Future Living: Possibilities and Priorities in Transportation

Instead of asking which new transportation service will win the market, we should ask: what kind of future do we want? The latest transportation technologies—offering automation, connectedness, and electrification—promise to improve convenience and safety and increase the dollars in our wallet. But this still falls short of what we ought to seek: Genuine safety from automobile violence for all. Balanced access to convenient service to promote equity. Social cohesion fostered by thriving places. Together, these three aspirations define a new vision of mobility, one centered on human needs rather than one defined by promises that technology has yet to deliver.

Safety from Automobile Violence

One of the major promises of new transportation technologies is the possibility that vehicles themselves could provide more safety from human error. Of the 35,095 fatalities on U.S. roads in 2015, 29 percent were due to drivers drinking too much alcohol and 27 percent were due to speeding, making more than 50 percent of crash fatalities the result of human error.1 In cities, many fatalities are due to the lack of infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists and a driving culture that gives preferential treatment to drivers.

Further, longstanding discriminatory practices in housing policy, financing mechanisms, and infrastructure decisions have created segregated neighborhoods and a system that privileges wealthy, white neighborhoods over poor, minority neighborhoods. New technologies will not automatically dismantle these historic discriminations. Instead, we should be concerned with how those new technologies may reflect existing biases.

Ideally automation may anticipate conflict factors. Yet there is an infinitesimal combination of external factors that complicate any single trip in a car, and none of these technologies can replace well-designed streets that protect the most vulnerable such as the elderly, children, and people walking and biking. More recently, cars have been used as weapons to terrorize people in public spaces. Though few things could have thwarted the recent acts of terrorism in New York, Barcelona, London, and Nice (among many other cities), these are not issues that can be easily solved by automation alone. But urban design and policies limiting the presence of cars could have a mitigating effect.

Vehicle design cannot override the self-reinforcing conditions shaped by the physical design of our streets. Will automation—even when the algorithms are also designed by humans? Careful management and the inclusion of a multitude of users is needed to ensure that the future has the potential to lessen harm, rather than perpetuate it.

Balanced Access for Greater Equity

At the curb, automation and connectivity might actually force us to come up with ways to better manage this popular and particular space. In dense urban areas, too many users are jockeying for precious space at the same time. And too few are paying for the privilege of accessing such spaces. From the outset, the curb can be better managed if people are able to travel through a city without needing to drive themselves. Automation and connectivity could help, so long as there are strong incentives for sharing; perhaps people can be dropped off by a shared vehicle, or walk, or maybe a bike ride is within reach.

Part of the problem with managing the curb to better support people within our existing urban design is the inadequate pricing schemes that represent the value we place on our shared spaces and particular modes of travel. We underprice parking, overlook the real value of real estate, and deny ourselves the truth that if we were all to drive our own cars, demand for access would far exceed the supply of urban space. There is no real proof yet that automation will completely rid us of congestion. High externalities and costs to society are still far too easy and permissible. The concern is that if more automated and connected vehicles are introduced to our already congested world, it would require a major catastrophe before we can muster the political will to mandate a more rational pricing system that reflects broader societal benefits.

But automation and connectedness could expand our travel options. New vehicle sizes, electrification, improved transit especially via surface modes—perhaps these are the ingredients we need to achieve the ultimate transportation option: mobility as a service. This would comprise of a single subscription to every transportation option available, without the hassle of ownership. We currently manage numerous subscriptions to access various transportation options: a fob for the bikeshare, a card for mass transit, a membership number for the car share, and perhaps personal insurance and storage for our own vehicle. The future is not about ownership and our management of such services, but how transportation services can support the lives we want to lead.

Our future thus becomes less about making driving easy and more about choices. A people-oriented city is not a city without mobility. It is a city with right-sized options for different kinds of trips: a bike share for the meeting two miles away; transit rides to cross town quickly; walking around the neighborhood for daily essentials; buses that already meet the curb grade, so strollers and the elderly can smoothly alight. As you can see, many of these issues are not solved by new technologies per se, but will be created through different agency practices, policies, and funding mechanisms.

All of these technology potentials could make more room for people on the street, create new opportunities to be social, and all will have a profound effect on public life. Yet none of them deal with the systemic inequities that many people experience every day. Will technology rid us of the systemic racism that is the daily experience of walking on the street for Black and Latino communities? Will the choices offered by future technologies level the playing field for those who cannot afford Uber or Lyft today?

Social Benefits, Not Only Efficiency

The spaces we want are filled with diverse people sharing space, interacting, or perhaps sitting alone among people. We want to be able to go to these places without needing to buy something to prove our worth. Even better, we want to visit places where we have a sense of belonging. Spaces like this are shaped by both their communities and the physical characteristics of the public realm. While this is not new to planners and designers, transportation planning’s conventional focus on flows of vehicles rather than social benefits has led to a tendency to emphasize efficiency over lingering.

Amazon’s recently issued request for proposals for its second headquarters illustrates the desire for these spaces, stipulating walkable places with close proximity to amenities and culture, and plenty of public transit options. Apple’s renaming of its stores as “Town Squares” suggests that even they would like spaces that encourage social interactions, mixing, and community. Such gestures attest to a growing demand—even from technology giants that are enabling an automated future—for shared physical spaces and a desire for a thriving public realm where people can come together.

We enter the public realm when we step outside of our homes and private cars; the public realm comprises the ultimate shared space. In our cities, streets make up 80 percent of this shared space. These streets and spaces between buildings are where we meet neighbors, and run into the same guy selling water and coffee, or shilling the free daily. These are the spaces that bind us as a society.

Streets are a determining physical factor, where social connections are made. An automated, connected, and electrified transportation system can enable some of these things, or it can actively work against them. Physical street spaces could benefit from these new technologies. Vehicle travel lanes could be narrower, making room for physically protected bike lane and wider sidewalks that accommodate strollers and wheelchairs. Such design strategies also make the kinds of spots where we like to linger—a spot in the sun, quiet from honking cars, a place to chat with a friend—much easier to carve out from cities that don’t have much space to begin with.

When the public realm thrives, we tend not to feel alone though we may know no one. Seeing people fulfills some of our social needs. Research show that people are more likely to see people when traveling at people speed, which acts as an invitation to continue down the street.2 People walk at about three miles per hour, far slower than the current recommendations for efficient traffic flow. It is at this slower speed that we employ a fuller range of our senses and can perceive human qualities of others. People get the most benefit from the public realm when it is designed at the human scale, a scale that fosters human interactions. A recent meta-analysis showed that people with strong social connections are 50 percent more likely to outlive people who do not. In that study, they write that strong social connections alone have the same magnitude effect on health as the act of quitting smoking.3

Our cities are currently filled with more than enough space to store our cars, through parking spaces protected in building garages, underground, and on surface lots or the street. We have an estimated 2 billion parking spaces for 236 million cars—a terrible waste of space. Even with all the space in the world, no one will object to the simple observation that it is much nicer to sit next to a tree than it is to sit next to a parked car, just as it is nicer to see people’s faces than to whiz by a strip mall. The majority of these car storage spaces could be repurposed for greater value if transportation technology is to deliver on its promise of on-demand, clean, and shared.

The development and adoption of transportation technologies cannot be left solely to the private sector. But neither will cities that truly cater to human needs come about without deep reflection from our public leaders about how current systems perpetuate inequalities. Today, our streets are best for drivers, but only white drivers. Bike share is available in many cities, but primarily in wealthier neighborhoods. Uber and Lyft drivers will pick anyone up on-demand, but only those who are able to walk without a wheelchair. Transit is good for the elderly, but when so few of the elevators work, what is the point? Technology does little to guarantee walkable, dense cities either.

We must understand who users truly are and their genuine needs. All of the uses, regardless of the operator, travel on the public right of way, and the public sector must balance the multiple demands on how these shared spaces are used. This vision of social cohesion, equitable access, and safety from automobile violence is not achievable without considering human needs in what has been a primarily technological equation. This is not so much about disruption by technology as much as it is about municipal governments becoming much more transformational with updated policies, regulations, and enforcement to manage the future of our streets. And we can’t leave out the culture change needed to motivate this shift in governance and management of transportation.

Instead of asking what kind of future transportation technology will bring us, we should ask: what kind of city do we want? Technology advocates sometimes act as though it can predict and manage all human factors. We should not forget that even if it could, technology will not even begin to erase systemic inequities due to human biases. It will only reflect what we already carry out with our current systems. Perhaps transportation technologies are tools that can help us control our destiny, especially in how we shape cities of tomorrow. But it’s still up to us, the people, to ensure that all our neighbors are included in the calculation for a brighter transportation future.

Shin-pei Tsay is the executive director of Gehl Institute, a non-profit whose mission is to make public life a driver for policy, design, and governance. Shin-pei previously served as deputy executive director of TransitCenter; founded and directed a research program on cities and transportation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and advocated for design and planning improvements as deputy director of Transportation Alternatives. She is currently a commissioner for the Public Design Commission of New York City and serves on the boards of Transportation Alternatives and In Our Backyard.
1National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “Summary of Vehicle Crashes,” 2015. https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812376. Accessed November 15, 2017.
2Gehl, J. Life Between Buildings. Island Press, 6th Ed, 2011.
3Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB (2010) Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Med7(7): e1000316. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316.