Gearing up for new mobility

Advances in transportation technology, such as e-scooters and bike share, and autonomous vehicles, are beginning to have profound impacts on cities. In the near future, we can expect differences in what public transit looks like, the layout of cities, and the places we spend our time. In turn, these changes will likely have additional effects on land use, street design, parking, housing, equity, and municipal finance. Will cities be ready to meet these changes?

The latest report from the National Institute for Transportation and Communities (NITC), by Marc Schlossberg and Heather Brinton of the University of Oregon, is a guide for city staff and leadership on adopting local policy and code to respond to the emergence of these technologies and encourage their responsible use, writes a statement.

For cities that are serious about climate change and social equity, these technological changes have enormous potential to address those issues – but it won’t happen automatically, says the statement. The report draws on existing best practices and presents new code language that can be used or adapted by local jurisdictions.

Let community goals drive decisions

The first step for any city is to identify and articulate the community’s goals and values for its public spaces – such as advancing equity, sustainability, community revitalization, and/or carbon reduction. Local governments can use these goals to guide how new technologies are regulated.

The research identified eight key principles for cities to use as they refine their regulatory frameworks: identify city goals; create a clear modal hierarchy within the city’s priorities for its transportation modes; require citywide compliance with city transportation policy; identify the purpose of the right-of-way as public space instead of the purview of automobiles, identify use of the specific functions of street types and zones; utilize overlay zones to provide flexibility to adopt different management priorities without systemic code changes; increase funding for non-automobile infrastructure and decrease funding for automobile infrastructure; and require data sharing as an essential part of new mobility infrastructure.

Stronger policy recommendations

Section 7 of the final report offers stronger policy suggestions that can help cities leapfrog into new patterns of development and decision making. For example, cities may wish to explicitly describe the right of way, designate ‘curb zones’ or add nimble flexibility to curb zones.

Accelerating and expanding the deployment of new technologies by actively promoting innovations that enhance safety and performance is a key goal of the U.S. DOT, and this research helps meet that goal by helping local governments steer new technology in the right direction, according to the statement.

Covid-19 impacts on mobility

Use of individual vehicles are gradually rising, but transit continues to face lower ridership numbers. At first, bike share and e-scooter share systems experienced a large increase in ridership, and then a significant decline as public health warnings about the spread of COVID-19 became more urgent.

Individually owned biking, however, has seen a significant increase and rates of walking, as streets have quieted with lower car use, are also going up, according to the statement.

Understanding how local policy and code can respond to disruptions (both short-term and long-term) can achieve better health, social, economic, and environmental outcomes as consistent with local values.

While this report was completed just before the COVID-19 outbreak, its lessons and insights about matching the speed of local policy change with the speed of societal change is more important than ever.

Image credit: Shinya Suzuki via Flickr

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