The second installment of our discussion series “FUTURE FOCUS: Conversations for a Sustainable Future” focused on new and emerging mobility disruptors and the social, environmental, and functional implications for our cities. Hosted by our Los Angeles office, Dominique Hargreaves, Deputy Chief Sustainability Officer from the Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, moderated the discussion between Carter Rubin, Mobility and Climate Advocate for the Natural Resources Council, Dr. Priscilla Lu, Head of Private Equity and Asset Management Investments for Deustche Bank China, and Jerome Unterreiner, a Principal and senior urban designer at ZGF.
Disruptive Mobility Technologies
Micro-mobility (including electrified scooters and bicycles), autonomous vehicles (AV), high-speed, and “third dimension” or elevated transit are already starting to change how we navigate and experience our cities. These interloping methods of transportation have been embraced with varying degrees of enthusiasm from city to city around the world, with car-centric communities struggling the most. But these smaller, shared, and more efficient transit systems will drastically reduce detrimental emissions. “Transportation accounts for 30% of the 6.5 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions produced by the United States annually,” said Dr. Lu. “Simply reducing driving rates would have a huge impact.”
However, Dr. Lu and her fellow panelists acknowledged the complexities such an effort would entail. Public-private partnerships would be necessary to evolve the urban fabric of many global cities, reimagining streetscapes, and transforming our personal relationships to our cities and how we move through them. Increased routes, frequency, and reliability of public transportation, networks of walkable and bikeable streets, and safe and improved “last mile” connectivity to transit hubs for pedestrians and micro and autonomous vehicles are just some of the elements needed to achieve a reduction in driving rates.
The City of Santa Monica is testing the effects of micro-mobility by welcoming scooter and bike share companies to their streetscapes. Carter Rubin, who advocates for these advancements in Santa Monica, noted that the City has been tracking bike lane usage since the inception of micro-mobility on Santa Monica sidewalks, which has already doubled since it was initiated in 2017.
Dr. Lu added that both electric and autonomous vehicles are already being used in China in place of delivery trucks to not only increase convenience, but to allow intelligent software to assess optimal routes and traffic conditions to reduce miles driven.
Another exciting opportunity is occupying the “third dimension” through elevated transport, a concept ride-share companies have been discussing specifically to relieve airport congestion. However, what may seem like the ideal, forward-thinking solution to mobility and sustainability issues comes with its own set of complexities. This new form of private transport evokes concerns regarding sky traffic, creating infrastructure for a select population, eschewing the larger transportation infrastructure, and pollution.
The combining of elevated transit routes, including low altitude air space, and public transportation could be a resource for all populations. The elevated high-speed rail in China is being used by commuters of all classes and provides transportation options on a city and country wide scale.
According to our panel of experts, the big challenge here is to plan for the invisible knowing that one day our cities will need solutions to these complex issues in order to thrive.
Rethinking Housing & Urban Design
Currently, Los Angeles is designed for cars with wide clearances and high traffic speeds. If the city were designed for myriad transportation types, it would look very different than the grid we see today. It would be much more about people, ease of mobility, and sustainability. Less about cars.
Los Angeles is already making strides towards solutions that increase housing, while simultaneously cutting commute times and reducing the number of private vehicles on the road. One initiative includes a housing incentive for dense development within a half mile of public transportation. With 67% of housing permits today including this incentive, this policy proves that rewarding real estate investors for building and buying in densely populated, near-public transit options is an effective method to drive change in our communities.
Another solution calls for firmer driving restrictions, such as those already in place in Europe and Tokyo, where sections of the urban fabric only allow cars to move at very low speeds or are carless altogether. In Los Angeles, a non-profit called CicLAvia is currently working to introduce this concept. The organization activates public spaces and city transit by creating events that close off neighborhoods to vehicles and turn the streets into temporary parks. The goal is to encourage the city to take back some of these streets and close them off to vehicles indefinitely.
Driving Commuters to Public Transit
The aesthetics of transit hubs are still an important factor, but in order to make the shift from a car culture to one oriented to public transit, cities and designers must take steps to first make shared and public transportation a no-brainer—faster, more reliable, more affordable—in comparison to the increased nuisance and expense of using a personal vehicle.
These are the conundrums that keep our urban planners and sustainability specialists up at night, but the best way to imagine more sustainable, less congested cityscapes of the future is to put pen to paper and begin dreaming up possible solutions.
Designers in our Los Angeles office had the chance to do exactly that in our award winning submission for the 2017 LA Auto Show Design & Developer Challenge. Our team imagined materials, technologies, communities, and systems of the future that would prepare the City of Los Angeles for hosting the Olympics in the year 2060. The proposal was one that would make traditional freeways and major arterials obsolete by creating magnetic-levitation lanes that will service upper transportation levels, increasing vehicle capacity 10-fold. Unused roadways will be repurposed as paths for foot traffic and self-propelled vehicles, as well as public venues, greenspace, and urban farms.
While this concept of “freeways to greenways” may seem absurdly futuristic, we see it as our responsibility as city shapers to push the boundaries of what’s possible to ensure a more sustainable future.