SAN FRANCISCO – The city of the future has had countless fantasy blueprints, from The Jetsons‘ pleasant hive of automated efficiency to Blade Runner ‘s dystopian tangle of urban chaos.
But the reality is the city of future is closer than you think, as tech companies and automakers floor the pedal on projects ranging from cars that drive themselves to apps that aggregate transportation options.
Conversations with mobility experts here and abroad paint a picture of an urban revolution that is already underway in a patchwork of cities from Seattle to Stockholm. “The main thing with automated and connected tech is to make sure it’s reliable first,” says Chris Hendrickson, director of the Traffic21 Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. “But the opportunities for change are impressive.”
So what could a successfully networked city of the transportation near-future look like? Picture this.
You wake up and open an app that tells you how to leverage the city’s various transit options to get to your appointment. Maybe it’s a walk to a bicycle, which you pedal to a bus. Or an autonomous taxi to the downtown perimeter to hail a ride-hailing service, driven by a human. Or borrowing a car that belongs to your apartment building’s small fleet.
Once outside, you’ll notice community gardens and playgrounds where parking lots once stood. The air will be cleaner and you might hear birds chirp, both due to the preponderance of electric vehicles. Emergency vehicle sirens are less common as automotive accidents decline thanks to on-board car sensors that track moving objects and humans. Trucks don’t crowd the streets because deliveries are made at night by self-driving vehicles.
“In many ways, we’ll be moving back toward the city of the past, and much like in the 18th century we’ll be designing around people who are walking, biking and even growing their own food,” says Gabe Klein, author of Start-Up City: Inspiring Public and Private Entrepreneurship, Getting Projects Done, and Having Fun.
In less than two decades, researchers say cities could become safer for pedestrians and cyclists and what cars do exist will be small, electric and largely driverless. Under this optimistic forecast, public transit will be efficient, and smart traffic signals will keep the system moving along.
Not that this vision is either guaranteed or without potentially damaging potholes. Hurdles aren’t likely to be technological but municipal. Civic and business leaders will have to agree on costly infrastructure projects that allow sensor-driven vehicles to recognize each other, not to mention pedestrians. There is also the matter of working out insurance issues so that accidents involving driverless transportation and humans can be resolved. And perhaps the biggest conflicting interest will be jobs.
For example, ride-hailing giant Uber has already stirred such debate in cities around the world over its classification of drivers as contract workers who don’t enjoy the variety of job benefits extended to regular employees. What’s more, it is now feverishly developing its own team of autonomous-car engineers with an apparent aims to replace the most expensive part of its business proposition, the driver.
“There are some 14 million job in the U.S. that involve driving, so getting to this city of the future will be painful due to job losses,” says Klein. “Right now there’s probably an element of mistrust on all sides of this equation. Many worry all this change is just for a profit motive.”
But where cities can find common ground among myriad competing interests, you could see revitalized downtowns trumpet a dazzlingly retro quality of life.
What’s needed most to realize this vision “is coordination above all,” says Mathieu Lefevre, executive director of the Paris-based New Cities Foundation, a non-profit focused on rethinking urban renewal.
“In many ways, urban transportation of the future is already here, between driver-assisted cars, ride sharing, car sharing, mapping devices and these sorts of things, and all that remains is a one-swipe pass that connects them all,” says Lefevre, noting that Paris recently had a car-free day. “Of all the issues we look at, transportation is the most exciting.”
But he points out that there could be resistance to the car-free future among some countries with newly minted middle class residents. “In places like China and India, the car remains a symbol of having made it in life,” says Lefevre. “It’s not great (for urban change). But it’s the reality.”
AN END TO DOWNTOWN PARKING LOTS
Helping push this makeover in the U.S. are Silicon Valley startups such as car-parking service Luxe, which operates in half a dozen U.S. cities. Luxe recently made a deal with a San Francisco developer that decided against building costly and space-consuming parking for its future residents. Instead, it will provide Luxe’s app-based valet service, which shifts cars between existing garages depending on capacity.
“Parking is at the intersection of transportation and real estate,” says Luxe CEO Curtis Lee. “Parking lots are terrible for society, and many growing urban centers are experiencing a crunch of cars.”
A host of American cities have embraced the challenge to make their downtowns hum with efficiency, and in so doing have realized “it’s not as risky as we might have thought,” says Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California-Berkeley.
“The Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul) are among the leaders in bike and car sharing services, Indianapolis has BlueIndy (a fleet of rentable electric vehicles), and Austin (where Google is now testing its prototype driverless car) has lots of app-makers focused on this space, like RideScout,” says Shaheen.
RideScout was started by two Army veterans who wanted an app that could present commuters with a range of transportation options – train, bus, taxi, bicycle – to a given destination. Last year, Daimler bought RideScout, one of the German automaker’s many transportation-related acquisitions that include car2go, a car-sharing service now in more than a dozen U.S. markets.
Audi recently announced an addition to its own car-sharing program, Audi On Demand. Called Audi at Home, the service starts soon in two exclusive apartment buildings in Miami and San Francisco, whose residents can get access to the buildings’ assortment of Audi cars by the hour or day.
“It’s all about giving people additional ways to connect with our brand,” says Thomas Schneider, business manager for Audi Mobility, who says the company’s Audi Urban Future initiative is tasked with finding ways for the automaker to remain competitive in a world where car ownership may decline.
Most transportation researchers agree that livability in urban centers is directly tied to “reducing the number of vehicles in those cities,” says Paul Mackie of Mobility Lab, a research startup funded by Arlington County, Va.
“It all starts with technology,” he says. “Transit data has to be open and shared, so we all know what (transportation) is where. We’ve been programmed for so long not to consider public transit options because we aren’t sure if we can count on them. Once we can efficiently get somewhere by transferring between a variety of options, everything will change.”
FINLAND TARGETS MOBILITY AS A SERVICE
Some cities are reconsidering the role of cars within city centers. London long ago instituted a fee-based system for motorists wishing to access downtown with their personal vehicles, and recently officials in Oslo said their downtown would be car-free by 2019.
Scandinavian countries in general are getting aggressive on reinventing their capitals, perhaps in part because the projects are easier to tackle given the relatively modest size of their urban centers (Oslo has 600,000 residents, about the size of El Paso, Texas).
In Helsinki, public agencies, academic institutions and private companies are working with a non-profit organization called ITS Finland to coordinate the gradual rollout of a transportation-focused option.
“The goal is enabling a good life for all citizens even if you don’t have a car,” says ITS Finland CEO Sampo Hietanen. He dubs the pay-as-you-go approach to networked transportation options MaaS, or mobility as a service, a variation on cloud-computing’s SaaS, software as a service.
“We’re not looking to force anyone to do anything, but instead to try and create a system that can get you from point A to B in a variety of ways of your choosing,” says Hietanen. “Of course the hardest part of doing this isn’t the technology, but the negotiations between services that obviously want to keep their customers.”
The enticement is huge. By ITS Finland’s calculation, urban transportation companies will share about ten times what is currently split between the various telecommunications companies battling for monthly cell phone accounts. “The average revenue per user for cell phones is around $30 a month, but for transportation it’s around $300 a month,” he says.
Cities have always been about the fast and efficient flow of commerce. In the end, the incentive to remake the world’s urban capitals will likely come from the combined desire to both accommodate and profit from the rising generation of millennial workers whose demands for urban life center on health, efficiency and savings. Put another way, the city of the future will be green – both in terms of its footprint and its ability to generate profits.
Says Hietanen: “When it comes to the new transportation model, there’s a lot of money out there to share.”
Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava on Twitter @marcodellacava.
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