions now are “How?” and “For whom?” The advent of mass-produced Model T Fords a century ago had both spatial and political consequences for cities. Jitneys were banned, streetcars demolished, and mass transit became the public’s domain to eliminate competition with burgeoning automakers. Federal funds were marshaled to build freeways and finance suburbia. Meanwhile, systematic disinvestment hollowed out cities, requiring decades to repair and recover. Nearly thirty years passed between the judgment famously (though falsely) attributed to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that, “a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure,” and Bogota Mayor Enrique Penalosa’s more recent assertion that “an advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport.”

How will we speak of connected mobility thirty years from now? As an enhancement of Penalosa’s city, or as the moment public transport willingly began to dismantle itself in the face of smartphone-led disruption? It is critical for policymakers to understand that new technologies and services such as Uber, Waze, and autonomous vehicles are not neutral. They embody values and business models that, left unchecked, may run counter to the goals of creating livable and equitable cities — whether intentionally or unintentionally. It’s imperative for transit agencies, public officials and their partners to understand the implications of this shift and to reposition themselves as the stewards of a broader, more flexible networked transportation system.

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a senior fellow of the New Cities Foundation — where he leads the Connected Mobility Initiative  — 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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