You say you want a revolution: How changing mobility will make new cities

Long exposure of traffic at night on the roads of Shanghai, China.

Cars, vans, trucks and buses are legally driving themselves on city streets and highways. Over 50 companies have licenses for autonomous vehicles (AV) in California. Some have drivers behind the wheel, ready to take over. Overs have no steering wheel and no brake pedals. I see them daily here in Silicon Valley, home to Uber, Lyft, Waymo and advanced research centers for every major automaker in the world. Also, pilot AV programs from Pittsburgh to Phoenix involve transporting real customers.

I recently listened to Dan Sperling discuss "Three Revolutions," his book that I highly recommend about electric, automated and shared mobility. Sperling is eminently qualified to be the editor of this book that details alternative scenarios for the future. He is the director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at U.C. Davis, chair of the National Academies Transportation, and shares the Nobel Peace Prize with other scientists for their 2007 IPCC report.

We have our first opportunity to create truly sustainable transportation, he emphasizes. We have over 2 million electric vehicles (EV) on the road; many are fueled with solar and wind energy. We have vehicle automation in most new cars which helps us avoid hitting the car ahead of us or drifting into the next lane. In the future, automated and autonomous vehicles (AV) increasingly will do all the driving, instead of drivers who might be drunk, distracted or drowsy.

Beyond vehicles being EV and AV, the biggest transformation of our cities will be the shift from car ownership to use of on-demand mobility services, such as ridehailing Uber and dozens of competitors from Alphabet to Didi Chuxing to Grab. Electric automated vehicles and services already have diversified into goods delivery, shuttles for ride pools, bicycle and scooter sharing.

The promise of pooled AV-EV

Although I normally ride transit, walk and bike in the city, Uber has been wonderful on rainy nights, when burdened with grocery bags, or in covering last miles when traveling. It’s not all roses for ridehailing; some cities report more gridlock with Uber drivers coming into the city looking for gigs.

Mobility could get much better or it could get worse. Planning, policy and pricing will make the difference. Done well, we will have fast mobility powered with renewable energy as we travel connected cities on high-speed rail, then fast commuter rail and electric buses, with last-mile services that include ride-hailing AV-EV shuttles, cars, bikes and safer walking.

Policy and pricing will shape our future. Pooled rides could be given faster access in lanes dedicated to buses and AV-EV shuttles. Parking could be expensive and scarce, or buildings could be required to have two parking spaces per occupant. Congestion zone pricing could remove gridlock. But governments could subsidize gasoline and outlaw autonomous vehicles.

In cities with effective policy, AV-EV services will lead to more affordable mobility. Housing developments will be less expensive and more equitable when parking space is not required. There will be new services for seniors and people with challenges (like my 94-year-old mother). The potential is there, but the transition of the next 20 years will be challenging.

The danger of suburban sprawl and gridlock

A growing number of tech workers can afford Tesla cars, but they cannot afford to buy a home in Silicon Valley. With their Teslas, they can use AutoPilot to let the car drive safely on stretches of the freeways to distant and affordable homes. As we have more AV-EVs with 300-mile ranges, some worry that we will have more suburban sprawl and more gridlock. Such behavior raises equity concerns; few can afford Teslas.

Urban density was to liberate us from our cars. Instead, Americans drove more miles than ever in 2017. Low gas prices and a strong economy were major factors. The federal gasoline tax has remained at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993.

Some blame Uber and Lyft for the decline in transit ridership. Yet even before these ridehailing leaders, transit only served 1 percent of U.S. passenger miles.

Riders already have decided that ridehailing is a natural combination with other transportation. A high frequency of Uber and Lyft rides start or end at transit centers, airports and train stations. Several of our nation’s transit operators have integrated Uber with bus and rail service. Lyft provides on-demand paratransit service for MBTA in Massachusetts and RTC in Nevada. In some cities, AV-EV ridehailing will save transit, not hurt it.

Three revolutions could save suburbia. Cities with fewer than 100,000 people cannot afford millions in capital and labor costs to have a network of buses reaching all points every 15 minutes. Data shows that when frequency is less than 15 minutes, ridership falls sharply. Yet, 12-seat AV-EV shuttles could get people out of solo-driver cars, especially if shuttles connect people to major rail and commuter centers that get people to work. In the city of Concord, California, commuters are taken to and from the BART commuter rail station from suburban homes on a 12-passenger driverless shuttle. Today.

Uber Express, Lyft Lines, Waymo and dozens of others make it easy to save money and pool rides with others in four to 12-seat vehicles, which soon can be autonomous and electric, saving more money.

The low price of freed parking

The 260 million vehicles in the United States are parked most of the time. Unfortunately, there are a lot more spaces for parking than there are vehicles. How many spaces? The data is imprecise. There could be 500 million parking lot spaces and 1 billion spaces on streets. Many cities allocate more space for cars than people. Sadly, this holds true in cities desperate to create more housing.

AVs will spend more hours in use than today’s cars. Software will route them from shared ride to shared ride. Some of today’s parking structures will still be used to house the AV fleets only need during peak demand. Also, AVs will route themselves to these parking structures for fast charging, cleaning and maintenance.

Many of our existing parking structures can be replaced with mixed-use living and office communities. More affordable housing will be built. Such increased urban density will invite more walking, bicycling and make economical more transit integrated with on-demand vehicles.

Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, Texas, is a three-block park that covers a below-grade freeway that divided community. It was funded with a public-private partnership. Near art museums and mixed-use development, the park is credited with higher occupancy of existing buildings and new offices for 7,000 added workers. The success of this urban park is leading to other Dallas parks, such as Pacific Plaza, a beautiful new three-acre park that is replacing a parking lot.

Los Angeles voters approved a $1.2 billion bond to create new housing for the homeless. Construction for homeless housing is planned on several existing city-owned parking lots, with 24 city-owned lots to be offered for low-income developers. Projects attract both strong support and fierce opposition.

Complete streets

Hundreds of millions of unused street parking spaces opens opportunities for many uses including wider walkways, separated bike lanes,and lanes dedicated to transit, shuttles and autonomous vehicles that pay usage fees.

Bus ridership goes up and car congestion decreases when buses have dedicated lanes. These lanes don’t take years to create, or cost millions. In San Francisco, they painted dedicated bus lanes red and put up signs. One key to the success of 200 bus rapid transit services globally is that the buses have dedicated lanes.

Famed urbanist Jamie Lerner told me that as a new mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, he wanted to beautify the city with pedestrian boulevards that were car-free. Shop owners were in strong opposition. Lerner convinced some to take part in a 30-day trial. Shoppers loved it. Before the trial ended, the merchants asked that the pedestrian zone be expanded to include more streets.

Mao Zedong famously said, “A revolution is not a dinner party…." The same certainly could be said of three revolutions.

Cities that provide free parking and mandate parking spaces for occupants are likely to see more congestion and lower transit ridership with more ridehailing services. In cities that price parking instead of mandating it, on-demand services will improve transit and rail as people use mobile apps to travel faster, safer and more affordably.

For the most part, electric mobility will accelerate renewable energy, improve air health and lower GHG emissions. Automated driving will save millions of lives, being not perfect but much safer than distracted texting drivers.

Lives will improve for denizens no longer financially burdened with buying cars and find more affordable housing. Valuable land will be converted from parking to parks, housing, bus and bike lanes.

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