Transportation and the Challenge of Future-Proofing Our Cities

To preserve their communities' economic and social wellbeing, leaders will need to manage an endless cycle of technological disruption.
August 14, 2017
A row of self-driving Lexus cars at a Google event in Mountain View, Calif. (AP/Eric Risberg)
By Bob Graves  |  Contributor
Associate director of the Governing Institute and a co-founder of Governing's parent organization, e.Republic

Signs of the immense influence that digital technologies will have on transportation are growing more visible daily. Software-enabled mobility solutions such as Uber, Lyft and Waze are already dramatically changing the way we get around. These impacts, however, are still relatively small compared to what's coming with next generation technologies such as high-speed hyperloop, drones and, most important, driverless vehicles.

Experts' predictions are all over the map, but it's certainly reasonable to expect that in the next 15 to 30 years the digital world will truly come crashing into our transportation systems. The implications of automation will be widespread and profound, and will extend deeply into the fabric of urban communities. For public leaders, the challenge will be in finding ways to future-proof their communities -- to preserve economic and social well-being in the face of endless cycles of disruption.

How, for instance, will cities deal with automation's impact on jobs? After all, driving is a major occupation in cities. "Think of all the people who drive taxis and buses and trains and delivery vans and all other sorts of vehicles," observed former District of Columbia planning director Harriet Tregoning in an interview at last month's Resilient Cities Summit. "There would be an enormous impact on cities if all those jobs were to go away due to automation. And it's not clear what would replace them."

Another major issue is parking, which carries both positive and negative implications for cities. According to research by Don Shoup, an urban planning professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, there now are between seven and nine parking spaces for each and every automobile in America. How will driverless cars affect this overbuilt parking infrastructure? According to a 2016 National League of Cities 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."

But swapping all that parking infrastructure for fleets of driverless cars that never break speed limits or blow through red lights has a significant potential fiscal downside for cities. As Governing's Mike Maciag reported recently, in fiscal 2016 the 25 largest U.S. cities collectively netted nearly $5 billion in auto-related revenues -- everything from parking revenues and fines to traffic citations, gas taxes and vehicle registration fees.

 

And then there's the impact of automation on traffic congestion, an issue that Todd Litman, executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, explored in a report published last month. While it's generally been assumed that automation will decrease congestion, the reality could be very different. Litman notes that "many studies suggest that, by making vehicle travel more convenient, autonomous vehicles are likely to increase total vehicle travel unless specific demand management strategies are implemented, such as higher road user fees." And might the ability to work and rest while traveling induce some motorists to choose larger autonomous vehicles that can serve as mobile offices and bedrooms?

So how does a city manager, urban planner or elected local official plan for transportation's uncertain future? " I think the larger context for planning or governing of any kind is really the process of managing change," said Tregoning. "Certainly we all live in places that are in part the product of the most disruptive technology of the 20th century, the automobile."

If, as Shakespeare noted, the past is indeed prologue, then some serious work needs to be done to avoid turning our cities over wholesale to the autonomous car as we did with the automobile. Technology by itself has no democratic or social imperative; how it is implemented is the deciding factor. At this moment in time, before significant impacts hit our cities, government leaders should grab the opportunity to direct the use of this technology rather than wait to be run over by it. Certainly we have the capability. Local regulation of ridesharing companies, for example, has been messy at times but is smoothing out.

Above all, in the face of these impending disruptions there are opportunities to develop appropriate policies and roadmaps to support walkability, ease of travel, economic competitiveness, local employment opportunities, affordable housing and unique neighborhoods. All of these contribute to health and prosperity, and each influences the others in remarkable ways. Making it all work together as technology continues to disrupt our transportation systems is the key to future-proofing our communities.