Future of Design May 11, 2023

The city of tomorrow will have way fewer cars

The pandemic changed urban commuting. Some say it’s for the better.

If you’ve lived in a city for the last three years, you may have noticed some changes to how you get around. Perhaps you or more of your peers started biking to work. Maybe it’s been easier to get a seat on the subway. Or you could be leaving home 10 minutes earlier because more cars are on the road.

Around the world, transportation in our urban centers is shifting, whether the cause is the pandemic or whether COVID merely accelerated trends that were already in place. And that’s having an enormous impact on the way urbanites live. To understand said impact, we interviewed three experts on the direction urban mobility is moving.

Top to Bottom: Gerry Tierney, Associate Principal, Perkins&Will; Jennifer Wieland, Managing Director, Nelson\Nygaard; Gregory Taylor, Sacramento Valley Station Project Manager, City of Sacramento
Big picture, how and why are commuter habits shifting in our cities, and how can people be better served?

Tierney: People are still using transit; they’re just not using it for work as much. This change is caused less by a fear of COVID and more by a fundamental reset of work habits. We’re simply not going back to five days a week in the office; the writing is on the wall.

Wieland: In public transportation, the focus used to be peak periods, or rush hours. But because of the pandemic and hybrid work models, traditional peaks have softened or flattened throughout the day. We need to recognize that more people riding public transportation today work non-traditional schedules—outside of the 9 to 5 job—as we saw with the commute patterns of essential workers in the peak of the pandemic.  We have to serve these travelers, and all people, at all times of day—not just at peak hours.

Taylor: From an equity standpoint, we need to integrate more opportunities for travel and easier fares so that people aren’t solely relying on their environmentally unfriendly cars. California is taking the lead on developing a transit scheduling and fare payment system similar to Europe that uses your credit card for all transit transactions. Also, the state is planning a hub-and-spoke model that coordinates local transit schedules with the rail system to streamline transfers and makes the user experience more appealing. A system that attracts people, one that pulls more choices into the overall system to help transit get green. Comfort, safety, and equity are paramount in achieving that.

Are we nearing the end of this post-pandemic period of change, or are we just getting started?

Tierney: Some are still trying to think of transportation the same way we did in 2019. We can’t. After everything that’s happened, it just doesn’t make sense in 2023. Society needs to rethink transit in our cities to better fit the significant shifts in how urban communities are using transit.  

Wieland: I think we’re just getting started. Throughout the pandemic, people started moving around their neighborhoods and cities differently. We should all hope these new trends are here to stay if we care about more sustainable, livable, and equitable cities. After all, transportation is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, and the connection between climate and equity is so important. The climate crisis disproportionately impacts Indigenous communities, communities of color, and low-income communities, who often don’t have the infrastructure or resources to deal with extreme heat and severe weather events, such as hurricane-induced flooding. We have to take bold action to address that reality and provide greener ways to travel. More often than not, that means more mass transit and more space for walking and biking.

Taylor: I totally agree. Though cars are still a necessary part of the equation for a lot of families, they do three negative things: pollute the air, take up space, and hurt people when they collide. The transit sector can be a much safer, greener, and more equitable means to provide better mobility and diminish the need for the car.

Ok. So while we wait for better alternatives from the transit sector, how can we encourage people to use the public transit that’s already available?

Taylor: When fares are high and schedules are unreliable, cars become such an easy fallback. But if those basic fundamentals can be addressed, there’s an additional need for creating a place that’s pleasant to be in; to attract the choice-users and heighten the experience for all. That’s where architecture and design come in: making train stations, bus stations, etc. not just a functional part of a person’s day, but also a safe and enjoyable one. Views of plants, sunlight, nature, and the great outdoors, for example, can add a sense of biophilic calm to a commute. So, design has the power to attract people into these systems.

Tierney: It depends on where you are in the world. In London and Dublin, for example, public transit ridership is down, but regular service continues. And it’s a much more pleasant experience because you actually have a chance of finding a seat now! In U.S. cities, transit service is farebox driven, meaning they’ll cut service when ridership is low. That’s going to make it more difficult for people who work outside of 9 to 5—the people who kept transit alive in the middle of the pandemic—to use the service.

Taylor: The transit sector is making better decisions to diminish the need for cars. But automobile technology is improving, which will keep cars competitive in people’s everyday commuting decisions. Public funding of infrastructure that supports private vehicles still far outweighs the public investments in public transit.

Tierney: If cities want to reduce the number of cars on their streets, they first need to reduce the number of parking spaces. People won’t drive if there’s nowhere to park. San Francisco and San Jose, for example, have established parking maximums, rather than minimums.

Wieland: Some agencies have moved to a fare-free model and added service in the middle of the day and evenings to accommodate commuters outside peak hours.

Tierney: Ridership on weekends is more even now with ridership during the week, which means service now needs to be consistent across all times of day.

Taylor: Train hubs are very hard to keep clean, let alone functioning, but doing so will instill confidence in the community and attract and sustain more riders. 

Wieland: Buses are trending in the same direction as rail, but at a slower pace.

Taylor: In the US, public buses are seen as necessary but not a rider’s first choice. And the longer the route, the less efficient they become to operate in low-density areas.

Wieland: Cities across the board are repurposing vehicular travel lanes to provide more space for walking and biking. They’re also moving toward wider “mobility lanes,” usually former bike lanes, to accommodate faster electric bikes and scooters.

Taylor: In Sacramento, we’re actively reducing three-lane streets to two-lane streets that provide additional bike lanes, as well as protected bike lanes where space permits. We also have funding to funnel bike lanes into train stations for easier transfers.

Tierney: We need to be realistic about biking. It’s not always practical for commuters with kids, physical disabilities, or health concerns, or for people living and working in intense climates. So yes, expand bike networks, but don’t rely solely on them.

As cities grow—a function of both densification and urban sprawl—why is it important for people to access public transportation close to home?

Wieland: If everything a person needs is within 15 minutes of their home, you reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It’s better for health and safety. You don’t have to hop in a car to do everything. Plus, it promotes a stronger connection to the place they live and the nearby small businesses.

Tierney: The reason “the 15-minute neighborhood” is so important, especially in automobile-centric urban areas, is that it reduces car use, which in turn helps the environment, which in turn helps human health. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change hopes to limit rising temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Keeping auto emissions down is a key way to achieve that.

Taylor: But you have to provide the proper infrastructure within a certain radius of the home to offer people different but equally safe and reliable ways to get around. 

Which cities are leading the way?

Taylor: Sacramento is fortunate to be the capital city of a very progressive state. California Governor Gavin Newsom inserted billions into the budget for a major passenger rail program in an effort to phase out fossil fuel-based vehicles. By 2024, we’ll have two additional heavy rail stops in the city in addition to our main station. We also have state funding to organize regional commuter bus routes through the central employment areas of the city that will connect to rail stations for transit to the Bay Area and Central Valley.  

The master plan for Sacramento Valley Station  features a district energy strategy that is zero carbon and net positive on both energy and water usage. A 75,000-square-foot bus station slab with concrete pilings will absorb the heat energy from the soil to create a ground source heat pump that will aid in heating and cooling the buildings on site. We’re also building a five-block bicycle track that will run perpendicular to a few of the city’s major bike routes, drawing cyclists into the station.  

Tierney: Montréal, in Québec, Canada, just developed a new light rail system, Réseau Express Métropolitain, that, though it appears conventional on paper, is designed to amplify the 15-minute radius for the folks living near the new stations. In the end, the hope is that they will become a catalyst for higher density in the areas around those stations.

Wieland: Austin, Texas recently implemented a program with a significant budget that is going to emphasize bus and rail, marking a massive shift away from cars. The program also works to prevent the unintended consequences that such transportation investments can often have on equity, such as displacing people.

Also, Washington, D.C. introduced the 15th Street bike lane–a two-way protected cycle track that goes right in front of the White House. It’s such an important pathway for the city’s commuters, and it’s so well-used. If you can put a protected bike lane in front of the White House, you can do it anywhere.

What does a truly equitable urban transportation system look like?

Wieland: Like this: I can walk out my door and have the choice of walking, biking, scooting, taking the bus, or maybe using a shared ride to get where I need to go. It’s not going to break my bank to do any of those, and they will all feel comfortable and safe. It’s all about choice and affordability.

Taylor: It has to offer community and sense of place. It needs to have those connections be convenient, but also safe and secure. Design has the power to drive these movements, to make beautiful places people want to use to get around.

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