Just last month, the nation’s mayors met in Boston for the Annual Meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors. Each year, more than 30,000 mayors from all around the country converge to help set a unified policy agenda for a diverse range of issues—including health, education, economic development and, not least in our minds, transportation and infrastructure.
As a mayor myself—of College Park, Maryland, a suburb in the Metro Washington, D.C. area—and a member of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, I had the opportunity to attend and participate in the debate. Through the Conference’s Transportation and Communications Committee, I was also able to bring forward a resolution that put the Conference of Mayors on the forefront of ongoing discussions about autonomous vehicles—emerging as one of the most-discussed topics among urban leaders today—and their potential impact on walking and biking.
While the impact that autonomous vehicles will have in the future is uncertain, they could allow cities to use public space more efficiently by reducing the amount of parking necessary in city centers and even, in some cases, reduce the number of lanes needed for driving. As the director of government relations at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) and a lover of trails, walking and bicycling, I hope cities will take the opportunity to refocus this space on human-centered mobility, including enhanced trail networks.
Balanced Transportation Through Technological Advancement
The resolution, which passed unanimously, seeks to ensure that the benefits of new technologies such as shared and autonomous vehicles go not just to the people who use those vehicles, but to nonmotorized users as well.
It specifically supports: increased funding for municipalities to reconstruct their public rights-of-way while also dedicating more space to safe and connected walking and bicycling routes, and acquiring and enhancing public space; as well as the ability of local communities to regulate where autonomous vehicles can travel or otherwise restrict their movement to ensure the safety of all users of the public right-of-way, including nonmotorized users. It also supports the development of best practices so that municipalities can work to maximize the opportunities provided by new technologies to enhance and increase safe places for walking and bicycling.
As a whole, the resolution focuses on “human-centered” transportation and infrastructure, which puts human users, not vehicles, at the heart of design and decision making—fueled by an understanding that shared and autonomous vehicles, together with public transportation and connected bicycle and pedestrian networks, can make it easier for people to live without necessarily owning a car.
People-Focused Transportation Infrastructure Planning Is on the Rise
Cities have been working—in some cases for decades—to build infrastructure with people as the focus, not vehicles. In 2016, New York City renovated Times Square to transform it from a car-heavy thoroughfare to a new two-acre pedestrian space with a raised cycle track.
In May 2018, the City of Madrid barred non-resident vehicles from a zone that covers the entirety of the city’s center, with one particular goal being to create a situation where people no longer think of bringing their cars downtown.
The City of Freiburg, Germany, has worked over the past four decades—with incremental changes to the transport system—to focus on walking and bicycling, and has more than tripled the number of trips by bicycle since 1970, for a combined share of trips by public transport, bicycling and walking of 68 percent. These efforts have all taken space formerly reserved for automobiles and converted it into safe space for pedestrians and bicyclists.
In the United States, new technologies are making it possible for more harmonious interaction between bicyclists and drivers, and increased mode share. For example, Columbus is working with Tome to improve on-road bicycling safety through V2X (short for “vehicle-to-everything”), which allows cars to talk to other cars, pedestrians and bicyclists through a unified network. Additional road-sign infrastructure will also be installed with features such as signals that alert automobile drivers when a bicyclist is approaching an intersection. Columbus is implementing this new technology as part of their “Smart City” grant by the U.S. Department of Transportation (totaling $40 million, with another $10 million from Vulcan, Inc.), which also includes a number of other technological integrations involving driverless vehicle programs and electric cars.
New technology is also helping trail planners around the country decide where to build trails; for example, Soofa benches are now being installed that track people who traverse a given area. Planners in the Capital Trails Coalition trail network (an RTC TrailNation™ Project) in Prince George’s County, Maryland—which includes College Park—are using this technology to specifically try and detect how many people use their trails. This information could help determine how they can better enhance their trail network in the long term.
Looking Ahead to the Convergence of Trails and New Technologies
No one can say for certain the impact that autonomous vehicles will have in the future, but if such vehicles are shared rather than personally owned, they will likely give communities the opportunity to convert more public rights-of-way into safe space for pedestrians and cyclists.
Wider reliance on shared autonomous vehicles may increase driving but reduce the need for parking in the city core, as such vehicles could circulate in between passengers. Autonomous microtransit options could make public vehicles more readily available for use and reduce the need for private vehicles in the city core. With foresight and planning, as well as sufficient resources to re-envision and restructure the public right-of-way, municipalities have an opportunity to re-create acres of public space within their city cores so that pedestrians and cyclists have new opportunities to get around.
For the first time in 70+ years, our country is at the dawn of a transportation revolution. At RTC, we are calling this new era the Age of Connectivity, to reflect new opportunities through new transportation technology and the growing potential of trails, bicycling and walking to reconnect communities. It’s a time, in the words of RTC President Keith Laughlin, “when trails can work hand in hand with innovation to help redesign our neighborhoods and our public spaces.”
RTC is working to be on the forefront of this new Age of Connectivity with our focus on creating trails and safe networks for bicycling and walking. New technology provides an opportunity to weave this infrastructure into our urban environment. RTC will continue to advocate for communities around the nation to take advantage of these new opportunities and build infrastructure centered on people, not vehicles. We are proud to have the nation’s mayors standing by our side.