Greg Lindsay's Blog

June 30, 2017  |  permalink

Politico: What’s the Greatest Risk Cities Face? Traffic.

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(Originally published by Politico Magazine as part of its July/August 2017 Cities issue. Proud to be included alongside Columbia’s Saskia Sassen, Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory, Brookings’ Bruce Katz, former Memphis mayor A.C. Wharton, Retrofitting Suburbia authors June Williamson and Ellen Dunhanm-Jones, and many more. You can read the entire thing here.)

Since the financial crisis, America’s largest metros have been reliable job and people magnets, breathing new life into exurban sprawl with new residents who “drive until they qualify” for an affordable mortgage on a home outside a city. But these suburbanites and exurbanites are left exposed to the high costs of commuting in terms of both time and money, as well as to the devastating effects of another potential oil shock like the 2008 price spike that precipitated the crisis. At the same time, gentrification has transformed America’s densest, most walkable and transit-rich neighborhoods into some of the country’s most expensive, thereby expelling their former inhabitants to the suburban fringe. This has turned out to be a trap: Nearly half of affordable-housing residents spend more than 15 percent of their incomes on transportation. Public transit alone is of little help, as researchers at Brookings have found that a typical resident is able to reach only 30 percent of a city’s available jobs in less than 90 minutes using transit. In turn, long, expensive commutes depress growth and punish their most vulnerable residents.

The proposed solutions to these problems tend to veer quickly toward the fantastical—cars that fly or drive themselves, or one of Elon Musk’s new tunnels. Others tout Uber as a fix that will render buses obsolete. The truth is that Uber and its competitors have only added to congestion in cities such as New York and San Francisco, and autonomous vehicles could make the problem worse in the form of driverless traffic jams. Meanwhile, New subway systems from New York to Washington groan under the strain of new riders and deferred maintenance.

An alternative solution would be to combine public transit with these new technologies on the same app or platform, using the convenience of car-sharing, bike-sharing and ride-hailing to increase ridership and promote alternatives to car ownership. “Mobility-as-a-service” programs combining various modes have been successfully tested in Europe, but haven’t yet made it to the United States. Coupling better transit service with on-demand rides for last-mile and last-minute solutions could prove incredibly appealing to commuters, and combining it with smarter regulations for parking, zoning and congestion could make them even more so. While President Donald Trump continues to tout a public-private $1 trillion infrastructure package that is actively hostile to rail projects, Los Angeles residents, for instance, voted overwhelmingly in November to tax themselves $100 billion over 30 years for transportation projects, including five new rail lines. Cities such as Seattle and Atlanta have followed suit with similar measures, with the former promising to invest in what it calls “new mobility.” Cities thrive by comfortably compressing large number of people together in space and time. We need to invest intelligently in methods both old and new to ensure they can keep growing.

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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  — and the director of strategy for LACoMotion, a new mobility festival coming to the Arts District of Los Angeles in November 2017.

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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