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Transportation in Tempe: How One Arizona City Is Going All-In on Autonomous Vehicles

Two city officials also discuss multi-modal transportation systems and the importance of being resilient.

For two officials in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe, Ariz., which is taking the lead on new technologies, collaboration and sustainable systems are key.

Mayor Mark Mitchell was elected in May 2012, and is a third-generation Arizonan with deep roots in the community. Before becoming mayor, he was elected to the City Council in March of 2000 and served three four-year terms. Mitchell also is on the Board of Directors of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council and serves as Tempe’s representative on the Maricopa Association of Government’s Regional Council, Regional Council Executive Committee, and Transportation Policy Committee.

Dr. Braden Kay is the city's sustainability program manager — he works with departments on reaching sustainability targets in energy, transportation, waste, water, land use, local food, housing and social issues. He received a Ph.D. from Arizona State's School of Sustainability for his dissertation work on stakeholder engagement and strategy building within the city of Phoenix, and was recently the sustainability project manager for the city of Orlando, Fla., where he led sustainability implementation in waste diversion, urban forestry and urban agriculture.

In this interview with Government Technology's FutureStructure, Mitchell and Kay talk multi-modal transportation systems, being a test hub for autonomous vehicles and the importance of being a resilient city.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Would you give an overview of Tempe's current transportation environment?

Mitchell: We're very fortunate to work on a regional public policy transportation basis with the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG), our local municipal planning organization. I'm on the executive committee, and we do all of our public transportation planning through this regional cooperative. From this has evolved a truly multi-modal system for the center of the Phoenix metro area of the Valley, between Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix. Tempe has a goal of becoming a "20-minute" city. (Editor's note: A 20-minute city is characterized by a vibrant mix of commercial, recreational, civic and residential establishments within a 1-mile walking distance, 4-mile bicycle ride, or a 20-minute transit ride.)

For example, we have a neighborhood circulator that is free to our residents all powered by natural gas as part of a sales tax that the residents passed in 1996 that does not sunset. We look at the quality of life of our community in terms of mobility and transportation networks with bike lanes. It's a true combination and working regionally to help all the communities because we're all interconnected. It's really been efficient.

Another example, we're doing a streetcar. It's initially starting out with just the city of Tempe, but the future proposed plan is to connect to Mesa. We'll also link to the light rail system, which connects Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix, and eventually out to Glendale.

So we're very lucky in terms of having a regional approach to it to help solve the issues. In Tempe, we offer free bus passes and transit passes to our youth so that we can help educate the next generation to understand what public transportation is. I think, to date, we're the only city in the valley doing this, but we're starting to see it take root in other cities as well.

It's not going to happen overnight. The Phoenix metro area is like a mini L.A. in terms of freeway systems and cars.

So do you feel you're future-proofing your transportation system by these actions?

Mitchell: I don't know if we're future-proofing it, but I think everything we do helps. We always look at all the options. Always look at what's going to happen 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years down the road, and as an elected official, that's what I have to do because we have to have it sustainable for the next generation. We think regionally, because providing connectivity via transit also helps with economic development. It brings everybody closer together.

Businesses want to be where transit is. Tempe is physically located at the center of the valley, the metropolitan area. We're the only city surrounded by five freeways. We have truly border-to-border light rail, that goes from east to west. We're in the process of getting a streetcar and we have a neighborhood circulator.

Now, fast forward even further to the future, we're a test hub for autonomous vehicles, Uber.

That reminds me of the National League of Cities report on transportation planning. Among its findings it stated that cities were not taking into account the potential impacts of new mobility solutions like car- and ride-sharing as well autonomous vehicles. Are you taking this into account? How are you planning to deal with these types of impacts?

Mitchell: We're definitely taking a lead on these new technologies — including serving as a testing site for autonomous vehicles. For example, Arizona Gov. Ducey said to Uber, "We'll take you in Arizona." They now have an office in Tempe, and then next thing you know Google — Waymo cars — are also driving all throughout the city and valley as well.

Kay: There is an ASU professor, Thad Miller, who is going to be doing a course this fall just on the potential impact of autonomous vehicles in Tempe. He's going to be working with MAG, city planners and our elected officials to make sure that we are future-proofing for autonomous vehicles. We also are doing a new urban core plan to make sure we're doing transit-oriented urban development and we're making sure autonomous vehicles are being considered in that planning. So we're still at the beginning of figuring what autonomous vehicles are going to do in our city, but it's definitely on the mayor's radar and is part of the way we're thinking about our future investments.

Mitchell: Think about how it's going to change the trucking industry. There's a lot of stuff you could do. It's a matter of time. We're very fortunate in the Tempe and the Phoenix metro area that we work well collaboratively and to have a sustainable transportation system in place for generations to come.

What do you see relative to re-use of parking spaces in your community when autonomous vehicles arrive? Do you have any thoughts, plans about that?

Mitchell: We have a transportation overlay district around certain transit areas where we try to reduce the number of parking spaces. As part of the project, we're encouraging people to use multi-modal transportation. But, like I mentioned earlier, we're the land of many, many freeways, so it's going to take education. With the heat in Arizona, there are also some challenges in terms of making sure we have enough shade structures and walkability so that people are able to use transportation other than vehicles. Maybe in the future this works so that autonomous vehicles can come into play too.

That is fascinating about the local conditions that you have to overcome. It's not rain, it's heat, and if you're going to get people out of their cars, they have to be willing to be out in the environment for some period of time. Waiting, transferring, that type of thing. Trees for shade and other shade structures.

Kay: Valley Metro has been putting a lot of resources into shade structures and figuring out how to make cooling stations at every streetcar stop. We're making sure that artists are engaged in trying to figure out how you make those stations feel cooler. There's been a few different attempts to figure out how to do more of that.

Mitchell: You know we're very innovative as a city and as a region. I think that the more you look for opportunities, the more resilient you'll be. So this is an opportunity. You don't know until you try.