The Future of Streets and the Value of Shared, Multimodal Transit

How do you get there? Are your habits changing? Is the landscape around you shifting in ways that make sense or don’t make sense?  A conversation on transit modality from The Planning Report offers excerpts of a recent Harvard Graduate School of Design panel on the Future of Streets 2019 LA studio led by assistant professor Andres Sevtsuk. The panel included Claire Bowin, senior city planner for the city of Los Angeles; Rachel Nguyen, executive director of the Renault Nissan Future Lab; and Ryan J. Westrom, mobility partnerships lead at Ford Smart Mobility’s Greenfield Labs.

The course explored the past and future of urban mobility in Los Angeles in light of the rapid advent of automated, shared, and electric transportation technologies.

“LA is a hotbed for mobility disruption from the private sector … There is no place better than LA to demonstrate how this plays out.” —Andres Sevtsuk

Andres Sevtsuk: Harvard’s GSD Future of Streets studio investigates the impact of new mobility technologies on the built environment, seeking to maximize multi-modal, socially inclusive, and environmentally sustainable outcomes for the city. We explore how the experience of urban travel might change with the advent of automated, shared and electric vehicles, personal mobility devices, and automated delivery systems.

LA is making unprecedented investments in public transportation and densification—what Christopher Hawthorne has called the “third LA.” In 2016, the voters of LA County solidified this movement by passing Measure M, providing the greatest amount of funding for public transit we have seen in the US. LA is also a hotbed for mobility disruption from the private sector. LA was the birthplace of electric scooters, while California was the birthplace for transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft. There is no place better than LA to demonstrate how this plays out.

Rachel Nguyen: I want to focus this conversation on the end user, because we expect people in LA to make a shift in behavior with new transportation technologies.

Nissan Future Lab has a multidisciplinary team: social psychology, business and urban planning, product development, industrial development, environmental science. When discussions about strategies, service design, and vehicle design are happening, either with private or public institutions, we are the voice in the room for the end user.

We recently joined the LA Cleantech Incubator (LACI)’s transportation electrification partnership, which starts with a vision for the future and then breaks down a roadmap for how to deliver it. We are creating working groups to tackle the building blocks to their mission to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles.

Electric vehicles are the first step of change as far as the mode of vehicles. In the future, not only personal vehicles, but also fleets of vehicles, should be electric. We have to start now to build the infrastructure to make that part of the future.

The bigger picture of multi-modalism and disruption needs to be managed in the near term so that we can minimize the negative impacts. We need to work in partnerships to think about the longer-term opportunity at hand.

The only thing we know for certain about the future is that people will have more options. I believe that Metro stations will be hubs of those multimodal options. But what are those modes going to be, and why, and how will they interact? Additionally, how will we deliver affordable transportation access all around Los Angeles County to the mobility-poor whose quality of life is suffering?

What kind of new benefits will new transportation systems provide to shift people out of their cars and away from car ownership? There are trends toward health, wellness, and better lifestyles, and the multimodal life provides all of that. We need to show the positive benefits to shift people out of their vehicles.

There is no one answer to the working relationships between public and private. Healthy tension produces better results. What Nissan brings to the table in the discussion about future mobility is decades of R&D on technologies to deliver zero emissions and zero fatalities. We can design and build vehicles for a future mobility system—and yes, we need to make a profit from that.

Claire Bowin: In 1986, when I moved to Los Angeles, there was plentiful free parking. It took 20 minutes to get anywhere. Downtown was not the brand it is today; fewer than 30,000 people lived there. The city was just over 3 million people. High-rises were focused around Century City and parts of Wilshire and Westwood; otherwise, “multi-family” meant dingbats. The median home price was $116,000.

We had a bus system. The rail system had not opened. There was no Internet or cell phone. We used landlines and answering machines, which meant you might not get information left for you until hours later.

Fast-forward to 2019. We have grown to 4 million people in the city. The median home price is $525,000. We have almost 100 miles of rail with 93 stations in the region and growing. Downtown LA now has a brand around the world and is home to almost 60,000 people.

But travel has definitely become more challenging as we have grown. It takes about an hour and a half to drive—or an hour on the train—from Downtown LA to Santa Monica. Parking is no longer free.

Amid these challenges, Angelenos deserve credit for acknowledging that we are changing and growing. We readily supported Measure R and Measure M to fund a transportation system. We also voted for Measure JJJ, which acknowledged the challenges of affordable housing and gentrification that has come with our growth. Our Transit Oriented Communities guidelines have fostered a lot of development in those areas.

Technology is propelling and enabling lot of this change. There is unprecedented connectivity, and therefore an expectation for immediate response. That translates into our expectations for how we move around. We don’t want to wait; we want to call the car or grab the scooter right away. There is interest in new mobility technologies that give us flexibility and options. LA, as a creative capital, is the right place to test these things.

How has our city responded to these dynamic changes? We wrote the Mobility Plan 2035, adopted in 2016. This set a lot of the policies for what’s happening today. But when we first started working on the plan, the general public was not talking about autonomous vehicles yet. Scooters were certainly not on the horizon. Bike-share was happening around the world, but not here. Even transportation network companies were not here.

Our plan set a policy foundation for enabling change. It also put in place the idea of Complete Streets and that streets are not just for moving cars. Our last Transportation Element from the 1990s talked about our streets simply in terms of how many vehicles they could move per lane. The new Mobility Plan doesn’t talk about that at all: It talks about a variety of users of that space. That has been transformational in how our city acknowledges its role in programming that space.

Ryan Westrom: I’ll go back even further in time to articulate why we feel so dissonant about these changes and the pace of change.

During the First Industrial Revolution in the early 19th Century, the technologies of steam and steel combined to make the railroad possible. All of a sudden, for the first time in human history, communication could move faster than any species on the planet (like a horse or a person) could move. That was a revolution in the way that the world was set up, and before long, it started to change the fabric of how society was designed. Towns grew up around rail stations. It birthed urbanization, which has only accelerated since then.

During the Second Industrial Revolution in the early 20th Century, electricity and mass production allowed vehicles to proliferate. Again, they transformed the world and changed the spaces we live in.Over the decades, the personal vehicle became the thing around which the urban form started to take shape. Los Angeles is a personification of this. Much of our growth happened immediately post-WWII, and was thus designed around the car instead of the rail station or the person.

Technology influences the morphology of place, and that morphology influences human behavior. We are in a different time now. We all have in our pockets the technology that is part of our Third or Fourth Industrial Revolution, and it is going to have similar effects to before. The difference today is that this technology is changing human behavior and culture before the morphology of place has a chance to react.

The clockspeed has ticked up. Rather than decades, these changes are happening over years. Scooters have only been around for a year and a half in LA, yet we talk about them as crucial to react to in our places. But has the morphology of Los Angeles changed in a year and a half? Not substantially. This flip has left us in a totally different place. Where do we go from there?

The key is recognizing that it is still important to get that morphology right. Ultimately, I think the places that feel most comfortable are the ones that are shaped around the human. That starts with our personal experiences on the street and builds up from there. That means we have to consider land use and how we shape ourselves around clusters and nodes, and to take advantage of the great productivity that connecting as humans allows us.

The greatest of human inventions is the city. As its shape changes, we have to guide it in a more productive direction.

In LA, transit ridership is going down, not up, even as investments are happening. What are we getting wrong? Will new technologies pull more people to transit, or drive them toward cars? What effect does that have on place?

Ford’s Greenfield Labs created an organization called the National Street Service. The idea was to create an advocate for the street—the largest portion of public space in the country. That’s all publicly owned land, so what are we going to do with it and how do we advocate for that?

Think about your favorite street in the world. What is it about standing, sitting, or moving in that space that feels right? If someplace comes to mind—if there is a place you can point to that feels right and resonates with you—that makes me optimistic about the future. It means that we know how to do this. Throughout human history, we have built streets and cities well. There is almost an infinite number of places around the planet that feel right and natural to us.

We need to recreate spaces like that, seamlessly integrating the technology that is now available to us. We need to shape the morphology so that it’s integrated with that technology as opposed to trying to layer the technology on top of us. Technology should augment our experience, rather than supplement it.

Andres Sevtsuk: When we think about the future of streets, we often envision green spaces where all the cars have disappeared. Yet we know that when autonomous vehicles hit the road, the cost of driving a vehicle per mile will drop from $2/mile to $1/mile or less. A tsunami is coming in terms of pure economics—cutting the cost of private transportation to such a degree that it will be extremely attractive to take a car everywhere.

How do we ensure that these changes will lead to multi-passenger rides—whether a 50-person bus or a three-person vehicle—and not the single-person vehicle that currently dominates America?

Ryan Westrom: There are actually two costs to consider. One is the cost of providing transportation; the other is the space cost. The automobile solution just does not scale. If everybody has a box around them the size of a car, you cannot scale to the human density that leads to productivity.

There must be other options to force people to scale such that the city can operate. Here in LA, Metro CEO Phil Washington has suggested congestion pricing. How might we design a pricing system—both equitably and across a broad geography—that produces the necessary pooling, and then put that back into investment in transit that allows the system to stand?

I believe that beautiful places are compatible with moving people around. Think of places like Paris or Berlin, where transit tends to be more functional than in the U.S. Moving a mass quantity of people in an efficient way often involves a forgotten piece of transit: buses. The bus system needs to work and be appealing across the socio-demographic spectrum. This can allow the mass movement of people to happen in a space that we all consider beautiful.

Claire Bowin: I am optimistic because I believe there is enough interest and will across the public and private sectors to find opportunities to partner on creating these solutions.

Phil Washington recognizes that in order to get people to take transit, you have to make it attractive. It has to be comfortable, flexible, and reliable. He’s not only looking at how to continue to grow our rail system, but also at how to reconfigure our bus system, even if it doesn’t use the typical bus that we see today.

There might be some fixed routes, but there will also be a variety of smaller options. Metro is already trying out microtransit; it’s also going to be scooters and everything else.

Everybody is desirous of finding common space. In Los Angeles, we’ve become so isolated in our cars that we are lonely. People are realizing the value of the common, shared experiences that you get by transitioning throughout your day from, say, a TNC, to a scooter, to microtransit.

That flexibility will be provided by a range of public and private partnerships, and it will be coupled with the city—the Bureau of Engineering, Planning Department, DOT, etc.—making sure that the spaces around streets are wonderful environments with trees and places to grab coffee as you make your mobility transitions.

The Planning Report

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