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How Cities Should Plan and Prepare Their Transportation Infrastructure for the Future

In this Q&A, Harriet Tregoning, former principal deputy assistant secretary of the Office of Community Planning and Development at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, talks about the importance of managing change and that things need to be designed for adaptation.

When it comes to the future of transportation in cities, change is increasingly being driven by technology. At the Resilient Cities Summit in Stowe, Vt., in July 2017, I interviewed Harriet Tregoning, the immediate past principal deputy assistant secretary of the Office of Community Planning and Development at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, about how cities should be planning and preparing their transportation infrastructure for the future.

Tregoning was previously the director of the District of Columbia Office of Planning, where she worked to make D.C. a walkable, bikeable, eminently livable, globally competitive and thriving city. Prior to this, she was the director of the Governors’ Institute on Community Design, co-founded with former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bob: I'm interested in understanding how a government official, a city planner for example, deals with the impact of technology on their transportation system.

Harriet: Well I think the larger context for planning or governing of any kind is really the process of managing change. So that's really what you're talking about, and technology has impacted communities and cities from the very beginning. Certainly we all live in places that are in part the product of the most disruptive technology of the 20th century: the automobile.

This is another phase of that disruption. Autonomous vehicles are what a lot of cities are beginning to pay a little bit of attention to, and we've already seen so much disruption with electronically hailed car service, in part because the privately owned automobile is an incredibly wasteful thing. According to automaker statistics, in the U.S. automobiles are driven 5 percent of the time and parked 95 percent of the time.

Don Shoup — the parking guru who is at UCLA — tells us that there are between seven and nine parking spaces for each and every automobile in America. All of that adds up to a tremendous amount of waste.

Let's say you're a city official and you have parking structures throughout your downtown. With ride hailing services like Uber and driverless cars there will be excess capacity. What would you suggest as a solution?

When I was planning director in the District of Columbia (I worked for the last two mayors), this was already on my mind. When my team and I updated our zoning code for the first time in more than 50 years, one of the things we did was greatly reduce the parking that was required. But even before that, we decoupled parking from housing, so that everyone would have the choice of whether they wanted to have parking or not. So that wasn't built in, baked into the cost. Because once you've already paid for an expensive parking space, the likelihood that you would own or keep a car is much, much higher.

I also approved one standing parking garage in my time as planning director, and for that parking garage, I required the developer to design it to be retrofit for housing. Because I said, "You might think you need it now, and I agree, you might. But you're not going to need it for long." And things need to be designed for adaptation. We actually have a lot of great examples in the district already where the first one or even two floors of parking have been converted into office buildings.

If parking utilization rates are dropping, and in many cities they are, that means there might already be excess parking in existing structures. So one of the things that technology can help you do is identify where that excess parking is and figure out a technologically enabled way to access it.

One of our developers in the district did a study to look at what really affected parking utilization rates because it's a big mistake to miscalculate on the parking. It might cost $50,000 to $75,000 per underground structured space.

They looked at income, they looked at proximity to metro, and the thing that they found that had the highest correlation was that a low walk score meant higher parking utilization, and a high walk score meant low utilization. So think about the evolution of a neighborhood. The walk score is really about stuff within walking distance. So as a neighborhood develops, or as a district gets more mature, you get more and more stuff within walking distance. But you've already bought your parking. And now as the utilization goes down, you have a stranded asset.

So you've really got to be thinking broadly on how this is going to impact your community.

Well again, you're managing change as the planning director, or someone who is looking at the future cities. Honestly not a lot of people are thinking about the future. They're mostly looking at the past. They're not really even looking at the trends in some cases. So I think that's a primary obligation for people who are leading our cities today. This is an area that's seeing a lot of change, so it's definitely something to keep on top of.

On that note, did you start looking at the impact of autonomous vehicles in D.C.?

Yes, the district solicited for updates of the comprehensive plan. That solicitation was open to the public for several months and it closed in June. This is an area where the District of Columbia has always been very much an early adopter with transportation innovation, whether it's bike sharing, car sharing, electric vehicle technology; whatever it might be, drone delivery, very much on the front edge. So why would that be different when it comes to autonomous vehicles?

What's interesting about the district is that it's both a city and a state, so it deals with state DOT directors on the one hand, but also has many of the characteristics of a city. It works very closely with some of the leading cities in the country. In many ways, D.C. is perfectly positioned to be a leader in thinking about autonomous vehicles.

I wrote an element for the comprehensive plan that's being considered now by the city officials to help the district prepare for autonomous vehicles. We will need to consider both how will land uses change when vehicle utilization is higher, but also what kind of ground rules are important? Autonomous vehicles have the potential to make things like traffic congestion much, much worse, as well as to make things much, much better and more convenient.

So I think it's really up to cities to figure out what are the rules of the game that would get you the best possible outcomes for your citizens.

Great point. It seems that cities that don't have D.C.'s resources and experience would do well to look at what's evolving there.

Yes, cities are so generous, mayors are so generous, and their staff, so generous with each other, they like nothing better than to share good ideas or even failures. Don't do this, we've tried this and this is how it turned out for us. And they love to see somebody do it better. So it's really a great atmosphere.

Well that's certainly something that I enjoy about working in the public sector, that the state and local government is very willing to share. Any final thoughts you'd like to share?

I would say one more thing. You know, driving is a major occupation in many cities, and if you think about the impact of automation, if people who drove taxis and buses and trains and delivery vans and all other sorts of vehicles, if those jobs were to go away, that would have an enormous impact on cities. And it's not clear what would replace it.

So that is one of the things that I think is very important for cities to be thinking about. You know, we've reflexively automated many things in cities, whether it's recycling separation or transit ticket collection, or whatever it might be, and really look to minimize our labor cost in cities. And that might not be the right strategy going forward, especially since so many cities also pay a lot to subsidize the livelihood of those who are unemployed or underemployed.

We have an economy that's producing so many jobs in the service sector that often don't even pay a living wage, and still require subsidies for families. That's just not a great situation. That's partially why so many cities have raised their minimum wage. Because people who have the dignity of working a full-time job should also be able to live independently.

This is a situation where cities, I think, need to look at the whole set of costs and impacts that the city is covering, not just at the first cost of an automation decision.