Cooper Martin of the National League of Cities’ Sustainable Cities Institute discusses trends in transportation and technology’s role.
When it comes to transportation, the future is looking increasingly tech-driven and multimodal. At the Resilient Cities Summit in Santa Fe, N.M., in December 2016, FutureStructure Executive Editor Bob Graves interviewed Cooper Martin, program director of the Sustainable Cities Institute at the National League of Cities, about how cities should be planning and preparing their transportation infrastructure for the future. Cooper is one of the co-authors of the National League of Cities’ report City of the Future: Technology & Mobility, which explores trends in mobility and technology in cities and identifies what cities can do to move seamlessly and efficiently into the future of mobility. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Graves: Technology has a huge potential to impact how cities operate and how planning should be done to prepare for the future. Planning that bridges from today to the next five to 15 years is tremendously challenging. What should leaders be thinking about when they look at the infrastructure of their cities?
Martin: First I know this isn't limited to just transportation infrastructure, but since we did our report last year on cities of the future and transportation and mobility, I'll focus there.
I think the first thing that cities should do is understand that all of the transportation infrastructure is about networks. Whether it's bike share, whether it's light rail, whether it's roads. One line, one bike share station, one road doesn't cut it. We have to make these investments as systems that truly connect places to one another. No one mode is going to be the solution. I think the D.C. bike share is a great example of that. They piloted several years ago as a privately funded entity, installed something like 15 stations all over D.C., and declared the program a failure because nobody was really using it. The problem wasn't lack of demand; the problem was [that it wasn’t] a robust enough network to be useful. That's a good example.
Specifically, and especially with regard to technology, I think that there are almost too many moving parts to make strong, predictive statements. When we were writing the report we had that problem. Looking 15 years out is incredibly difficult with the pace of change, and yet that's exactly what cities have to do. I mean, 15 years is the minimum that cities need to look out. What we found was, in surveying long-term transportation plans with horizons of 20, 25, 35 even 40 years, none of them, with very few exceptions, was really considering electrification of transportation. Only four of the 60 some odd cities we looked at were considering autonomous vehicles in any way. These are decisions that are being made right now, planning documents that are being implemented right now that really aren't taking any of this technology into account. I think that's the problem that we had diagnosed. Not that we knew what the solutions were, but they weren't even asking the questions. That I think is something that the report found.
Graves: Two questions come immediately to mind: What should cities do and what shouldn't cities do?
Martin: For most cities, in most regions in the United States anyway, “fix it first” is probably what cities should do. We have grown geographically in our cities far, far more than we have grown in population. I think over the last 40 years it's something like nine to one in terms of land consumed versus population growth. I know of cities that have had stable populations over 30 years, but doubled in land mass and size.
Graves: I had no idea.
Martin: Those are all long-term maintenance obligations and investments that were predicated on growth that hasn't materialized. It's these kinds of investments that need to be rethought. Fix it first [to accommodate population growth] using the land that we've currently occupied, the urbanized area that we've currently got, is going to be very important for the next 10 to 20 years.
Graves: That makes a lot of sense. On the other side, if you're a government leader, what shouldn't you do?
Martin: I think something you shouldn't do is double down on that expansion. That’s not just from my perspective on environmental sustainability, but also economic sustainability. Urban highways, urban parking, whether or not we see autonomous vehicles sort of replacing the personal owned automobile — which is something we've looked at in our report — cities are definitely saddled with more parking than they need in almost every facet of neighborhood development. The flip side of that obviously is going in and making more investments in a true network of alternative transportation options. Cities have done this enough in the last decade in terms of road diets, multimodal options with complete streets, bicycle and pedestrian options, that the data at this point speaks for itself.
Graves: Is this basically a summary of what was in your report?
Martin: Yes and no. I think the theme of the report is that the future is more multimodal, more tech-driven and changing more rapidly than existing plans account for, but I've talked about planning and physical infrastructure and haven’t even touched on car sharing or driverless technology, which was a big part of the research from my colleagues. We didn't provide a lot of prescriptive solutions, but more observational solutions in terms of how we were looking at the long-term plans of cities. "Non-prescriptive" would be the word that I would use. The main thing we were advocating for was to really take a look at the changing technology, because it's all changed in the last 10 years.
Graves: That makes sense.
Martin: So I've been in D.C. for 10 years. When I first got here and wanted to know when a bus was coming, there was a number you could call on a regular phone to key in the seven- or eight-digit code of the bus stop. An automated machine would tell you when the next bus was scheduled to arrive. Now it's just so much different. You pull up your cellphone before you've even left your house to check the bus, the metro, whether there's a car nearby to rent, whether there's a bike share station nearby and whether it has bikes that are available. You can make decisions in D.C. based on four, five or even six different modes. That change has happened in D.C. in a decade, and it's going to be spreading to a lot more cities in America very, very soon. Frankly, sooner than a lot of our membership realized. That was the observation that we made: These things are changing very, very quickly, certainly quicker than decisions on transportation investments were being made.
Graves: In closing this out, I would expect that you will be updating and advising cities on this subject, and to stay tuned for more information as it becomes available.
Martin: Yes. Aside from the report itself, we always do continuing education sessions. That's really our role as an organization — to provide professional development and leadership training for city leaders, whether they're staff or elected, to better serve their citizens. At our conferences in D.C. and around the country there are almost always sessions on long-term transportation planning, the demands of the next generation of mobility, demands in the new marketplace that are coming up. It's not hypothetical anymore.
Read more about how networked alternatives for getting around are about to redefine our cities in the column Urban Transportation’s Multimodal Future.