On the Road Again
It must be true. The Internet, traditional media and a bevy of TEDTalks proclaim we live in a transformative age, a digital-based third industrial revolution marked by creative disruption. No more so than with mobility. “We are experiencing today,” opens Perkins+Will’s 2018 report, Designing for Future Mobility, “a technologically-driven shift in the transportation industry that is transforming the way we move, and live, in cities.” Mobility, says John Batten in Sustainable Cities Mobility Index 2017 is “an area undergoing significant transformation globally.” But how deep and how quickly unfolding is this great transformation? While UBER/Lyft has sandbagged the antiquated taxi sector, how significant have been outcomes for the average commuter, for promoting more livable cities or for avoiding climate change catastrophe? The answers are probably: not that quick and deep, nor as broad as we think.
The potential for transformative change is certainly obvious and multiple examples of innovation exist. But the significance and speed of change depends not just on emerging digital/data technology but on a broader set of variables, many in play well back in analogue days. Unintended negative consequences of some digital tools, weaknesses in the depth and trends in public transit infrastructure, unsupportive land use practices and intransient cultural values suggest major road blocks.
Potential, Limitations and Contradictions
Considerable attention is given to the promise of Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) technology, defined in Deloitte’s The Rise of Mobility as a Service Reshaping how Urbanites Get Around as “a data-driven, user-centered paradigm, powered by the growth of smartphones [requiring] high levels of connectivity; secure, dynamic, up-to-date information on travel options, schedules, and updates; and cashless payment systems.” Optimally, non-car-based mobility consumers will increasingly have access to trip planning tools and payment systems on their smart phones linking public and private transit, bike-sharing, car-sharing and last-mile shuttles into an efficient, time sensitive and more comfortable travel option. Additionally, supply/demand data on travellers’ movements can be collected by service providers permitting adjustments to optimize network components. Counterproductively, however, is its ability to provide real-time updates on road conditions, congestion and available parking spots which may provide temporary improvements for drivers that, like freeway expansions, ultimately increase rather than decrease gridlock.
The Perkins+Will report adds self-driving cars to the basket of coming transformative technology but one with counterproductive implications. With roads and parking taking up 45 to 60 per cent of land in modern cities, automated vehicles could have a huge positive impact on land use and quality of urban life if availability-on-demand substantially reduces car ownership. Fewer vehicles could put a major dent in Co2 emissions, particularly if remaining vehicles are electric. Autonomous cars, however, will actually increase kilometres driven. Despite a decrease in the car population, autonomous vehicles will increase vehicle miles traveled (VMT) between five per cent and 60 per cent, says report author Aaron Knorr. Likewise, and others agree, VMT have increased where ride-hailing services operate. “Those technological disruptions in and of themselves will not solve these problems,” warns Knorr. “Left to their own devices without [appropriate] city building infrastructure, these technological advances could take us even further from where we want to be.” Consultant Bruce Schaller, who served as the New York City Department of Transportation’s first Deputy Commissioner for Traffic and Planning, notes that not only has ride-hailing growth increased traffic, it has decreased transit use in many major American cities.
Knorr proposes four core mobility principles for true transformation. Mobility policy must first emphasize shared over private vehicle ownership, but second and third, it must prioritize multi-occupancy vehicles and optimum conditions for active transportation (walking, cycling). Finally it must incentivize low carbon, i.e. electric. Cities must develop an infrastructure of deep and integrated electric public transit supported by bike-share and last-mile shuttles in an urban landscape promoting walkability and biking. The first supports shared self-driving vehicles, but in order to significantly decrease congestion, impact climate change and improve urban living conditions, the priority must be multi-occupancy transit.
Analogue Legacy: Urban Form, Public Transit and Cultural Intransience
Technology optimists must look first at our analogue-age legacy. It has been at least four decades since transit oriented development (TOD) and rethinking urban land use were recognized as key requirements for ensuring livable cities. While there are multiple examples in North America of both TOD and Smart City Plans, transformational expansion of public transit infrastructure and related land use has been insufficient and now limits the potential impact of MaaS. Some, like the Greater Vancouver Region and Minneapolis, have made progress and have aggressive plans moving forward. Alice Brown, past-Project Manager for Go Boston 2030 says that Minneapolis, to reduce driving by 40 per cent by 2040, is introducing triplex zoning in every neighbourhood; discouraging surface parking lots; prohibiting new gas stations and drive-throughs; and removing parking minimums. “They are completely changing the calculous of how land can be used in the future,” she says. But most, like Los Angeles’ ambitious Urban Mobility in a Digital Age: A Transportation Technology Strategy for Los Angeles, are strongly aspirational while real physical change remains more marginal than substantive.
Current data is not encouraging. While public transit ridership grew in Canada between 2012 and 2017, in the U.S. (save for New York City and Seattle) it has plateaued even though system mileage has increased. One problem, writes Vox’s Aditi Shrikant, has been a focus on expanding transit coverage or “reach” rather than service frequency. Equally important, car sales are again outstripping population growth with cars-per-household rebounding since 2015 to 1.95 per household, just .5 below 2006’s record. “The growth of household vehicles in the last 15 years has been astonishing,” says Daniel Vock, quoting a 2018 University of California at Los Angeles national transit study. While some U.S. cities have seen an increase in households without a car, Statista reports between 2015 and 2016 overall carless homes declined from 31 per cent to 24 per cent, and according to Schaller, “Vehicle ownership (and traffic) is on the rise in America’s biggest, most transit-oriented cities.”
While many see less car-oriented Millennials as the future, “recent research suggests most millennials actually want to buy cars,” said Fred Lum and Doug Firby in the Globe and Mail last May. Other studies have shown a majority of this age-group still pine for a detached house in transit-starved suburbia. One suspects a deeply held cultural belief in the inalienable right to drive internal combustion cars runs deep. A trend called “ICE-ing,” where young male pick-up truck drivers block Tesla charging stations, is one small indication of intransience. A necessary eventual ban on non-autonomous driving remains almost unthinkable.
The Transit Infrastructure Deficit?
For a digitally-driven transformation in mobility in North America, multi-occupancy public transit must expand exponentially. Yet the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates the existing US$90 billion infrastructure deficit (needed repairs and replacement) will reach US$122 billion in America by 2025. Equally important, priority will likely fall to the US$1 trillion-range overall transportation infrastructure deficit for car-centred roads, bridges, tunnels, and so on. Canada’s report card on current transit conditions is more optimistic. But are commitments like Metrolinx’s $40 billion investment over 25 years for a Regional Transportation Plan really enough to create a fully integrated transit system sufficient to reduce both congestion and Co2 emissions?
Out in front: Helsinki
European cities are generally farther ahead in transforming mobility, with cities like Oslo, Madrid, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Paris and Berlin committed to banning or restricting car traffic. Even as France’s Gilet jaune battled gas taxes, CityLab’s Feargus O’Sullivan wrote, “authorities across Europe were working to curb the use of cars with a new set of laws imagined on a scale not seen before.” Helsinki, therefore, is not Europe’s only transformative mobility hub. But as a northern, relatively young city with a metropolitan population of 1.6 million, it provides an aspirational option for many Canadian cities.
A 2015 Eurostat table shows that out of 31 European capitals, Helsinki was near the bottom of those where the principle means of going to work was by car but near the top for public transit, biking and walking. Its Strategic Plan 2050, approved in 2016, calls for continued densification, conversion of freeways to mixed-used boulevards and completing an extensive LRT network interlinking the entire region. Even before its approval, press were ebullient: Fast Company’s Adele Peters wrote, “In 2050, you might want to be living in Helsinki,” and more recently, Bloomberg summarized “How Helsinki Arrived at the Future of Urban Travel First.”
Bloomberg situates Finland as the birthplace of MaaS, outlining how Helsinki’s Whim app, developed by local firm MaaS Global, is now an all-inclusive functioning mobility app for trip planning and payment that “remains a distant future in many trend-setting cities.” Whim, says Helsinki News, “combines different transport options into one, including public transport, taxis, rental cars and even bike share, working out the best option for the riders’ needs and travel preferences.” The also locally developed Kyyti app integrates shared minibus rides with other travel services. Both apps are supported by Helsinki’s open interfaces and data access.
Since 2016 the city has been experimenting with on-demand transit and driverless electric EZ10 buses. In May 2018, the latter commenced a single, regularly scheduled autonomous minibus on public roads. A fleet will be introduced in 2021, primarily as a solution to the notoriously expensive “last-mile” trip. While Helsinki targets 2025 to be car-free, there is a major caveat for North America. Well back in the analogue-age, the city intensified its land-use policy of growing only through dense, mixed-use “urban villages” linked by a rich transit system of rail, bus, trams and LRT/subway.
A Market Approach: too little, too late?
Knorr argues public policy can only “nudge big actors” in the right direction. Real change will “take creative and out of the box thinking and some bold vision around transportation infrastructure.” Realigning Canada’s car-based urban landscape, finding resources for transformative public transit and nurturing a broadly accepted socio-cultural revolution may only emerge if climate change fears precipitate planning and implementation on a war footing.