Rethinking the City

All the attention on the mobility future in Silicon Valley has me wondering about operating systems. Not Mac OS, Android or Linux. No, I’m actually interested in the “operating system” of our vehicles and roads. Think about it: the dimensions of both are informed by horses and carts and really go back to the Roman times. It’s interesting that our upcoming science-fiction-like autonomous vehicles will have a certain size and will operate in just about every urban travel corridor around the world influenced by a standard 2,000 years ago.

While the world is becoming interested in the autonomous vehicle future, I wonder what taking a “clean-sheet” approach to designing a new type of city and integrated mobility system simultaneously could offer us. I expect there is a market opportunity for creating new types of planned communities, towns and small cities around a new mobility “DNA.” I also expect creating all-new city designs will offer considerable value to the process of retrofitting our existing cities around the world.

Switching to Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) enables this future. With our billions of smartphones connected to the internet, consumers can now select a mobility service, vehicle, or mode based on their trip need. For example, no longer will we need to take an automobile designed for freeway speeds just to travel one mile in a future city or neighborhood.

A new smart city design could use micro-sized vehicles inside the neighborhoods and downtown core zones. People arriving to a car-free zone of this new city would park their large car on the community edge and select a smaller mode to travel into the interior.

A new design could inverse the available land for cars and pedestrians, offering the largest corridors for pedestrians and bicycles, and the smaller corridors for micro-sized automated movement. One approach would create a high-tech micro “alley” system that docks to every dwelling and place of business. Micro transports would be extremely quiet and allow for very fast interior movement.

This is a future where refrigerators would be auto-stocked, trash robotically removed and residents can move easily with their cargo throughout the community. The new design will also allow seniors or those with mobility issues to move anywhere in the community with great ease. And it will support a new “multi-locational” living future, enabled by Airbnb, and allow residents to move from one location to another with tremendous ease.

A more radical but related concept would have the arriving car lift its upper body (roof and hood) when docked to the community, and allow the occupant’s seat to detach from the car and travel directly into the new micro-mobility zone of the city, and right into their apartment or home.

Children would not be exposed to dangerous moving car traffic in this new city. As I think of this new interior automated movement system, the (Willy) “Wonkivator” comes to mind. This is a means of mobility that travels both sideways, up and down, as well as travels right into one’s dwelling.
Amazon Robotics, also known as Kiva Systems, is a technology that exists and which can be leveraged to create the new urban movement solutions as I am describing. All new technology doesn’t need to be invented.

The interface between mobility and our destinations can be considered with various levels of “friction.” Driving the groceries home to a house with an attached garage is quite easy. While parking in the basement of a high-rise apartment and switching to an elevator to reach one’s condo has more friction. Some of the proposed “car-free” communities in Europe expect residents to park far from their home and walk a long distance with their cargo. This has far more friction. A new small city design featuring automated interior movement would be highly convenient—nearly frictionless.

One new city that people talk about is Masdar in Abu Dhabi. It’s an interesting proposal, and features a Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) mobility system in the “basement.” However, this design misses on the larger opportunity to rethink mobility and movement in a new, important way.

New mobility paradigms change the urban form. The invention of the elevator enabled skyscrapers to be built. The invention of the automobile enabled the suburb and created a new urban form on Earth. Now MaaS and autonomous/automated mobility technology allows us to do it again. That is, of course, if we break from the pattern laid down in the time of Caesar. 


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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.