Live from SXSW With Karina Ricks on the Future of Mobility—and the Role of Trails for Communities

Posted 03/14/18 by Brandi Horton in America's Trails

Brandi Horton interviews Karina Ricks at SXSW 2018 | Courtesy RTC
Rails to Trails is at the SXSW Cities Summit this week, exploring the role of trails in the cities of the future. I caught up with Karina Ricks, director of the City of Pittsburgh’s Office of Mobility and Infrastructure. We talked about the city’s mobility needs and world-class trails—and the intersection of opportunity and infrastructure in a city that’s at the forefront of the future of mobility. 

Karina, the City of Pittsburgh’s Office of Mobility is new. Tell us a bit about the department’s focus.

Karina Ricks: The Department of Mobility and Infrastructure is a new department in the City of Pittsburgh, it was established a little less than a year ago. It’s really a next generation department of transportation. The Department is responsible for the planning, construction, management and operations of the transportation system and mobility services of the City of Pittsburgh.

So today you were on a panel talking about autonomous vehicles and the role of cities in defining what that future of autonomous vehicles looks like. I think a lot of folks especially in our community aren’t sure what that means for them; they aren’t really thinking about that every day in quite the same way that you are. Tell us what Pittsburgh is thinking about, grappling with … and what your priorities are related to autonomous vehicles.

Well I think the approach to autonomous vehicles is not that much different than our approach to any other mobility service. What we want … is to really enable the people and the employees of the City of Pittsburgh to be able to have greater mobility choices—more affordable mobility choices.

2018 SXSW "How Cities will Drive Autonomous Vehicles" panelists from left to right: Jennifer Bradley, The The Aspen Institute; Rob Spillar, City of Austin; Karina Ricks, City of Pittsburgh; Brian Kenner, Government of Washington, D.C. | Courtesy RTC
2018 SXSW "How Cities will Drive Autonomous Vehicles" panelists from left to right: Jennifer Bradley, The The Aspen Institute; Rob Spillar, City of Austin; Karina Ricks, City of Pittsburgh; Brian Kenner, Government of Washington, D.C. | Courtesy RTC

The mission of the department is to provide the physical mobility necessary for people to achieve the economic mobility, social mobility that they desire. So, we would evaluate the deployment and use of autonomous vehicles in the same way—does it really enhance people’s productivity, does it enhance their connectivity, does it serve our goals of social cohesion and safety—just as we would any other kind of mobility for the city.

You don’t know this yet, but on Twitter, I shouted you out during the session, and I gave you the quote of the day. You said one of the things … that we aren’t talking enough about in the context of autonomous vehicles, biking and walking. And we would agree, big time. So what do you think we should be talking about when it comes to biking and walking and autonomous vehicles?

In the City of Pittsburgh, we have five core goals that drive the work that we do. One is to ensure access, and specifically we measure that by people having access to fresh fruits and vegetables within 20 minutes of their home. Two is safety—that people can get where they’re going without risk to life or limb. Third is that we really want to see bicycling and walking; they are the most efficient modes of travel for very-short-distance trips that people make.

In the United States, something like 40 percent of the trips that we make are less than a mile in distance. And on average, 60 percent of these very-short-distance trips are driven. That is a horrific statistic. We want to avoid the future of [the Pixar cartoon] WALL-E, where everyone is hovering around in their personalized autonomous chairs; and to see that bear out through an autonomous vehicle future—that would be a tremendous failure.

We need to understand that as humans, we are built to walk. Perhaps not built to bike, but we like it! … Particularly for those short-distance trips that are so easy to achieve in these non-vehicular, non-motorized modes—this is what we need to encourage. It is not that we need to mandate that people take these short trips by walking and biking, but that we give them an undeniably delightful, safe experience—that this is the first thing that pops in their mind, that they want to get there and be with other human beings, be in the social environment, be on our trail, be on our streets, and really get those trips done in a way that is part of the community of this city—and not in their own isolated pod.

LISTEN IN: 2018 SXSW "How Cities will Drive Autonomous Vehicles"

Right, that WALL-E reference really hits home, doesn’t it? One of the things that we at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy find so fascinating is this convergence of an amazing city for trails—Pittsburgh has a wonderful trails system and is already an amazing city for biking—and the testing of autonomous vehicles. What do you think the role of trails might look like in a future where mobility is just completely redefined … where do trails play in?

We do have a world-class trail network, and we’re very proud of that. People don’t necessarily associate Pittsburgh with being one of the leading cities for walking and biking in the United States. In fact, we have the fifth-highest mode share of walking and bicycling in the U.S., so we do have a huge community, and it is the trails … it is the backbone of the trails that really drive people toward that. We see a future where we expand that trail network. We see a future also though where people of different abilities can use that trail network.

Three Rivers Heritage Trails in Pittsburgh, PA | Photo by Ehren Zaun
Three Rivers Heritage Trails in Pittsburgh, PA | Photo by Ehren Zaun

There are more mobility choices. We now are seeing deployments of shared scooters and motorized scooters. We’re seeing in Pittsburgh in particular an attraction for pedal-assist/electrical-assist bicycles. We may see a future where there are other mobility choices that we might not associate with trail use but that would expand, in a very space-efficient and very appropriate way, the mobility of people for whom bicycling may not be a choice. And so we do want to see that; we do want to experiment with that.

But at the same time, we want to preserve this great quality we have on our trail network—this great investment that we’ve made—and the experience. It really is an experience; we talk about that all the time—the user experience, the traveler experience … and being on a trail is really just an incredible experience with lovely vistas, lovely views, peaceful travel and [communities] that really are great partners with us in maintaining them and advocating for them.

Rails to Trails magazine attended the Cities Summit at SXSW on March 12 and 13, 2018, to explore the role of trails in the cities of the future. The Cities Summit at SXSW is an opportunity for civic leaders and creative urbanists of all disciplines to join together to learn, strategize and form coalitions to transform the cities of tomorrow. The convening explored the role of culture, design and innovation in shaping the equitable, resilient and livable cities of the future. Check out our complete coverage on the TrailBlog.
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