We recently sat down with ZGF Associate Principal Tom Bennett to discuss last mile connections: what are they and why are they so tricky? Hear from Tom on how new forms of mobility are changing the way we interact with transit in our daily lives and, by extension, reshaping the places we live.
Let’s start with the basics. What is the last mile connection?
Simply put, the last mile connection is getting people from their last transit destination to their home or place of work. Not everyone is going to live within a half mile’s distance of a transit station, so the opportunity with the last mile connection is to create spaces where people want to be before they move on to their final destination. You can disperse people over time and therefore make their final commute easier and less congested.
One of the last mile problems is that making a connection from one mobility option to another seemingly make things more complicated. It must transition from a perceived inconvenience to nodes where people linger and focus some of their other daily life activities, such as dry cleaners, shopping, daycare.
Why do you think last mile connections present such a challenge?
Some of the stumbling blocks in North America revolve around the land use and mobility decisions that were made post-war. Those decisions made the car the preferred option and deemphasized pedestrians. In the 50s and 60s, cars were more convenient. Densities were lower. People could easily get in a car and drive and didn’t encounter congestion or lack of parking.
As places have densified, we’ve reached a point where we can’t make freeways and parking lots bigger. We’re challenged by current infrastructure that’s designed for people to move around in their metal boxes. It works against making places that work well for pedestrians.
The other main challenge is the speed at which different stakeholders move. There is a speed differential between the influencers, often private industry and increasingly the tech industry, and the regulators, governments, that needs to be reconciled.
What cities or organizations are doing a good job addressing the last mile connection?
ZGF has been doing great work to address this problem in Surrey, BC, a suburb of Vancouver, which is expected to surpass Vancouver in terms of population and growth within the next decade. The city is actively working to make sure that as Surrey grows there is a strategy in place for building and placemaking that not only supports densification but also creates a great urban center.
Our work on the Central City strategic plan is a services and experience oriented mixed-use urban district in the current location of a suburban shopping mall. The project is one third of Surrey’s Central Business district and is developing big surface parking lots into a city grid that connects with an internal grid of the building.
What’s really cool about this project from a last mile standpoint is that it’s bookended by two high-capacity transit stations, with a public park between the site and transit. Because transit didn’t stop on the site, the client was interested in making the connection as pleasant as possible. We are working on strategies that provide an enhanced pedestrian connection—canopy, landscaping, lighting—between business and transit and ultimately provide a benefit beyond the boundaries of the project.
What do you think of single occupancy vs. multi-person solutions, such as like bike-share and AVs?
I think anything that gets people out of their car is a great option.
What we need to be careful of is the idea that some of these multi-person solutions, like scooters and bicycles, are consumer commodities. That they are disposable and can be dumped wherever and have a short shelf life. That’s where firms like ours come in: we can say, ‘When you implement this solution, what is the effect six months, two years, five years down the line? And how can you optimize the product you’re producing so that you don’t end up with waste or so that your product does not become obsolete in a short period of time?’
As for AVs and AV shuttles, the main issue from an urban design street space perspective is curb space. The good news is that it’s a problem we can solve.
I disagree with those that say AVs are going to completely remove cars from the street. It might in certain places. AVs are certainly something that will grow in popularity and have a role, but it will be a long time, another generation, before you really see the upside of that. The automobile is a drug that people are not going to give up anytime soon.
Who is on the cutting edge of this issue?
The private sector, especially tech companies, are driving a lot of innovation. Over the past 10 years tech companies that have mastered their products are now thinking about how to use their expertise to solve other problems. A lot of that thought is centered around where people want to live, how they want to move around, and how they want to conduct their lifestyle. Like architecture, work and life are inextricably linked at tech companies. It’s natural that they would use the same creative thinking to solve problems on a lifestyle basis.
What hasn’t been tried yet that you think we will start to see in the next few years?
There are two things on the verge: streets and places.
By streets, I’m referring to how the public realm, or the street design, responds to these new forms of mobility, like AVs and scooters. We’ll see more focus on getting people from point A to point B while also making that experience more enjoyable and accommodating all forms of mobility without excluding the forms that exist today.
Places are the hybrid civic spaces that blur private and public boundaries, such as a former shopping mall that becomes a civic gathering place. I think we’ll see more places emerging that mix commerce, working, learning and living all together and make that combination desirable to people, either as a final destination or a stopping point in their daily journeys.
Tom Bennett is an urban designer, urban planner, and landscape architect in ZGF’s Seattle office. His experience spans research, design, and implementation strategies ranging from fast-track design charrettes to complex city and regional master plans. He brings a depth of international, multidisciplinary experience at the nexus of urban design, transit, and sustainability, and has led the development of a wide range of transit station area plans, Transit Oriented Development projects, master plans and development studies, parks, streetscapes, and public spaces.