Micromobility: The key to melding transit and urban design?

Micromobility: The key to melding transit and urban design?

How will the shifting mobility landscape impact the design of sustainable cities?

If you're an automaker, now might be the time to drastically rethink not only your target audience, but also the fundamentals of how vehicles are designed, manufactured and marketed.

Forces like global urbanization, the growth of electric vehicle infrastructure and shared mobility services — ridesharing, carsharing, bikesharing, etc. — are dramatically changing the sustainable transportation landscape.

To help make sense of it all, GreenBiz spoke last week with mobility designer Dan Sturges about the outlook for personal cars and the market forces reshaping the suto industry.

This week, in and interview edited for length and clarity, Sturges shared his thoughts on what our future cars might look like, and how all of these factors might combine to reshape our sense of place.

GreenBiz: What might the new constellation of vehicle options for businesses and consumers mean for the future?

Dan Sturges: To me, both Silicon Valley and Big Auto are not very focused on the massive opportunity that comes with a broader selection of optimized vehicle designs in the future of shared mobility. Today, we generally use two classes of mobility.

One, mainly, is our cars and light trucks to drive us each day around our cities and metropolitan regions. The second is the airplane that we fly to far-away cities and countries. What has been missing is a third tier — one focused on local transportation. That would be a travel environment for walking, bicycles and a wide range of upcoming micro-mobility (powered) vehicles.

GreenBiz: So you're saying our current local transportation patterns are unsustainable?

Sturges: Let me be very clear. We currently have an automobile monoculture on this planet, and it’s not good for us.

Today, the billion cars and light trucks we have on the planet look virtually the same when looking down on them. They are rectangles with four wheels in the corners and roughly the same size. They are constructed out of 25,000 parts and cost $32,000, on average, in the US. Why would anyone need all that to travel a mile or two for a meeting at a coffee shop?

GreenBiz: And you see an opportunity to simplify?

Sturges: Nearly 50 percent of our trips in urban areas are less than three miles, and 28 percent are one mile or less. Our cars are over-engineered for nearly every trip we take in them. It’s overkill. It’s like killing a roach with a shotgun. We could not do anything about this before the auto tech revolution, but now we can.

The centerpiece of the local mobility future is the bicycle. While auto mobility develops in the future with the cars we drive, autonomous vehicles or other inventions, we will be redesigning our cities to offer amazing pedestrian, bicycle and active mode facilities first and foremost.

GreenBiz: What if you're not into biking or walking all the time?

Sturges: For those of us that want more than a bicycle for a nearby trip, we will choose from a growing array of local vehicles. This will include electric bikes, e-scooters, senior mobility scooters, golf cars, Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEVs), and a likely wide array of new types of near cars.

All of these vehicles require far less land and energy than a car, and cost far less to own, share, or operate than our cars of today. They are optimal vehicles for a short trip.

GreenBiz: What about longer trips?

Sturges: Think about a metropolitan area divided into two vehicle categories: the local vehicles I am talking about, and the far cars – the conventional vehicles we know and use already today by the billion.

A Nissan Land Glider concept car.

It’s helps to think of the neighborhood you live in as a small island, maybe two square miles. Let’s say you live in Palo Alto, California and you are a telecommuter, so your needs for an automobile are already really reduced. You might use a new-type of local shuttle service, ridesharing, carsharing, bike or walk to get around Palo Alto.

If you're a commuter, there will be another option: a narrow car. The Nissan Land Glider concept vehicle paints a picture of a new type of car to drive around your region. Cities encouraging the right-sizing of personal vehicles will benefit by reducing traffic congestion, along with reducing the amount of land needing for parking.

GreenBiz: Are there existing templates for how all of this might come together in real cities?

Sturges: In European cities moving toward a car-free model, like Madrid, new urban shuttles — a mix of autnomous and driver-controlled — will offer frictionless use for consumers.

GreenBiz: But retrofitting entire cities at scale would be a massive challenge.

Sturges: It’s difficult to get a city saturated with big cars and trucks to clear an appropriate amount of space for a healthy local mobility zone. The car is still considered king, and cities like LA are having big fights with citizens about removing even a few car parking spaces for bike lanes.

This drives me crazy — LA plans to fund its much-needed biking infrastructure over a 20-plus year period. I think that's absurd, given the climate crisis, economic challenges, terrible traffic and so on. Many people like little e-scooters and NEVs, but they don’t feel safe operating them around a sea of giant SUVs.

I don’t blame them. In addition, hardly any citizens have been introduced to this type of new vision for a shared-use and right-sized metropolitan mobility future. If you don’t know something is available, how are you going to even want it, and seek government to support it?

GreenBiz: Long term, how do you see this potential convergence influencing the way we build our cities?

Sturges: Did you ever see Otis Elevator’s dual-dimensional elevator concept from the early 1970’s? It was super cool. The elevator not only went up and down, it could travel horizontally as well.

Small electric vehicles are about the same size of some elevator cars. They have zero emissions and will actually be able to drive into a building and right into one’s condo in the future. The design opportunity of this convergence of architecture, local mobility, and the Internet of Things (IoT) is very exciting to me.

GreenBiz: What sorts of applications do you think about for urban settings?

Amazon-owned Kiva, a pioneer in mobility robotics.

Sturges: Upcoming automated, local mobility technologies will enable all new types of futuristic smart communities and cities to be created, as well as informing the retrofit process of our existing cities.

Have a look at Kiva Systems. Their remarkable warehouse movement robots can now be applied to a number of important new urban living applications.

This technology enables new types of cities and futuristic smart communities to be built, that park cars on the edge and offer large non-motorized zones for people, as well as a secondary micro-sized, high-tech automated movement systems for both people and goods.

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