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The Ride Ahead

Building the Transportation Mesh

Urbanist and transportation expert Greg Lindsay discusses the future of mobility.

Cities around the world are struggling to solve transportation problems, and many are looking to Greg Lindsay and his colleagues for guidance.

As a senior fellow of the New Cities Foundation — where he leads the Connected Mobility Initiative — and a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, Greg is in the forefront of innovation in transportation. frog sat down with Greg to discuss what mobility means to him and why car companies and designers alike should focus on bringing together different modes of transportation.

You recently gave a keynote at the New Cities Summit in Jakarta, where you defined mobility as three interconnected concepts: transportation, mobile phones, and economic/social mobility. Can you talk about the relationship between these concepts, and how together they equal the current definition of mobility?

They have always been linked, but now they are coming together explicitly in various ways. The relevant thread that runs through my research is that cities have always been formed physically and spatially by whatever the state-of-the-art was in transportation at the time. The transportation aspect of mobility defines our environments, which then defines our access to opportunity and our ability to make the most of that opportunity.

For example, recent research by my colleagues at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management looked at the relationship between mass transit, walkability, and private car ownership as they relate to the accessibility of jobs. To no one’s surprise, neighborhoods in New York City that have some of the highest per-capita incomes and the highest accessibility to opportunity are the ones that have the highest mobile shares for transit-walkability versus private cars.

And then the opposite is true. The neighborhoods in New York that have some of the lowest incomes and highest unemployment rates are transit deserts. So you can see the relationship between transportation and social and economic mobility, and you can see it throughout the world. (The riots that rocked Brazil in 2013 started with protests in São Paulo over a $0.19 transit fare hike.)

Not only is the smartphone the third important element of this interconnected definition of mobility; it is also the defining transportation technology of our time. The smartphone allows us to design and provision different services that can bind together public and private forms of transportation to create increased access to mobility, which can then in turn preserve and enhance the right people have to their city.

The city is an important part of the transportation conversation. In that same talk, you said that in the first 50 years of this century we will triple our urban land cover. If you think about that growth strictly through the lens of transportation, do you see the ability to connect different transportation services as the most important focus area for designers in this space?

Yes. NYU Stern’s Shlomo Angel has used satellite data and other sources to predict that urban land cover — literally, the urban ground under our feet — will triple by the middle of this century. Other researchers at Yale and elsewhere have used weather satellites to capture how Indian cities are sprawling horizontally while global cities such as New York, London, and Tokyo are building taller and denser. China’s cities, naturally, embody both trends simultaneously.

It’s Angel’s view — one shared by many economists — that the functional limit of a city is the size of its labor shed. If you live at point A anywhere in the city, are you able to commute to point B? If not, you’re really no longer part of that city. If we accept this as true, we must massively rethink transportation networks — how do we combine linear mass transit with other modes to mitigate congestion while extending accessibility?

We need to start designing meshes that bring formerly conflicting modes — trains and automobiles — together.  It will require all sorts of extant political and economic arguments about how we make data from public transit services open, how we convince the private players (like Uber, which famously doesn’t play nice with anybody) to make their data and services available, and how we provision the mesh as either a public or private good. I personally believe in the public good approach, because we know what effective transportation can do for economic development and personal opportunities — but none of these questions have been decided yet. We will only sort them out if we are committed to connecting various forms of transportation, instead of insisting that one mode is more important than the other.

The New Cities Foundation has recently announced the Connected Mobility Initiative, which will explore mobility solutions with support from the Toyota Mobility Foundation. Why is Toyota a good partner for this work?

The initiative is still in the early planning stages, but one could certainly do worse than having the world’s largest automaker for your partner. Toyota, like its rivals, is thinking hard about avoiding the disruption that befell U.S. railroads, which thought of themselves as railroads first and transportation companies second. They had the opportunity to invest early in airlines and declined due to a lack of imagination. That’s how you end up with Amtrak.

Car companies seem eager to avoid that fate by thinking hard about the mesh I described earlier. In this future, perhaps you not only buy a car from Toyota, but also access to Toyota’s mobility mesh, in whatever form that takes. Ford is taking steps in this direction by partnering with the peer-to-peer car-sharing service Getaround, which not only creates value for Ford owners, but allows them to earn cash to make their payments. (More evidence why we should stop calling it the “sharing economy” and start calling it the “austerity economy.”)

In a similar vein, Daimler bought RideScout, which pulls together various transit options into a single app so people can decide if they want to drive, walk, or take public transportation. Add a single-fare payment system to that and you’ve got yourself the beginning of a mesh. It wouldn’t shock me if Toyota were poised to start taking steps in this direction.

We’re seeing new business models around transportation, such as those you just mentioned, pop up almost every day. What do you expect to see next?

We ran a project last year at NYU, named “Reprogramming Mobility,” that forecasted four different scenarios for transportation circa 2030. (My colleague Anthony Townsend deserves the kudos for this.) One scenario imagined what would happen if Google were to buy Tesla and Uber, and partner with Solar City in the bargain. In two fell swoops, Google would be able to offer you an autonomous electric car, solar panels on your roof to help power it, and a Nest thermostat to manage the exchange. Throw in Google Fiber, and you can start to imagine a future of homes halfway off the grid, where Googlemobiles comprise a packet-switched network of rolling electric grid storage, which is what Tesla’s already thinking. Given Google’s investment in Sidewalk Labs to figure this out, maybe it happens in the next five years instead of 15.

Helsinki is another place to watch, as they recently announced plans to stitch together public and private forms of transportation into a single service through an app allowing people to choose and pay for one path from A to B across various modes of travel. The Millennial leading this project doesn’t see much difference between public or private modes; she just wants them to interoperate, and to that end, she’s helping set up new mobility providers offering service packages similar to your mobile-phone contract. (Being a Finn who grew up during Nokia’s heyday, she has a very different view of mobile telcos than we do.)

Just a ferry ride away is Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, which is arguably the world’s most technologically advanced society — or at least the most technologically provisioned, with thousands of government services available online. Tallinn made the decision a few years ago to offer public transit to residents for free, on the basis that A) it was already heavily subsidized, and B) the benefits in terms of social mobility and economic opportunity outweighed the costs.

In general, I like to refer to all of these developments as the “post-Uber era,” not in the sense that Uber is going to go away, but because Uber has set the terms until now. You’re either with them or against them. I think that’s about to change. In the future we are going to see public-private hybrids and other partnerships that fracture the discussion and give cities more to consider than whether or not to let Uber operate legally.

You’ve said that the shape of our cities is defined by transportation — how will the shape continue to change as our modes of transportation evolve?

I’m glad you asked, because maybe the greatest financial impact these new technologies will have is on land values. Every new mode of transportation to date has physically re-shaped the city and our approach to it, and it’s a sure bet it’s happening again with the smartphone — just ask the Washington D.C. developers paying tenants’ Uber bills rather than building them parking spaces — and perhaps soon with the autonomous car.

We know these new modes will change the shape of our cities, but the specifics remain to be seen. This is part of what we are investigating with the Connected Mobility Initiative; hopefully we’ll get some clues out of this project.

Amy MacMillan

As global editor, Amy worked with frogs around the world to craft stories about the impact of design and technology on society.

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