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Here's What the Future of City Planning Looks Like

We chat with Ford's John Kwant about the changing landscape of urban design and what’s next for America’s “smart cities.”

Alexis Chemblette

Alexis Chemblette

Sixty years ago, the American middle class began fleeing inner cities and pushing to their boundaries, creating a suburban sprawl that made large swathes of the country car-dependent. Over time, families accepted longer commutes in exchange for space, safety, and cheaper real estate. Three generations later, though, the trend started to snap back. In recent years, we've watched corporate America ditch the suburbs for the city, bringing with them more people and higher rents—especially in sought-after cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Austin, and Boston.

Population pressure quickly follows; highway and street traffic increase and environmental concerns worsen, forcing local officials and city planners to react fast. Now, so-called "smart cities" are putting the emphasis on green space, ride sharing programs, accessible bike lanes, and easy access to internet-capable mass transit, allowing urban-dwelling Americans to turn their backs on the car-dependent ways of their parents.

The average car in the United States is idle 95 percent of the time, while car trips account for 74 percent of workers' commutes in large metropolitan areas.

And it's no wonder why. The average car in the United States is idle 95 percent of the time, while car trips account for 74 percent of workers' commutes in large metropolitan areas. For city planner and urban designer Jeff Speck, the major problem with American cities is that they were built to accommodate cars first. In order to make urban areas "smart," they need to be walkable, meaning schools and housing need to be reintroduced in downtown areas.

"When you look at most downtown areas in the United States, places that have hopes of being walkable, the lack of schools and housing is striking," Speck explains. For decades the answer to congestion was to widen and expand road infrastructure, resulting in a feedback loop of increased traffic and reduced walkability: "When we widen streets to accept the congestion we are anticipating more traffic," he says. "When the widening comes, people move further from work, so we widen streets again. In a congested system, building new roads makes traffic worse."


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Paradoxically, most American cities have larger-than-necessary streets for the congestion they're experiencing. Speck has found a strong correlation between street size and pedestrian activity. After being voted the "worst walking city in the country" in 2015, Oklahoma City officials commissioned city planners to rescale the city's main road axes from six lanes down to two. Simultaneously, car sharing networks and ride sharing programs are having an increasingly positive impact in urban areas. "Recall that 80% of the members of car sharing clubs who owned a car prior to car sharing sold it after joining the network," says social and economic theorist Jeremy Rifkin in his book The Zero Marginal Cost Society, "and that each car-sharing vehicle eliminates 15 personally owned cars from the road."

Combined with the rising number of bike commuters and increased public and private spending on public transportation, car sharing practices are slowly eliminating the need for parking space, allowing cities to transform garages and parking structures into things like affordable housing, public parks, cultural facilities, and sidewalk space. "Looking further into the future, [we believe] self-driving cars will play a role in mitigating mobility challenges, as well. We intend to put autonomous vehicles into ride-sharing or ride-hailing services by 2021." says Ford's John Kwant, who's leading the company's City Solutions program. Below, we chat with Kwant about the changing landscape of urban design and what's next for America's "smart cities."

VICE Studio: What do you see happening in the city planning sector to accommodate ride sharing and bike sharing programs?
John Kwant: Cities are looking at several things to accommodate modes that help to increase carrying capacity of their infrastructure. One area would be what I call "re-imagining streetscapes," [which means] how to better manage and design roads, curbs, and sidewalks. Dedicated bike lanes, Bus Rapid transit lanes on roads—these are many of the tools cities have at their disposal to effect positive change.

The demographic pressure in cities is causing more traffic congestion and impacting people's quality of life. As population growth continues to soar in metropolitan areas, what priorities should be at the top of city and statewide agendas to overcome these challenges?
We have to figure out how to get more carrying capacity out of the existing system, and it's not going to happen by adding highways alone. By looking at each city as its own transportation ecosystem and helping to better manage both the supply and demand sides of the equation through connected modes and consumers, we think it's possible.

There are roughly four times more parking spaces than cars in the United States. Cities devote 50% to 60% of their space to cars and parking. What can we stand to gain from getting rid of excess parking spots?
Curb side parking is a luxury if you think about it. It shuts down a whole lane of carrying capacity and isn't necessarily thoroughly monetized. When autonomous vehicles are introduced to urban settings, you will likely need even fewer parking spaces, but curb space will become valuable, just like it is today, for pick-up and drop-off.

The suburban sprawl of the 1980s had made many Americans car-dependent. Single occupant car journeys are still the norm in most cities. How do we incentivize drivers to adopt ride-sharing solutions?
This is a difficult problem. If we are to get increased carrying capacity out of our existing systems, we certainly have to find ways to encourage commuters to shift to ride charging modes. One way to do that is to provide incentives and to also make shared mode environments acceptable in a way not yet offered or imagined. As an example, would someone be more willing to use a shuttle service if they had a guaranteed comfortable seat, wi-fi connectivity, and charging ports for their electronic devices—and be driven to work to use that time either personally or more productively? We think they would, it's just that these services aren't yet offered in many places. We still have legacy models out there.

You are launching a fully autonomous vehicle in 2021. What are the major challenges cities will face to accommodate driverless cars?
There is significant opportunity that comes with integration of autonomous vehicles into cities to help alleviate traffic congestion and serve people in more accessible and affordable ways. As mentioned, cities need to think about their transportation ecosystem and begin to plan for how autonomous vehicles can best fit in through mobility services such as ride sharing, ride hailing, or package delivery fleets to meet the needs of their residents and solve some of the challenges that they face in getting around. So, through research and analysis of their own transportation data, cities can help pinpoint the mobility pain points where autonomous vehicles could help.

Another area to consider is the interaction of autonomous vehicles with emergency response vehicles. Cities should ensure that there are standardized communications protocols between their own emergency fleets (police, fire, ambulance, etc.) and the autonomous vehicles on the road. For instance, emergency vehicles could communicate their current location and destination information to an autonomous vehicle fleet, so the self-driving vehicles will reroute to avoid interaction with emergency vehicles.

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