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Reimagining the City Means Envisioning Far Fewer Cars

The recent CoMotion LA conference pushed attendees to try to rethink the very nature of urban mobility as cities continue to grapple with a warming planet and increasingly congested highways.

LOS ANGELES — The vision for moving around the city of tomorrow should include a lot less of one of today’s central features: single drivers in personal cars.

This was a key point put forward by the 2019 CoMotion LA conference in downtown Los Angeles last week. In messages that were both overt and subtle, participants asserted that Angelenos must drastically scale back car use. This, of course, is an audacious aspiration in a city that is practically defined by its “car culture,” to borrow an expression which is both dismissive and dreamy, all at once.

“The future is not the car,” remarked Tomás Martins, CEO of Tembici, the largest bike-share company in Latin America, speaking during a panel discussion at CoMotion titled “The Macro Impact of MicroMobility.”

“It’s going to be a new kind of device," he added. "It’s not the car.”

And indeed, removing the car from our lives — or at least scaling back its presence quite a bit — is the proverbial nut that entrepreneurs, transportation planners and random dreamers seem to be working hard to crack.

“We have our work cut out for us,” said Christopher Hawthorne, chief design officer for the city of Los Angeles, a newly formed position created by Mayor Eric Garcetti, "as we think about re-shifting, or rebalancing, the needs of all of the users of the public realm."

During the talk about reinventing mobility, Hawthorne also said that as we invest heavily in transit expansion, other forms of mobility should be at the center, considered in a way that can rebalance the design of the public realm to initiate a shift. 

“And in some ways, it’s a return to how Los Angeles was designed,” he said, recalling the city of 100 years ago, where streetcars, pedestrians, cyclists and yes — private autos — all equitably shared the street space.

If the conversation in the Los Angeles Arts District last week briefly recalled some of those bygone days, it did so in ways that were firmly rooted in the crises of today.

The transportation sector in California pumps millions of tons of climate warming gases into the atmosphere every year. In fact, without scaling back the fossil-fueled transportation sector, all of the green electricity produced by California will not be enough for the state to reach its climate goals, said Scott Wiener, a state senator from San Francisco. Put simply, he said that we need to drive less.

“California, right now, because of our land-use patterns … we’re tanking our climate goals,” said Wiener, at CoMotion, calling to mind the all-too-familiar suburban building pattern, driven by widespread access to cars, and a pattern writ large in Los Angeles.

Efforts to reduce driving will take many forms. Multiple options, easily accessed by emerging partnerships between the public and private sectors, are constantly coming forward, and are being rapidly fine-tuned. They are evolving into “partnerships that are meaningful,” as described by Joshua Schank, chief innovation officer for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, calling attention to a pilot project between LA Metro and Via to provide on-demand, door-to-door mobility service, similar to what Lyft and Uber provide.

“Those are models that have a shot at becoming sustainable,” said Schank.

And of course, it would not be a new mobility conference without a prolonged and multi-sided look at bikes and scooters. There was no shortage of calls for improved and expanded infrastructure, as well as technology developments to firmly elevate these transportation modes from being a fraction of total trips to a truly sustainable mode that effectively reduces auto traffic congestion.

“I would argue that there are more people out on the streets, biking and walking, and scootering than we’re giving ourselves credit for,” said Eli Akira Kaufman, executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. “So once again, instead of approaching the conversation as a deficit perspective of what’s not happening, I think we need to start to shine a brighter light on what is happening.”

Parking the car and climbing onto a bike or scooter — or bus or train — may start to look more attractive as Los Angeles and other cities take a harder look at congestion pricing, which would attach fees to car use in certain districts. Los Angeles plans to introduce a related pilot project in the next two years.

“We are changing the urban landscape here in L.A. County. We’ve got dozens of transit and highway projects,” said Phil Washington, CEO of LA Metro, which currently has four major rail lines under construction, as well as several highway projects. “Building this great infrastructure and imagining a new city and county is not enough. We need to change behavior, with regard to congestion.”

CoMotion LA was also the kickoff for a new initiative to grow public-private partnerships around transportation innovation known as Urban Movement Labs, which will identify some of the transportation challenges in Los Angeles, and then set up pilots to address them. Some of the founding partners of the Urban Movement Labs include the mayor’s office of economic development, the L.A. Cleantech Incubator, Los Angeles World Airports as well as private companies like Lyft, Waymo and Verizon.

“It’s a way to be more collaborative,” Lilly Shoup, senior director of policy and partnerships at Lyft, said of the Urban Mobility Labs project. “To be different sectors to solve real-world challenges, and community challenges.

“So getting out, and talking to community members, working with community organizations, is really the only way we can drive adoption and acceptance of new mobility modes, and really ensure that we are meeting the demand that people have in their actual day-to-day lives,” she 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.