How Transportation Planning Is Stuck in the Past

As a new report makes clear, few of our urban areas are adapting to the changes that are revolutionizing the way we get around.
by | November 23, 2015

Bob Graves

Associate director of the Governing Institute and a co-founder of Governing's parent organization, e.Republic

For all we hear about the impact that technology and social changes are having on urban mobility, you'd certainly expect to see their influence reflected in city transportation planning. For the most part, unfortunately, this simply isn't the case.

That's the disheartening takeaway from a new report from the National League of Cities (NLC). "City of the Future: Technology & Mobility" details the many challenges city and regional leaders face in adapting their planning efforts to the changes that are on the horizon -- or already upon us.

Technology, the authors note, is enabling people to shift seamlessly between transportation modes, and they argue convincingly that "the ultimate goal of cities must be to combine different transit modes into a coherent whole, so that moving from place to place is easy, equitable and enjoyable."

A key finding, however, is that few major cities are taking the impact of technology on mobility into account in their transportation planning. That conclusion emerges from a content analysis of city and regional transportation planning documents for the 50 most populous U.S. cities as well as the largest cities in every state -- 68 communities in all.

What the authors found will surprise those who might have thought that transportation planning is changing as rapidly as the technology of mobility: Only 6 percent of the plans, for example, consider the potential effects of driverless car technology, and only 3 percent of percent of them take into account the rapidly expanding private transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft, despite the fact that they operate in 60 of the 68 markets. On the other side of the ledger, fully half of the plans contain explicit recommendations for new highway construction; only 12 percent of them are clear that no new highways are under consideration.


In short, the authors of the NLC study found that the cities' planning efforts focus heavily "on the problem of automobile congestion and prescribe increased infrastructure in the form of new roads as the primary cure."

Prescribing more roads is particularly troubling in the context of the long-term downward trend of federal funding for transportation infrastructure -- a trend that seems likely to continue given public attitudes: A recent Rockefeller Foundation infrastructure survey found support for increasing the federal gas tax among only 27 percent of voters.

Certainly transportation dollars -- even shrinking ones -- can be spent more wisely, as a recent Deloitte University Press report points out. By supporting alternative approaches such as car-, ride- and bike-sharing, that report concludes, jurisdictions can greatly improve mobility for residents without the need to spend billions of dollars on new roads, bridges and tunnels.

We're already seeing the effect some of these changes can have. Just last month, Lyft announced its formal integration with a transit agency; Lyft is now listed as a transportation option within Dallas Area Rapid Transit's GoPass mobile ticketing app. Lyft has also launched its Friends With Transit page, which, according to the company's director of transportation policy, is "a public-facing expression" of its intention to work with transportation departments.

Another example, and perhaps a discomfiting one for some local transportation agencies: Dan Feger, executive director of Southern California's Burbank Bob Hope Airport Authority, recently noted that that on-demand transportation services are "beginning to erode" the authority's parking revenue. Instead of driving and parking their cars at the airport, more and more passengers are opting to use app-supported ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft.

And if today's on-demand ride services are already affecting how we drive and park, consider this from the NLC report: "Self-driving technology could allow cities to redevelop at least 50 percent of their current street parking permanently, reclaiming space for sidewalks and dramatically expanding the public realm."

Adapting to changes of this magnitude won't happen overnight. But it's clear that city leaders are going to need to get serious about aligning their transportation planning to the impacts of technology on mobility. The digital world is truly crashing into our transportation infrastructure, and the time to start planning how to best adapt to these technologies is now.

Bob Graves  |  Associate Director of the Governing Institute

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