Keep Austin Mobile

Since most of us own cars, we do not frequently have multi-modal experiences. The primary multi-modal experience for many people is travelling by airplane. How would you like to fly to a city and upon arrival find there were no taxis, no Ubers, no car rental, no Super Shuttles, and even no public transit to reach your final destination? This is what a terrible mobility “network” would look like.  

The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a highly innovative environmental think-tank, has launched a partnership with the city of Austin, Texas, to create a model city for mobility. The idea is to transform all the modes of ground travel services available in one city, including bikes, cars, trucks etc. The model will leverage emerging technology to create an enjoyable and healthy metropolitan mobility system.
In addition to which, RMI will be working to lay the groundwork to make Austin more capable of handling autonomous vehicles, as well as working toward the electrification of high-mileage vehicles, such as taxis and buses. 

The promise of an expanding Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) world is an ability to create high-performing urban mobility systems requiring fewer cars and far less energy and land than a model for transportation dominated by individual car ownership.

While there are many new MaaS offerings reaching the consumer today, unfortunately they are introduced in a piecemeal manner. For example, offering a car-share scheme in only one part of a city is likely to have very limited consumer benefits. Consequently, new alternative metropolitan mobility “networks” usually struggle to be more convenient than owning a car—especially in suburban areas. Smart mobility innovation needs to have the entire metro area as our “canvas” to “paint” a better mobility future with a multitude of services (and products).

Austin, the 11th largest city in the United States and rapidly growing, has a terrible traffic problem. Austin’s Mayor, Steve Adler, says transportation is now the biggest problem facing the city.  If the city were a person, you would say it’s “transportation sick” and it needs a good mobility “doctor” with some effective mobility “medicines” to make the city better. 

In this new age of MaaS, it’s hard to believe Austin is actually looking to widen some area freeways and build two-layer freeways. If it continues down this path, the city would be expanding roads for the sea of cars travelling mostly at 70 percent empty, and doing so at a major expense to city taxpayers. This is why I am so pleased to see RMI partner with the City of Austin on creating a new mobility model city.

Jerry Weiland leads RMI’s Mobility Transformation Program and has been instructed to “de-car” Austin. Weiland spent 30 years as a technology and new business innovator for General Motors. He has extensive experience within international operations, and had key roles in GM’s fuel cell work and more recently the company’s urban mobility programs. Weiland works out of RMI’s Boulder, Colorado, office along with a team of innovators who along with various new mobility providers in the area are supporting Austin city transportation staff.

Over the next 3 years, RMI will focus on augmenting Austin’s existing citywide mobility network through improved commuter solutions, creating interoperable transit data and other public transit enhancement strategies. The program also will be working to enable residents of the city to live in closer proximity to their work and will pursue strategies to align real estate development with the city’s coming new mobility network. 

Success relies on creating shifts in how we think about transportation and our willingness to modify our behaviors. As much as the world is in love with technology, delivering big-time transformation in mobility will take equal parts of technology, combined with public education. 

Given the breadth of interests at stake and the tasks at hand, the automotive design studio is no longer center stage in shaping future offerings.  Working in a new (open) city-wide transportation design “laboratory” is going to be the way forward. This is why Austin, guided by RMI, is working to become the first American mobility lab city. Such a lab will be mainly about “compression”: moving more people (and goods) in a more cost-efficient, environmentally sound and user-friendly manner through existing metro freeways and roadways.  

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Dan Sturges is mobility design consultant for team red and has been supporting “transformative” transportation projects for nearly 30 years. He trained as a car designer and worked as an entrepreneur to bring to market a new intermediate vehicle category. He supports a wide range of vehicle design and mobility planning efforts for both government and corporate entities.