CONCORD, Calif. — For a city trying to work with new technology, the future might look a little daunting. The world of tomorrow doesn’t just look different — it looks radically different. Concepts such as self-driving cars and shared mobility promise to change things about transportation that today are a given — things like the need for a vehicle to have a steering wheel.
So how does the rigid world of local government plan for a future that’s not only uncertain, but based on ideas that fly in the face of core tenets of today’s metropolis?
San Francisco and Los Angeles have an idea: Targeted, tested, incremental change.
Speaking at the second annual Redefining Mobility Summit in Concord, Calif. — a San Francisco Bay Area city home to one of the largest testing grounds for autonomous vehicles in the country — representatives of San Francisco and L.A. transportation agencies spoke of the challenges of planning for a rapidly changing future. By planning large-scale goals for the long-term and testing out products early before deciding which ideas deserve to be scaled up, they said, cities can begin making their way toward the future one step at a time.
Tim Papandreou, chief innovation officer for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, said his city is looking at a phased approach to achieving a wide variety of goals — fewer pedestrian deaths, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and shared mobility. The last item in particular is a big one; by moving from a model where people rely on single cars they own to get around to a model where people congregate in shared vehicles, many cities see an opportunity to cut the costs of transportation and tackle long-standing problems like congestion.
It’s a model many have said makes sense in a future where cars can drive themselves. By eliminating the need for drivers, companies like Lyft are envisioning a future where people eschew car ownership in favor of buying into a service that picks them up and drops them off on demand, spreading the costs of ownership across many people instead of few. Lyft is testing out a kind of early-stage version of that system in the Bay Area with a carpool feature where users can sign up to drive others with them on the way to and from work, getting paid in the process.
Such early-stage testing and deployment of ideas is exactly the kind of thing Papandreou, who is spearheading his city’s proposal for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, talked about in the incremental approach to transforming the transportation industry. The world of tomorrow may look radically different, but that doesn’t mean all the changes have to happen at once.
“We’re moving [on] from this current ownership model where traffic is a terrible mess,” he said during the summit, adding that the next phase is green power and shared mobility, which provide more capacity and services, and then comes building up the shared mobility so that it’s much more distributed throughout the city, and getting into a shared ride becomes the de facto way to get around.
"Now we can start re-purposing our parking and that street space," Papandreou continued. "Once we get the connected technology, we can move the normal vehicles slower and closer, and need less road space. We can start transforming our road space, and ultimately the vision is when shared, electric, connected and automated, we’ve actually built a brand new environment where we need half of our road space, we don’t need [as many parking garages], and we can convert the parking garages to affordable housing.”
Another strategy in preparing for the future is to find ways to efficiently test out ideas in small, controlled settings before putting in a massive investment. Ashley Hand, a transportation technology strategist fellow for the L.A. Department of Transportation, pointed to her city’s use of the DASH program, a series of neighborhood-specific bus lines. The program provided a place for the city to test out technology and learn more about it before deploying it on a wider scale.
“We start by creating the platform with connectivity and then we add on services like mobile pay, and now we can focus on some of the challenges we have as an organization by emphasizing the training for capacity-building as an organization to adopt and consume this technology,” Hand said. “It also helps you bridge the gap with the community that needs to come along with you.”
Those same systems can also serve as a foundation for technology that’s either immature or not yet available today — including vehicles that connect not only to each other, but also to infrastructure such as traffic signals or roadside kiosks.
“When you think about the city of Los Angeles, it’s one of 88 cities in the county of Los Angeles and a very complex region. So we have to consider interoperability when we think about these systems," Hand said. "So we’ve worked closely with CalTrans and the county and other organizations to create a real-time database to enable that exchange of information in real time.
Currently, that database is used for maps and the coordination of systems, she added, but in the future it could be used for real-time communication between vehicles.
"And that’s the type of thing where you have to set those standards today, figure out how to work together and really leverage opportunities in terms of procurement and strategizing for technology down the road to enable that interoperability," Hand said. "Because if we don’t plan now, we’ll all go out there and procure our own systems and wonder why everything doesn’t work together.”
Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.