At The Wheel

Rhys Phillips gets in the passenger seat and talks with Aaron Knorr, lead researcher and author of the Perkins+Will 2018 report, Designing For Future Mobility: Developing A Framework For The Livable Future City.

What do you see as the key innovations transforming urban mobility?

I list four key instruments of disruption in my report. [The first] is self-driving cars, which are getting a lot of attention but are probably the least visible right now.

[The second] are data networks which are arguably the most disruptive of these trends and have completely transformed the way people get around cities in a very short period of time — whether through apps that work with ride hailing services or just the way that we navigate around cities today using mapping and trip planning services on our mobile devices. When planning a trip, the first place that people tend to go today is their cell phone as a way of tapping into all the data that has been accumulated on the web  to inform transportation decisions. Uber and Lyft, for example, are starting to see themselves less as mobility companies and more as information companies. What they are offering is the ability to synchronize trip planning with payment and other services that influence the way we move around cities.

[The third] is shared mobility. In most cites, not so long ago, not having your own car wasn’t an option for many people. The options for moving around were mostly limited to owning a car in order to access most services. But there has been this enormous growth over the last decade in shared modes that offer people a lot more options to move around the city without having to own the means. And that makes it all the more possible for people to live in walkable and bikable communities without having to also invest in the sunk cost of car ownership.

The fourth is electric and we are starting to see the tangible impacts of this as well. Last year there was a 60% increase in electric vehicle sales, globally. Although the overall number is still relatively low, it is increasing exponentially year-over-year and I think a lot of the carbon reduction policies we are seeing countries putting in place will continue to drive this trend. In British Columbia, for example the provincial government is introducing a policy this year that will phase out the sale of internal combustion vehicles over the next 20 years. I think these trends will only accelerate.

But do the statistics really support substantive movement toward electrical when four door cab trucks are the fasted growing sales?  Is the market driving innovation or does the market make absorbing these new technologies much slower?

I think that is where policy really comes into play. For example, if we see policies  put forward that incentivize or provide timelines for manufacturing to shift to electrical vehicles as part of an overarching strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that is going to be a real driver of change. The automobile industry is a slow moving business, of course, and it takes years and decades for the vehicle fleet to turn over. But I think having that policy in place, having the foresight to anticipate that change and nudge the big industry players in the direction we need to be moving in will ultimately determine the success of the adoption of that technology.

We have governments in the US and Ontario that are rolling back these policies; but we also see what GM, Volvo, BMW are focusing on in terms of moving toward electrification, Do we have to count more on what business sees as the future than on progressive government policy and regulations?

I am outside my comfort zone in terms of speaking about the economic drivers, but I think it is crucially important that planners, designers and government officials get out in front and put forward a compelling vision of the future because as much as I am interested and excited by the technological disruptions we are seeing, I am also skeptical that businesses will act independently in the interest of the public good – there are simply a different set of motivations .  My personal interest being in city building, realizing the potential of future mobility trends [requires public] policies that will  establish a framework for getting there. The technology is agnostic. It will not inherently lead us to a more sustainable, more livable future for our cities.

By the 1970s we knew the biggest challenge for urban planning was to undo the damage urban planning had done. We have known about transit oriented development (TOD) for 40 years yet we have so little TOD and less than optimum investment in public transit. Why should we be optimistic?

There is a tendency to look at all this technology and to see it as a solution to all the ills and challenges we are facing today in cities. Those technological disruptions will not, in and of themselves,  make cities more livable places. In fact, there is a pretty good body of evidence that suggests that left to their own devices, these technologies could take us even further from where we want to be.  Ride hailing today is a very good proxy for a hypothetical shared, self-driving future – and numerous studies are showing that increased availability of these services is negatively impacting congestion and transit ridership in major cities. Self-driving cars are quite likely to be a cheaper, easier way to get around than car ownership today, making it easier to move even further from the types of communities that promote walking, biking, and other forms of low carbon mobility.

To achieve more livable cities, I think it comes back to some old ideas like making communities that are walkable, giving people as many choices as possible to get around, improving access to transit, [all of which] could minimize congestion and our carbon footprint. One of the reasons self-driving cars are not a solution, in and of themselves, to the mobility challenges we face is that the car is an inefficient way of moving a large number of people compared to public or active transportation. What these other modes have in common is that they make more efficient use of limited road space  – something cities are not getting any more of. To the extent that technology can improve the viability of shared and high-occupancy modes that make the most of limited resources, there is a real opportunity to make a difference in the design of cities.

Have we not had many of the solutions for years, even pre-digital but failed to implement them effectively?  

One of the takeaways from my research worth reinforcing is that we cannot give up on transit — because technology is not going to solve the fundamental geometry problem of moving large numbers of people with our limited street capacity. It is really about reinvesting in transit and thinking about ways to use technology as a tool to improve service in order to more effectively leverage the benefits of high occupancy transportation. For example, in Vancouver, Translink is experimenting with a micro-transit pilot on Bowen Island. They are testing using an app to allow customers to access transit services on-demand. This is a great example of utilizing the technology to improve service and efficiency. Similarly, in Belleville, Ontario the city is piloting on-demand late night transit, again utilizing a website where customers can select the time and location of pick-up and drop-off that is most convenient. It is this type of service [we need] as well as investing in facilities for people to walk and bike. The fundamental question is how can technology help make these types of shared commuting experiences better and more efficient for people.

Autonomous vehicle technology, you say in the Report, should focus on transit rather.

Exactly. [This technology] could improve transit service by making it less expensive and more convenient. Even in an autonomous future, we need to focus on improving service in highly-used areas while offering more diverse options for those first and last mile trips that are not well serviced today. One of the significant benefits of autonomous transit is the ability to add and customize service at little cost. I like to remind people we have had a driverless transit system [Skytrain] operating in Vancouver for over 30 years. Thus, when the Canada Line met its ridership goals within just a few years of opening, they were able to simply add more cars to the system without dramatically increasing operational cost.

Aaron Knorr, lead researcher and author of the Perkins+Will 2018 report, Designing For Future Mobility: Developing A Framework For The Livable Future City.

Economist Robert Gordon has argued in The Rise and Fall of American Growth that it took the Great Depression and World WAR II where the state took control but not ownership of the economy to spur the advances of the second industrial revolution into a remarkable transformation of the human condition. Do we need something similar to truly realize digital technology’s transformative potential?

You’re right, it’s about decisions. It’s about collective decisions. That has always been the role of public sector investment in infrastructure and that [investment] always moves more slowly than technology. The title of Robert Gordon’s book reminds me of another seminal book on urban planning: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. Her attitude was to push back at policies, such as those being implemented by Robert Moses in New York at that time, that ignored well understood principles for livable cities and building meaningful communities. {Here is a Jacobs’ quote from her book on technology], “Automobiles are often conveniently tagged as the villains responsible for the ills of cities and the disappointments of city planning. But the destructive effects of the automobile is much less the cause than a symptom of our incompetence at city building.”

Her point is that it is not so much about the technology – the automobile – than it is about the decisions we make about city planning. The interstate highway system in the United States absolutely improved productivity and promoted growth. It was effective at connecting cities, but was at the same time destructive in the way it tore cities apart, divided neighbourhoods, and undermined other options and forms of transportation. It speaks again to how we talk about cities and how we adapt new technologies and how we think about these bigger issues. We have to balance the economic, the social, the climate impact and benefits of these technologies but it is going to take a focused and really concerted effort on the part of government as well as private industry, planners, designers, and citizens alike.

Helsinki is an example of a city well advanced in the new mobility, are there other examples?

European cities have generally done a better job of holistic planning and design. Looking back to the 1960’s and 1970’s cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam were completely overrun by automobiles, not unlike many North American cities. But it was a conscious decision that there was another path forward that would not only improve people’s ability to move around the city, but also the quality of health and livability that informed the decisions that changed that trajectory toward the vibrant, walkable, and bike-friendly cities we see today.

One other city that you might look at is Singapore, even if it is a very different political model than we’re familiar with in North America. They have been really progressive in thinking about ways of prioritizing approaches to mobility in the city and creating future models. One example there – and I think Helsinki and London are others – is pricing access to roadways as an instrument for making transparent the full cost of single-occupant vehicles and incentivizing the motorist to consider alternate modes. Singapore has produced a lot of interesting thinking about everything from self-driving cars to integrated, networked vehicles and electrification.

What will create the tipping point? 

As designers, our role is not only to advocate for but also to build the types of spaces and infrastructure that are going to spur interest in more livable models. In the report, there are examples of present-day opportunities to apply design thinking to a range of different urban design typologies. There are a lot of opportunities in the work we are doing both in terms of architecture and urban design to create those types of [projects] that lend themselves to support livable city design, that create places where people are going to have a real excitement for, and continue to invest in. That is one of the key roles of design, imagining and realizing places that people will be passionate about.

It will take big thinking; it will take creative and out of the box thinking and some bold vision around transportation infrastructure. I think the promise of a lot of these technologies is that they open possibilities for cities of all sizes that are there to be taken advantage of and if leveraged can make a meaningful difference for our cities.

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