Transportation Questions and Answers With:
Disruption: AV and Tiny Cars
A lot is about to change when it comes to cars: how (and if) we use them, what they'll run on, whether they'll have drivers. All of that will affect the built environment. Josh Westerhold, the senior manager of Nissan's Future Lab — and an urban planner — thinks about those things a lot. Here's an edited version of his January conversation with Planning's editor in chief, Meghan Stromberg. Read an edited version of that chat below, or listen to the full audio interview here.
Tell us what the Future Lab is. What's the goal of the work that you do there?
Broadly, the Future Lab is a diverse group of thinkers that are trying to figure out what comes next in transportation and how that impacts our business model. There is a massive shift toward urbanization around the world. There is also a broad shift toward collective values, in sharing things and improving access. All of those things led us to see that our traditional model wasn't the only model for a car company.
What's cool about the Future Lab is that we have the resources of a large company, but we're a team of five that are using things like agile thinking — sort of start-up approaches to building new products, ideas, and services.
Do you think car companies need to think of themselves differently?
The trends are showing continued growth in big metrics like vehicle miles traveled and a growing middle class in other parts of the world. That mobility actually is good for the world, it's good for the economy.
At the same time, people are questioning the model of owning that asset. So, I think we will start to not just think of ourselves as a car company, but as a trip company. Our nontraditional competitors like Uber and car-sharing services prove that there is a different movement type that people are willing to pay for, particularly in urban environments. The traditional car ownership model has some challenges.
Do you mean that automakers might not just manufacture and sell cars, but might retain them under a ride-sharing model?
I think that's one of those trends that we are validating. We would obviously continue to sell cars to consumers, in part because the overall cost of maintaining a massive asset pool over time is a challenging business proposition. You look at just some really basic math: There are about a billion to a billion and a half cars on the road today, and the value of those assets are in the trillions of dollars.
I think we'll continue to look for partnerships with large ride-share providers, as well as explore options to offer new services and to sell to a different type of consumer, maybe on a per-trip basis.
What's exciting about working in a car company — even though I catch some grief from other urban planners that I know — is that it really is a unique opportunity to combine a new business model with better product. We're actually really, really good at building things that are safe and technologically advanced. What we need to learn about is understanding the user behaviors and consumer trends in the future and feeding that back into building not just cars but new ways of thinking.
How might, say, a shift to a much smaller vehicle norm impact the built environment?
The designer in me nerds out a little when we start talking about these types of things. We have a partnership here in San Francisco with an electric scooter sharing service. We gave them a small fleet of what we call a New Mobility Concept — a small, all-electric two seater, a kind of urban mover. It's roughly half to two-thirds the size of a Smart car, and it's been on the streets of San Francisco for a year and a half, so we're seeing how people use it to move in the city.
As you contemplate a larger fleet of those, obviously the need to park changes. That vehicle can park front to curb, so you can put two or three in a traditional parallel parking spot. And, if you can put two side by side in existing lanes, you can move more people through your streets. The more that you can increase movement on the same infrastructure, the same street size, the better it is for the city.
You also might start stacking a bunch of these small vehicles to park them, and now we've reduced the cost of building an apartment or condo building, and that makes more naturally affordable housing. This vehicle, in particular, is all-electric, so now you're reducing the noise pollution of the city. They're low-speed vehicles, so that increases safety. There are tons of opportunities to change the built environment as you think about a vehicle that's more deliberately built for urban environments.
What about autonomous vehicles? What challenges and opportunities do they bring?
We are still sort of figuring it out. One of the things I've noticed in a lot of the conversations I've had with people in the planning profession or municipal leaders, is that people were kind of caught off guard by all this. But the growth of ride-sharing and ride-hailing companies has had a significant impact on the streets already.
The amount of double parking for pickups and drop-offs, which impacts the fluidity of the streetscape, can't be understated at this point. Originally planners thought about taxi pickup and drop-off locations in a handful of locations, so we designated curb space. Well, now, anywhere is essentially a pickup and drop-off area. Most of the urban streetscape is not designed for that, so it happens in the middle of the street. Then you add on-demand deliveries from Amazon or GrubHub, and now the street is performing different functions than planners originally thought about.
The moment autonomy comes in, you reduce the cost of that trip by taking the driver out of the equation. The expectation is that we're going to see a big increase in these types of point-to-point trips or on-demand deliveries. We have to think about what the impact on the street will be.
I had a conversation recently with a staff planner in Silicon Valley and he wanted to get a sense of when autonomous driving is really going to be here. What it came down to is his city has a parking issue. They consider themselves to be under parked and they're considering building a structured parking deck, and could take out a 40-year municipal bond to pay for it. What happens if 10 years from today, people don't need parking anymore?
What's strange is: I can spin up an app or start a company in six months and it can be dead in a year, but the built environment is sticky. It stays around a really long time, and planners know that, and so when they're making decisions about zoning, about how to use the curb space, about infrastructure, parking, I think they're aware that things are changing in the same time frame that they're now considering in their planning. That's exciting, but it's also, I would imagine for professional planners, nerve-wracking.
There are so many unknowns. What should planners be doing right now?
I would start by becoming as expert as you possibly can in this. In any planning that's longer than, say, 10 years, you should definitely include the impact of autonomous vehicles. Almost every automotive company has a group like ours, the Future Lab. Come and talk with me. As a planner working in a car company, I want to talk about these issues because I care about our impact on cities, and I also care about cities' impact on our business.
I think the other way to do it is to use transportation network companies and ride sharing as an opportunity to set yourself up from a zoning and regulatory standpoint. Start thinking about designating space for pickups and drop-offs. Are they going to be the same for autonomous vehicles? If fluidity and mobility is what matters, how do you think about designing the streetscape, the complete street of the future? How do you not just design for large, single- occupant cars driving through your cities, but actually moving more people? You don't have to wait for autonomy to do some of those things.
Disruption: Bike Share
Bike sharing is big. Large cities all over the world have rolled out successful systems. In smaller places, transportation needs and community goals are sometimes different, so bike share needs to be, too. Zagster is a turnkey bike-share operator that understands that. Jon Terbush, its communications manager, sat down with Planning's Meghan Stromberg. Read an edited version of that chat below, or listen to the full audio interview here.
How is Zagster different from the bike sharing companies that most of us know about?
What most people think of when they think of bike sharing are the big city systems, things like Citi Bike in New York, or what we have here in Boston, Hubway. These are third-generation bike-sharing programs. They're kiosk based, meaning users walk up to a kiosk, swipe a credit card, then take a bike out from a rack where it's locked. This is great for big cities, who wanted to alleviate traffic congestion and get people off overcrowded mass transit.
What we've seen in the last few years is the fourth generation of bike sharing, also called "flexible" or "on-bike" bike sharing. It's allowed movement into smaller markets. Those cities are looking at this from a number of different perspectives. They're looking at it as a form of recreation — they want to get people out on their trails, want to get people active and healthy. They're also very concerned with building a transportation system that is tailored to the needs of both current and future residents. Smaller cities are now realizing that in order to attract and retain millennials, they need a transportation system that works for them.
What about the system itself?
Our hardware is different. We use what's called onbike technology. Rather than having locks integrated into station docks, ours are actually built onto the bike, which allows for more affordable and flexible usage. Instead of a system where riders have to return a bike every 30 minutes or so to a station, you can just ride as long as you want, lock up wherever you're going.
And then in terms of business model, we are a turnkey bike-share operator, so we do everything: planning, building, and operating, so that our partners just need to work with us to design a system that will solve whatever needs they're trying to address, and then we do all the hard work.
Do people use the bikes differently in smaller places?
What we see more often is people using it during the day to go grab lunch, go for meetings — make those quick little trips. It's also great for last-mile trips and making connections between other forms of mass transit. Some of our programs are run through trails organizations, like in Evansville, Indiana. They have a great trail network right along the Ohio River. There, revenue from rider fees goes directly back to the trails coalition to continue building more trails.
Is there any place where bike share probably just won't work?
We believe it can work almost anywhere as long as it's tailored to the community it's serving. One client is a university of maybe 3,000 students. In the smallest city we work with, there are about 6,000 residents, and our largest one is a little bit over 500,000, so there's a huge spectrum. Really all it takes is for a community to know that they want bike sharing, know why they want bike sharing, and then actually act on that vision.
What are the minimum requirements for bike share?
Well, I'd still say the vision is the most important thing. If people want to make it happen, it can happen. There's an old chicken and the egg kind of conundrum: Do you put in the bike share first, or do you first need to make sure there's all the infrastructure in place? That's really not the case.
Boston's a great example of that. About 10 years ago, the city had virtually no bike infrastructure, but we're a city that's pretty well set up for having a cycling culture. The city went ahead and put in Hubway before finishing most of the infrastructure projects. That further enhanced the cycling culture, and then that gave more impetus to finishing off some of these big infrastructure projects.
But in building out a wish list ... the number one thing is just any kind of infrastructure, and more of it. Whether it's bike lanes, shared roads, protected lanes, cycle tracks, trails out through the woods, anything that makes it so that streets can better accommodate humans instead of cars.
Infrastructure aside, anything to encourage ridership: encouraging bike trips to farmers markets, having ride-in movies. Our partner in Fort Collins helped put together a special category in an annual bike race specifically for our bike-share bikes. Showing people that cycling is safe, fun, and available encourages more and more people to get out on bikes.
How does more biking change the built environment?
For decades, we've been designing cities specifically geared toward the personal car, and that's just not where people are anymore. Transportation preferences have been shifting. Car ownership has been declining. So cities, whether they want to or not, need to address that.
The last time I spoke to people in Evansville, they were worried about population decline. They realized young folks didn't want to stay there anymore. Part of the problem, they realized, was that they didn't have the infrastructure for people to do anything except own cars. That really expedited their shift toward making their streets more walkable, making the city more livable. They initiated a broad complete streets overhaul program that involved putting in a lot more trails and bike lanes. That creates this cyclical situation: More infrastructure leads to more ridership, and more ridership leads to a need for more infrastructure, and so on.
When bike sharing — and cycling in general — first took off in the country about a decade ago, there was a little bit of backlash to it. There's actually a term: bike-lash. Any time you're trying to make a big change in the way things have been done for decades, you will meet some resistance.
But New York City is a great example. There was a ton of animosity toward bike share at the outset, but that's now been in place for several years, and studies have shown that it is actually making the city a safer place for everybody.
Is bike share a disruptive technology, or is it just moving an existing technology in a different direction?
It's a little bit of both. So first, bike sharing is changing the transportation landscape overall. It's disruptive to the old transportation paradigm. Cities are now beginning to design themselves specifically for bikes, and we are seeing it actually disrupt usage patterns.
There have been studies showing that. In Minneapolis and D.C., there's about a two percent reduction in car ownership linked directly to bike sharing. In Minneapolis, another study found that over half of all bike-share users reported driving less often. In Denver, 40 percent of bike-share riders said that they were replacing car trips with bike trips.
The second part of this is actually within bike sharing itself. There's an ongoing technological disruption. So going back to the third generation of bike sharing: It's great for big cities, but it wasn't something that could be templated for smaller cities. Innovation has allowed locking tech to go beyond the bike and be powered through a smartphone app — suddenly anyone can unlock a bike at the touch of a button.
And that disruption has now opened up this completely new world of bike sharing, which is enabling places like the Fort Collinses of the world to have bike sharing that still can accomplish all their transportation goals and suit the needs of their communities, while also working within their means and limitations.
Disruption: Ride Share
Ride sharing — or more accurately: on-demand, ride-hailing services — has changed the transportation ecosystem, presenting both opportunities and challenges. To meet them, Uber formed a Transportation Policy and Research team, led by Andrew Salzberg, a planner. He and Planning's Meghan Stromberg talked in February. Read an edited version of that chat below, or listen to the full audio interview here.
What do you and your team do at Uber?
We're in charge of thinking through some of the issues that Uber deals with around the world. The issues I focus on are what we call transportation and mobility: everything from infrastructure investment to working with public transportation agencies to environmental impacts. Anything that you would think of as part of a normal basket of issues that a traditional transportation planner would think about.
Is one area of research how ride-hailing companies link up with public transportation?
It's definitely something we're very interested in. This is something I've been thinking about personally for a long time, and at Uber, we've been investing quite a bit of research into how that relationship is playing out on the ground.
One of the most compelling examples right now is from London. London has one of the best public transport systems in the world, but until recently, tube service didn't run late at night. And one of the biggest markets for Uber in London was late-night service. So, when the Night Tube launched in 2016, there was a lot of discussion about what this would do to Uber's business.
What we saw is really interesting. There was a big change in our trips, but while some of the pickups in the center of London went down, there was an enormous spike in the outer areas. People were taking the Night Tube from the core, and then hopping in an Uber to complete that last mile. It was a really great natural experiment.
We're also working alongside transit agencies. We have a partnership, for instance, in Summit, New Jersey. The town was contemplating adding a new park-and-ride lot, but that was an unappealing option for a lot of reasons that planners already know. We all asked "can Uber provide discounted service for people to get to and from a train station?" We launched a pilot in 2016, with the city chipping in a small amount of money for riders who start and end their trip within their jurisdiction.
One criticism of on-demand transportation is that most pickups and drop-offs happen in the street. How do we make better space for it?
I think there's a lot of opportunity to plan there. As recently as 10 years ago, there was no conception of what a wide adoption of shared mobility might look like. On the plus side, since a huge amount of our street space today is taken up by parking, we could free that up for bike lanes, or wider sidewalks, or street trees. There's a whole host of uses that, in an ideal world, would be ranked ahead of parking cars. So is there a way to provide designated pickup spots for shared mobility ride-share services? Yes. We have started to do that in places of really high demand but there's still a lot to think through about what the ideal streetscape looks like.
I think that if I'm bullish and we're bullish as a company, that in the long term, we can help cities use space more effectively. Moving away from parking is one, but the other obvious one is putting more people into fewer cars, with services like Uber-POOL.
How long has Uber been around as a company?
Six-plus years — not a long time by planning standards.
Exactly. So how might planners deal with that time frame mismatch?
It's a great question, and it's one reason why I have a lot of sympathy for the work planners do. The rapid change in transportation certainly puts increasing pressure on people who are trying to set the guidelines for built environments that last decades at a minimum. I think that allowing cities to have a bit more flexibility in things like parking standards can help. In a future with more shared mobility, more potentially autonomous vehicles, we're going to need less parking and different varieties of it.
I was talking to a developer in Denver recently who said, "We're going to build a certain amount of parking because we need it today, but we're going to build it in a way that can be converted into other uses over time." That approach of building flexibility into the built environment is not always possible but we should look for opportunities that set us up for success no matter what the future holds.
Tell us about Uber Movement. Is the data of a fine enough grain for planners to use?
We developed Uber Movement after talking to metropolitan planning organizations. They're making a 20- or 30-year forecast, and sometimes having trouble getting data that's up to date today. We built it sitting alongside people in those agencies to understand their process. So we're providing travel times between zones in the city, but they're not zones that we made up, they're traffic analysis zones that planners already use. If you download and export the data from Movement, you will get it displayed in the TAZ of the area that you're working on. That's a pretty mundane part, but I think it's important to say this entire product was designed specifically with the end user in mind.
I don't think there's going to be one tool or one product that would satisfy every possible use case, and I think we've been clear with Movement that we are starting out with a specific use case, but in the long run, I think there are others out there that we can meet. So to your question — is it in a format that planners can use? — I would say yes.
We have data now that's not just a single slice in time — we're providing data by hour of day, by day of week, for an entire year — and ultimately going forward. So, we built this for MPOs — regional planners who ultimately are in charge of spending federal dollars on transportation infrastructure. But we've seen broad applicability of that dataset. I'm kind of excited to see what people choose to do with it.
What do you think the future holds for autonomous vehicles?
I don't think I can pretend to answer how this is going to play out. But many people out there have done a good job of laying out some of the key decisions we have to make communally.
Robin Chase, the founder of Zipcar, frames autonomous vehicles as either great things for cities or terrible things for cities. She calls it heaven or hell. That key distinction is a good one: Is everyone going to own their own autonomous vehicle, or are we going to rely on a shared fleet — both shared in the sense of one car does trips for many people, but also that we might share them on an individual trip as we do with UberPOOL?
Obviously, I'm biased because I work at a company that's in the business of sharing rides, but I think that if we can get people out of the mindset of having to use their own personal car, I think there are going to be enormous benefits for cities. If we just replace the system we have with autonomous vehicles, there are likely to be some benefits, but also some enormous consequences.
Give planners some advice as they prepare for the future of transportation.
I think one thing to do is to just focus on the things that are eternally true. If you look at the challenges of urban transportation, a lot of them haven't changed: How do we use road space more effectively, to move more passengers per mile? How do we ensure that the systems we develop are environmentally friendly, are socially equitable? If you focus on that and don't get caught up in the specifics of this or that technology and how it's deployed, you're in better shape.