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In the COVID Recovery, Don’t Overlook ‘Mundane Mobility’

Transportation experts participating in the recent Urbanism Next conference stressed the importance of ‘mundane mobility’ like sidewalks and buses that run frequently and on time as solutions to deal with any number of city goals.

a person walking a dog on the sidewalk
Before cities start planning for the Hyperloop, eying landing sites for air taxis or even plotting out autonomous shuttle routes, urbanists say, "fix the sidewalks."

This back-to-basics message was the way this year’s Urbanism Next conference opened last week, with David Zipper, a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Taubman Center for State and Local Government, and expert in urbanism and transportation, framing the conversation around “mundane mobility.”

Speaking against the backdrop of buzz phrases like mobility as a service (MaaS) and other tech-centered mobility concepts, Zipper stressed the need by cities to think seriously about high-level goals like climate change, equity or reducing traffic congestion, and then how to best achieve these.

“I don’t think it’s an either-or,” Zipper remarked in his comments. “I don’t think that a city needs to decide, 'Am I going to really focus on the new technologies, or am I going to focus on getting the basics right?' Because I’ll argue, getting the basics right is a necessary precondition for actually having the technologies work, in the sense of having people use them consistently.”

Well-maintained sidewalks that connect to other transportation systems, he argued, could rise to high priority for any number of reasons — like improving safety for pedestrians or reducing car trips.

“How are you going to take the bus, or reach that shared mobility service if you don’t have a safe place to walk,” said Zipper. “But a better sidewalk can achieve a bunch of those goals.”

And what about bike lanes? A protected bike lane is often “not very expensive to produce. It’s just putting some paint down with some dividers,” said Zipper, pointing out protected lanes have shown to consistently reduce collisions between bikes and cars by more than 50 percent.

“The moonshot mobility tech solutions that we think about — especially the shared ones — they really rely on cities first getting the basics right,” said Zipper. 

A re-examination of city priorities, and how to best realize them, comes at one of the most consequential times in the history of cities, say conference organizers, pointing to the events of the last year. In only a few months, COVID-19 has reshaped the world of work, with 23 percent of the U.S. workforce now doing their jobs from home. This shift has affected the realms of transportation, real estate, equity and other factors, said Nico Larco, Urbanism Next director and University of Oregon architecture professor.

“As work from home continues, the ability to get to walkable, pedestrian-friendly, amenity-rich neighborhood centers is growing even stronger,” said Larco. “That’s a shift we’ve been seeing for a number of decades, and my sense is that will continue to happen throughout this time.”

The decline of brick-and-mortar retail, the rise of e-commerce, the concerns around climate change or rising inequity are not new trends this year, said Larco, but there is a sense that these concerns have been sped up, and cities need to respond to this urgency as well.

“We were seeing a lot of these disruptions before the pandemic … If anything, the pandemic has simply shown us that that is accelerating,” said Larco.

It would be wrong to conclude Zipper was advocating for a retreat from technology in the face of such rapid change. But instead, cities should more enthusiastically embrace the use of pilot projects as a way to test ideas against their ability to truly achieve some of those high-level goals, and rethink the project when it doesn’t.

“This gets back to going small before you go big,” said Zipper, who cautioned against the idea of a pilot being simply a phased-in implementation. “It’s not a screwup if you run a pilot and you learn, 'OK, there’s actually bad stuff that comes from this deployment.'"

“You can either correct it or say that technology doesn’t have a role here,” he added.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.