Will Future Streets See More Cars on the Road?
For the past four years, Diane E. Davis, a Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism and Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, has worked at the Project Director for Transporting Urban Transport – The Role of Political Leadership (TUT-POL).
During the course of this project, Davis presented a Meeting of the Minds webinar along with Senior Research Associate Lily Song, discussing some key findings from three of the eight case study cities about two and a half years into the project.
Now, another 18 months later, TUT-POL has come to a close and Davis is embarking on a new project called Future of Streets with Andres Sevtsuk, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and Director of City Form Lab at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. After examining the relationship between politics and governance in these eight case study cities over the past four years, Davis and her team have drawn conclusions that serve as the basis for Future of Streets.
Not All Policy Change is Transformative Change
“A lot of scholars have taken one form of transport and tried to understand its dynamics in a variety of different places. We took the opposite approach and looked at a lot of different places with different transport challenges and tried to find what was common in the politics,” Davis explains. “One idea that stood out was that policy success is not the same as transformative change in transportation or sustainability.”
They found strategies and tactics that were common across the different cases, which they discussed in the webinar, but found that, by the end of the project, some of the cities had changed more fundamentally than others.
She speaks specifically of Mexico City, where TUT-POL studied the political strategies framing the implementation of bus rapid transit (BRT). What appeared to be a political success, however, didn’t quite translate into a transformative success in the city’s transportation: Mexico City is still cited as having some of the worst traffic in the world.
“When you start seeing that you start thinking, ‘Ok then, what is the value of our research? We looked into how to go about implementing BRT but if that hasn’t changed the conditions of transportation or sustainability in Mexico City then what were we trying to do?'” Davis wonders.
The conclusions she and her team drew from TUT-POL, which they will publish in a book in addition to using them to inform the new Future of Streets project, is that public and private advocates of sustainable transport need not just think about how to get policy implemented, but also distinguish between short term policy success and long term transformative change.
“Transformative change ultimately came when the implementation of a particular policy also enhanced governmental capacity to plan and make transport policy change by involving many stakeholders over a variety of territorial scales,” Davis says. The interactive dynamics of the process of stakeholder involvement and the relationship between governing authorities and transportation policy advocates are key to making transformational change beyond just the paper success of policy change.
What Went Wrong with Mexico City’s BRT
In the case of Mexico City, Davis says it was one of the least transformative of the TUT-POL cases for a variety of reasons that had nothing to do with BRT.
“It was a very small, behind-the-scenes, almost private negotiation between governing officials and the owners of the transport services,” she explains, “whereas if you look at places like Stockholm or Vienna, there were long conversations over long periods of time with national, regional, and local stakeholders with multiple parties involved, multiple public meetings, and opposition that was overcome. It often took a longer time to get a policy implemented, but they were also more robust in bringing more actors to the table.”
When negotiations occurred outside the public sphere in a private, behind-the-scenes way, it didn’t produce those same outcomes. TUT-POL found similar results in San Francisco, where private sector firms interested in technological change and profit making were able to push through favorable regulatory legislation at the state level without consideration for scaling at the city level.
City First, Shiny New Tech Second
Davis says the second major conclusion from the TUT-POL project is that technological innovation for its own sake is currently driving the conversation, and that’s why it’s important to now put the city and the urban experience back at the center of transportation policy and innovation.
“These products have some great value for citizens, but the legislation was not at all articulated in terms of the scale of the city of San Francisco or how to change all the elements that need to be changed to make a more sustainable city, which includes linking land use to transport and increasing the capacity of the government to have revenues to build sustainable transport. None of that happened in the introduction of regulatory policies that allowed Uber and Lyft to operate,” she states.
Sevtsuk adds, “This established an enormously important precedent that is good and bad at the same time. It allowed these companies to really scale and it became the precedent that other states across the country started adopting at the state level, but it also took cities out of the equation. They lost the opportunity to have that important negotiation at the city level.”
Their new project, Future of Streets, is addressing some of the new concerns for cities that are increasingly urgent with the growth of self-driving cars and ridesharing. Their research will focus on two partner cities, Boston and Los Angeles.
“With Future of Streets we want to think about the sub-urban scale, the scale smaller than the city but the actual street itself, because there are things happening that impact streets, like the massive growth of ridesharing or major innovations like autonomous vehicles and how can we make it easier for autonomous vehicles to move into this urban transport scene,” says Davis.
They began thinking more about what the implications of those transformations were for the everyday experience of the street itself – social and spatial implications like access and livability. The Future of Streets project looks at the combined evolution of ridesharing and autonomous vehicles and tries to understand how these joint changes are going to impact streets in particular, as well as the physical, demographic, and land use patterns of cities in general.
They are specifically concerned with what the impact will be on cities, and the crucial role political leadership and effective policymaking will have to play in this transition so as to not produce “hugely negative” consequences.
More Tech Means More Cars
Sevtsuk names the three “great hazards” that are already becoming apparent as ridesharing experiences explosive growth and autonomous vehicles are positioned as the future of cars: the first is that autonomous, shared, and electric vehicles are likely to contribute to a huge increase in vehicle miles traveled in cities, meaning there will be more cars on the roadways.
The second issue is a direct result of the first: more cars and more people using them means a challenge for transit ridership and, in the longer term, a challenge for public transit financing.
The third issue deals with the immediate scale of the street: because of technical and physical issues, there are certain hazards that will push cities to prioritize vehicular infrastructure over walkability, bikeability, and other active transit modes, effectively flattening some of the gains that have been made in active transit over the last three decades.
These three great hazards, Sevtsuk says, demand policy and planning responses right now, and the role of political leadership that TUT-POL started off examining will be absolutely critical here.
“Cities already know what needs to happen, but how are they going to make it happen? And how are they going to do it working against tens of billions of dollars in industry funding?” asks Sevtsuk. “There is a happy scenario here in which new technology will increase urban accessibility, urban productivity, and the quality of life, but there is also a hazard that it will be transformed into profit-making. In the transportation industry that is myopic and ignores the bigger concerns of land use planning and quality of life in cities, which urban planners and city governments really need to worry about.”
Because ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft were brand-new at the start of TUT-POL, they were hardly a consideration then, Davis notes. But now the growth of ridesharing is happening with the advent of autonomous vehicles, and all of it is driven by the innovations of the tech industry. The downside is that those revenues go back to private firms and not back through the city system to support and enhance the physical and political capacity of the government to continue to advance transport and sustainability aims. Once again, it was a policy success, but it didn’t lay the groundwork for transformation in terms of sustainability.
“Andres and I want to make sure we’re not moving the twenty-first century into another version of the technological determinism that we experienced with the advent of the automobile,” she says. “With the innovation of the automobile there were these big industries that pushed the American government to build highways that then ruptured the nature of cities and produced the sprawl we’re trying to clean up now. We’re suggesting we make sure we don’t do the same thing again with new technologies and we don’t become so enamored with them that we forget the kinds of pressures there will be on cities to accommodate those technologies and the kinds of cities they build.”
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