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How the Next Generation of Mobility will Affect Cities

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In 1913 the first mass-produced automobiles went down the Ford assembly line in Highland Park, Michigan. The large-scale introduction of motor vehicles triggered changes in a large and complex system that ultimately transformed not just transportation, but our sense of geography, the urban, and ultimately suburban, landscapes, manufacturing, agriculture, medicine, politics, education, and most other elements of society. We stand now at the cusp of another revolution in mobility, and with the introduction of new forms of vehicles, power, control systems, and business architectures, the changes are likely to be as large and dynamic as those of a century ago. Identifying, studying and putting these complex forces into a perspective that can help inform the actions of the numerous elements of this system will be critical to maximizing the societal benefits of this revolution.

These changes are likely to be as unprecedented as those caused by the first wave of technologically enabled mobility, and likely as disruptive. Two things can be predicted, but they are not the things most technologists would like to be able to predict. First, nothing is certain in any complex adaptive system, the changes are dynamic and non-linear. And second, “progress” will be defined more by the economics of time and money; both in the movement of people and goods, than by any technological breakthrough.

With so much of the excitement about next generation mobility focusing on forms of autonomous vehicles, the future will be defined by much more than who, or what, is behind the wheel. Let’s take a look at some possible futures.

Land Use

Largely shaped by the private auto, land use is likely to change. Over 50 percent of the land in Los Angeles is dedicated to the automobiles. Following are some thoughts on the big transportation questions at hand.

Today, roads, freeways, parking lots and driveways dominate the space. Will parking be needed as much or at all in the next generation of mobility?

There are options here, but it is likely that parking will be clustered and out of high value areas. Plus, auto ownership will likely drop reducing the need for up to 50 percent of urban parking.

Will end to end transport mean single user vehicles or multi-modal systems?

 In core urban areas you will see multi-modal systems and in longer distance it will be a mix of high efficiency interconnected multi-modal systems.

What role (and space) will be given to non-motor vehicles like bicycles and pedestrians in a new mobility system?

Both by desire and by policy such transit modalities will be part of core planning and integrated into the multi-modal system.

As demand for on-street parking and parking lots drop, and pickup and drop off or multi-modal exchange areas increase, how will urban planning respond?

The current models of subsidy for parking will be replaced with usage based pricing.

And how will homes change if we no longer need parking garages for cars (although more than half of home garages do not house cars even today)?

There will be a fundamental change in home architecture as driveways and garages are not needed for cars, freeing up to 500 sq ft. Even residential streets could see a makeover in design.

If traffic is lessened and the time and monetary costs of driving drop, will the move from the suburbs be slowed or reversed?

This is an interesting question as we see that Uber and Lyft end up adding vehicles to dense urban areas, worsening traffic. But if overall transit is easier and less time consuming we could see a rejuvenation of suburbs.

Economics

Not often discussed are the current economics of mobility and how these are likely to change. The cost of vehicular ownership and use (including expenses like parking) together with the societal investment in roads, parking lots and other infrastructure are in the trillions of dollars. The current funding mechanisms for public assets like roads will have to change with ownership and fuel. The costs, in dollars and human suffering and death, from vehicular accidents is likely to be reduced, and at the same time the issue of liability is likely to shift from the driver to, well, who – the manufacturer, the software developer, the sensor developer, the network operator, the financing firm for shared vehicles?  And anytime that billions of dollars shift in their allocation or source you can be certain there will be economic dislocations (fewer repair shops, fewer ER admissions, and fewer garages and maybe car dealers as maintenance revenues drop). Oh, and with all financial shifts you will usually find legal issues rise.

Social Equity

Here the impacts are both uncertain and very important. How costs are allocated for access and vehicular use may have a major net increase in the costs for poorer users as we go from ownership to leases and fees. In a multi-modal environment who will decide which mobility resources are allocated and where?

Virtual vs. Physical

Mobility is not about a car or a bus, it’s about accessing the resources we need in a timely manner or being in contact with people we want to interact with, for any number of reasons. We have already seen how technology can enable remote access to information and some basic medical care, how people can work remotely from an office base or enable a web of delivery services to avoid the need for individual transport to and from a location. New technologies, both those we label as mobility and those we call Internet based, will continue to evolve and further alter what we think of as mobility.

Complexity

We began this brief essay talking about complex systems and the lack of predictability of change. Each of the areas of change discussed above will interact with the others, as well as more that have not been discussed. Some of these others, such as human psychology and social dynamics, will have major impacts. All of the dimensions of mobility will alter, and continue to alter, over time. And our future is as uncertain today as it was in 1913 when the first Model-T’s left the assembly line.

As the head of strategy of one of the major mobility manufacturers said recently, “future mobility is much more than autonomous vehicle, everything will change.”

We will have to see not if this is true, but in what ways and scale the change in virtually everything manifests in our world.

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