Rethinking Urban Space and Transportation in Cities

Conversations about transportation usually generate yawns from audiences but not in Seattle. Last week citizens filled an entire room at Seattle Public Library’s Central Branch for SDOT’s first “Where Are We Going” speaker series event. With transportation systems around the world being reimagined, Scott Kubly, SDOT’s new director thought it would be an excellent time to pause and reflect on larger trends emerging in how cities cope and function with these changes. He focused the first talk on the “Future of Transportation in Cities” and invited Gabe Klein to lead the conversations.

With an impressive resume in both the private and public sector, Gabe was a perfect choice to spearhead the talk. A few of his professional highlights include leading Zipcar for the Atlantic region, managing a successful line of boutique food trucks, and most famously putting bike lanes on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue. He’s frequently referred to as one of the biggest change agents in his field and is helping reshape how cities function.

Changing Perspectives
Similar to the introduction of the car into American society, cloud computing and the internet are fueling change affecting our daily lives. Frequently touted in innovator’s circle’s Moore’s law is beginning to affect more than just technology. Common things like cars are beginning to transform. This is becoming increasingly apparent with the rapidly approaching automation of driving and the growing prevalence of Transit Network Companies (TNC) and a number of companies developing self-driving cars.

America’s dependence on automobiles can be traced back to the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act. This policy was originally designed to create expressways on the edge of major cities and move freight. It helped popularize modern freeways. Following their initial success, government officials began building more of them throughout the country. This led to the system becoming more non-commercial and a vital part of America’s transportation system. The highway act also had long term impacts on civic issues and land use. Resources and population began to decline in most urban centers and were redistributed among the now easily accessible suburbs.

The trend of automobile ownership and suburbanization has begun to decline in recent years however. Car ownership is becoming less common. Many millennials are actively choosing not to own a car. A lot of this can be associated with the true costs of car ownership – gas, insurance, and environmental impacts, becoming more pronounced. Driving is also becoming less important with more core functions of everyday life such as shopping, eating at restaurants, and parks becoming more accessible by public transportation, biking, and walking.


Getting Around
Urban life in America is on the rebound. This new trend toward urbanization is drastically reshaping how we get around. Many past modes of transportation are becoming popular again such as streetcars and bicycle commuting. Biking in particular is shifting from its place as America’s number one recreational activity to a common way for people to get around. This shift is being supported by increased spending and development of dedicated bike lanes.


Moving between various regions is also getting easier. High speed rail is beginning to develop in the U.S. Surprisingly however, all approaches aren’t the same. In California for instance the state is pursuing a government backed initiative that will connect Los Angeles and San Francisco. Across the country, Florida is pursuing an entirely different path. After returning federal money designated for high speed rail investment, Florida East Coast Industries a company which originally built Florida’s first railroads is leading a project to build high speed rail in the state. Today the company is a large real estate holder and hopes to use the project to spur development and sell property near the nodes of the transit network that will connect Miami and Orlando.


Reinventing Cities
Government officials are once again looking at ways to make cities friendlier for people. While not an easy task, there is a lot of opportunity to repurpose space. In Washington this was done by removing car lanes from Pennsylvania Avenue and adding bike lanes. Chicago achieved this with its “make way for people program.” In a lot of ways, the U.S. is beginning to emulate models found in Europe. Increasingly projects in American cities are focusing more on pedestrians and less on automobiles.

Repurposing streets and space in cities is always a challenging conversation; the first project is often the hardest. Many government officials often question the cost. While it’s true that these changes aren’t easy or cheap, they do provide significant economic impact for local businesses. Research conducted by NACTO revealed that repurposing space was generally good for business and local economies. The results often attract more families and youth.

There also is a major difference between spending and investing. Spending on large projects such as war often yields lower returns than projects such as building a park. Types of infrastructure also matter. Specifically transit, pedestrian, and public space generate more return than bridges and highways which are essential but often have a higher impact on the environment.

“When incentives of public and private business align, things happen!”

Bike sharing is a great example of government successfully partnering with the public sector. Seattle recently pursued this path to develop Pronto, the city’s bike sharing program. This model is becoming increasingly popular as local governments reinvent urban space.

Closing Thoughts
Special thanks to SDOT for organizing the event! I’m looking forward to attending additional events in the series. The talks about transportation and city planning are very appropriate for Seattle currently, especially with the region’s rapid growth and changing urban environments.