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An American City’s Guide for Surviving the New World of Transportation

Last year was the first one in a while that made Americans stop, pause, and ask themselves if they could survive the end of the world. Whether you’re a Silicon Valley billionaire or a regular schmo making minimum wage, it’s worth considering a bug out bag in 2018—some insurance against the apocalypse.

If you’re an entire American city, however, your prepper sack needs more than batteries and a good knife. Things are shifting quickly in the world of urban mobility. Getting from A to B has never been easier for those with a smartphone and extra cash. But American cities have yet to figure out how to capitalize on the travel revolution and make it work for all their residents, no matter their work schedule, neighborhood, or annual income.

The stakes are serious, both in terms of the general happiness quotient—how nice would it be if your city had a fast, efficient, traffic-free functional transportation system?—and monies. A recent McKinsey report estimated that dense, high-income cities like Chicago, London, or Singapore could save $7,400 per resident if they managed to build electric, on-demand transportation options, with a strong public transit system as the whole thing’s backbone.

But to get there, cities have to start working now, and the new year is the perfect time. So we asked transportation experts from academia, the private sector, and public agencies: If you’re a city building a survival kit, what do you pack? And what do you do with it?

A Calculator

Cities know more about you—yes, you!—right now than at any other time in history. Public agencies use WiFi to track your movement throughout subway platforms. They record traffic flows with sophisticated software systems. Some have even convinced private companies, like Uber and Lyft, to hand over information about where they’re taking passengers, and when. So it’s unfortunate that most don’t know how to put that info to good use.

“Cities need to get a better handle on their data,” says Ashley Hand, a former strategist with LA’s Department of Transportation who now works for the transportation and tech consulting firm CityFi. “Figuring out not just what you’ve got and how to use it more effectively, but then building the capacity to actually look and understand that data is something cities just aren’t ready for.”

For an example, look to Boston’s smart city data operation. One open-source system uses 22 city performance metrics—311 call center performance, on-time trash pickup, EMS response time, and stabbings, to name a few—to produce a measure of urban success called CityScore. The city has launched an initiative to track inequality throughout its agencies via hard numbers (like long-term info on race, educational attainment, and generational wealth). But getting these programs running means hiring data scientists, folks who generally make $125,000 annually nationwide. You can’t fit too many of those onto a government payroll, and most will head for the more lucrative the private sector. That’s why cities need to get savvy about recruitment, and figure out ways beyond appeals to civic duty to attract candidates.

Spray Paint

The curb may sound snoozy, but it’s due for a serious reckoning. Curb space is the new urban ground zero, the place where parked cars, public buses, ride hailing services, delivery trucks, and cyclists all compete for real estate often reserved for private citizens parking private cars for extended periods of time. “In the post-ridesharing-and-microtranist-and-Amazon-eating-the-world world, my curbside is in chaos now,” says Ali Vahabzadeh, the CEO of the commuter van service Chariot, which Ford acquired in 2016. “The answer is probably a little bit more than street signs and new paint on the curb. There needs to be a paradigm shift.”

Expect to see savvy cities experiment with the space in 2018, assigning different uses for different times of day, and maybe even reserving spots for your pizza delivery guy or Lyft driver to park. As double parkers continue to clog lanes and worsen congestion, it might be the only choice.

A Hammer

We’ll start this one with the bad news: The federal government might not be paying to repair your city’s infrastructure any time soon. President Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan is as real today as is was the day he was elected, and though the administration promises fixes coming this month, city officials don’t seem to be holding their breath.

The good news: Cities and their citizens have shown themselves increasingly willing to throw down cash for their own projects. Witness big 2016 transit funding wins in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Rhode Island.

“You could either pay more to build, or you could find that you’re getting less for what you’re paying,” says Adie Tomer, who studies infrastructure policy at the Brookings Institution. “Get ready for that.”

Hopefully more of the former, because infrastructure needs fixing. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation’s structure a D+ grade, and coming demographic shifts will put the pressure on. By 2030, 20 percent of Americans will be senior citizens, up from 13 percent in 2010.

“If we’re gong to account for a growing, aging population, we’re going to have to invest in infrastructure,” says Sarah Kaufman, who studies transportation and technology at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation. And that includes maintenance, the least sexy of infrastructure expenditures.“Even if no politician wants to run on the platform of something like updating subway signals, it needs to happen,” Kaufman says.

Extension Cords

Sure, electric vehicles have yet to really catch on in the home of the brave, where Ford’s gas-chugging F-150 continues its decades-long run as America’s best-selling vehicle. But they are a growing part of the American vehicle mix, and industry watchers are only getting more optimistic about their future as battery prices continue to drop. Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts a full third of the cars on the road in 2040 will come with a plug. That’s 530 million in all.

So, cities should get those chargers ready. In California, a big settlement with the emissions cheats at VW (plus a sprinkling of Elon Musk) has gotten the charging infrastructure off the ground. But other states need to do their own building.

“Code requirements, redevelopment opportunities, fleet electrification, grid modernization work—those are generational projects,” says Hand, the transportation consultant. “If you don’t start planning for those now, you may miss opportunities.”

An Experimental Shrink Ray

Big buses have their places, on crowded corridors and in dense cities that need to move tons of people at one time. But agencies are getting a bit more circumspect about the advantages of microtransit, or private, on-demand services that pick up people when they need a lift—and don’t run when they don’t. Whether they have human drivers or run on their own, these vehicles require a close eye.

“I think what you’re gong to see is cities will learn how to work with private operators much more scalably, and over time develop a new set of muscles that will serve their constituency better,” says Vahabzadeh, the Chariot CEO. That could mean smaller vehicles too—fitting the public bus to the task at hand, and burning less fuel in the process.

But cities also need to be wary about letting private services do the work of a public transit system, only to drop the route when it’s no longer profitable. “The private sector coming into this space and providing a service is, in many ways, very valuable,” says Sam Zimbabwe, who oversees major projects at Washington, DC’s Department of Transportation. “But there’s this risk that it could erode a public service, and they’re not as accountable to the public in serving everyone.” Transit systems are a network, he says: If one part falls apart, the whole thing could.

An Eraser

Be careful, be more fun, build some stuff: all great advice for cities going into 2018. But experts say to not be afraid to screw up, either. “We always need to see innovation coming up within governments and the permission to do so, which is wrapped up in permission to fail,” says Kaufman, of NYU. More and more cities are running pilot projects, testing new things, and investing in what works—and dropping what doesn’t.

Iteration works for infrastructure too—just ask the guerrilla urbanists who use, say, tires to build bike lanes. It’s good to have your go-bag ready, but 2018 shouldn’t be a total disaster. Forgetting stuff and having to improvise is part of the fun, right?


Road Warriors


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