The talk about futuristic transportation has been exciting, but reality may be more expensive—and farther off—than imagined.
This article appeared in the Technology issue of Urban Land on page 56.
Ride-sharing giant Uber made headlines in June when it unveiled renderings of skyports in major cities around the world as part of its plan to develop the “world’s first aerial rideshare network.”
A group of high-level architects, including Gensler, SHoP, and Pickard Chilton, presented their visions for facilities that would help travelers whiz around cities in eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft). Related Companies was announced as the “preferred development partner” for the enterprise, dubbed Uber Air, and showed off drawings for a prototype skyport, designed by Foster + Partners, in its 240-acre (97 ha) project in Santa Clara, in the heart of Silicon Valley.
Throughout the industry, executives, planners, and designers were suddenly faced with a very real question: should we be preparing for an “aerial rideshare network”? Uber says it expects to hold flight demonstrations in Los Angeles and Dallas/Fort Worth in 2020, with plans to make the system commercially available in 2023. But who knows if it will happen—or if consumers will embrace the idea of flying Uber?
On a seemingly daily basis, the industry is facing these types of fundamental questions as new concepts and technologies emerge, promising to transform transportation. From Uber Air and Hyperloop to swarms of hoverboards and scooters, planners and developers know mobility networks of the future will be much different from those of today, even if they have no idea which concepts will be fads and which will change the world.
“There is a tremendous amount of uncertainty—more than we’ve ever had,” says Will Baumgardner, intelligent mobility leader with Arup. “There’s definitely a lot of changes on the horizon.”
The challenge for the industry is to design projects and communities that will accommodate future modes of transportation. But how do you evaluate transportation concepts that might not exist today? Do you spend millions to prepare for new systems that people may not embrace? How do you create infrastructure to support new ideas and more efficient networks, even if they may not become mass options for decades?
Predicting the future can be an inexact science for developers, technologists, science fiction writers, and developers alike. Any vision of the future is vague at best. As a reminder, Blade Runner, with its world of dark neon skyscrapers and flying cars, was set in 2019.
In a 2017 report on mobility, Deloitte Insights noted “surprising agreement” that a fundamental shift is taking place in transportation, but there are “two profoundly different visions about how this future could evolve.” On one hand, “insiders” believe mobility will progress in an orderly, linear fashion, and the fundamental structure will remain essentially intact, Deloitte reported. On the other hand, there are “disrupters” who believe the world is at a tipping point to a wildly different world that “offers great promise and potential societal benefits.”
They cannot both be right. And technology is not the only variable. Regulations, costs, safety concerns, and public acceptance could derail even the most efficient technologies.
For evidence of the dangers of prognostication, the industry can point to autonomous vehicles, which most believe will fundamentally change transportation. But in recent months General Motors, Uber, and Google’s Waymo unit have acknowledged they do not expect to meet the industry’s original projections amid continued safety concerns and delays in perfecting the software. Many analysts now see 2040 to 2050 as a more reasonable time frame for the mass adoption of driverless vehicles, after years of predictions that the roads would be filled with driverless cars by 2025.
If that is the case, it is not something that will affect plans for many current projects. If a technology is not going to be widely accepted for 30 years, “I don’t care [about it],” says Nitin Motwani, managing principal at Miami Worldcenter Associates, the group building the $4 billion, 27-acre (11 ha) Miami Worldcenter, now under construction in downtown Miami. “I could never convince my partners to do something that might be beneficial 30 years from now.”
The Worldcenter will include links to the local Metromover and regional trains, but a lot has changed in transportation since Motwani’s group began planning the project more than a decade ago. “When we started, Uber didn’t exist,” Motwani says. But the design has evolved to include elements to accommodate the changing market. There are curb cut-outs for shared-ride drop-offs, plus wide sidewalks that will accommodate bikes, pedestrians, and scooters.
“Whatever you think will happen will be partially right and partially wrong,” Motwani says. “So it just means you have to provide flexibility.”
But while Motwani and his partners are taking a conservative approach to new technologies, one of their subdevelopers at Miami Worldcenter is taking the opposite tack. The Paramount Worldcenter, a 60-story residential tower in the complex, is advertising the “world’s first Jetsons-style Flying Cars Skyport,” part of its quest to become “America’s most heavily amenitized futuristic luxury residential tower.” Congested highways and inner-city gridlock will drive demand, developer Daniel Kodsi said in a statement. “We are just a few years away from the first flights,” he said. “This type of transportation is inevitable and we . . . want to remain ahead of the competition.”
Most industry analysts have their own ideas about which technologies will take hold and what planners should emphasize in new projects. “What we have to do is filter out what we are confident about and recognize where the risks are,” says Baumgardner of Arup.
He believes the uptake of electric vehicles is one trend that will continue at a rapid pace. Policy moves, support in other parts of the world, and zero-emission goals will drive the push, he believes. “Technology isn’t necessarily the primary driver of infrastructure change,” Baumgardner says. With so many factors in place, “electrification is going to continue to move forward.”
Many planners are focusing on the last mile, trying to make the neighborhood connection between mass transit and local destinations. For Jeffrey Tumlin, director of strategy for Nelson Nygaard Consulting Associates, a transportation-focused consultancy based in San Francisco, the key is to develop protected lanes to accommodate any form of personal transportation. “It doesn’t matter if it’s bikes or hoverboards in the future—they all have the same space requirements,” Tumlin says.
He believes micro-mobility—anything from minibuses to scooters—will be the most important element for the next generation of planners. “Micro-mobility is the only set of new hardware technology that offers both convenience and efficiency,” Tumlin says. “There is a huge opportunity to retrofit suburbia to make it friendly for micro-mobility.”
Any strategy that focuses on the replacement of roads and the elimination of cars in the near term will not succeed, no matter how cool it looks in movies, many planners agree. Trying to eliminate roads should not be the primary goal, says Federico Cassani, director of transportation and mobility for BuroHappold Engineering.
“The most important thing is to minimize the commuting distance,” Cassani says. “Urban planning and mobility planning are two faces of the same coin.”
At the same time, planners need to “start conceiving of the road as an interactive structure,” Cassani says, with streets supplied with wi-fi, charging facilities, and sensors to track and manage the roads. Communities will need to decide if they want a “multiplication of different lanes, or completely shared surfaces managed by sensors and technology,” Cassani says. “This is a big question.”
Planning for the future is not about trying to pick winners and losers in transportation technology, Cassani argues. It is about consumers’ choices. “If the user has multiple choices, it’s an easier city to live in,” he says.
The real change of the future will not come from new vehicle technologies but from a focus on mobility as a service, many analysts agree. Travelers will be able to pull up an app, choose from the forms of transportation available, track its progress, and pay with their phone. Last year, Anaheim, California, launched an app-based, on-demand micro-transit system in the city’s central area using electric vehicles. “The idea of standing on the corner waiting for a bus that may or may not come in 20 minutes—that is over,” says Diane Kotler, executive director of Anaheim Resort Transportation.
Trying to anticipate the timing of technology adoption is overrated, says David Bragg, managing director of Green Street Advisors, a real estate research firm. It is much more important to focus on the direction of the industry, he contends. Instead of trying to predict the future, “developers should provide themselves with optionality,” Bragg says. “A lot of things you should do to prepare, you should do anyway.”
Around the country, developers and planners are already addressing a wide variety of evolving transportation trends. Larger drop-off points for shared rides and bike lanes are now an accepted part of many projects, even though they still represent relatively small shares of overall traffic. Parking structures are being built smaller and adaptable to different uses in the future, recognizing that many communities are starting to reduce their parking requirements.
“Flexibility is key,” says James Nozar, chief executive officer of Strategic Property Partners (SPP), developer of Water Street Tampa, a $3 billion waterfront project covering 56 acres (22.7 ha) in downtown Tampa. The first community to earn WELL certification from the International WELL Building Institute, Water Street has made wellness and walkability centerpieces of the design, including parking garages that can be repurposed as demand declines, fiber-optic conduit laid under the street, and wide sidewalks that accommodate a variety of uses. Flexible zones can be repurposed for things as varied as coffee kiosks and bicycle storage.
“We set buildings back to create outdoor places, but also to future-proof for flexibility,” Nozar says. People are still going to drive, he believes; “it’s very hard to change people’s minds.”
When it comes to the divergent perspectives of the future, Nozar clearly falls into the orderly evolution camp: “Taking baby steps is the best way,” he says. Any real change “starts at the comprehensive master plan level,” Nozar says. “It takes thoughtful vetting of the opportunities.”
Any vetting of the future of transportation typically returns to the issue of money. “I think we’re talking very little about how we are going to finance transportation,” says Kotler of Anaheim Resort Transportation. There are many dramatic, Jetsons-level ideas, “but how are we going to fund it?” she asks. It is not enough to simply approach the challenges project by project, she argues. “We need to look at the finance structure holistically.”
Creating a wired mobility network with sensors embedded throughout the city is one of those oft-discussed ideas that makes sense, but support for the concept often stalls when talk turns to who will pay for it. The idea of the sensor-equipped roads has “always been a little overblown, primarily because cities can’t afford to do it,” Baumgardner says. “There isn’t the value chain to make it happen.”
Funding for transportation infrastructure projects is already a hot topic of debate in many states, especially with gasoline tax revenues slowing as consumption declines. From implementation of congestion pricing to passage of more bond measures, public officials are looking for new ways to fund projects that dovetail with the idea of creating better systems for the future.
Transit agencies need to reinvent themselves to focus on managing mobility on a regional level in the public interest, Tumlin says. Planners and builders should learn from past mistakes, he says. “Every single thing we should be doing now to accommodate 20 years from now, we should have been doing 20 years ago,” he says.
With so much uncertainty—and communities facing so many short-term concerns—preparing for the transportation future is not a top priority for many planners. Even autonomous vehicles, which many believe are destined to be a major part of future networks, are still not part of the planning process for many communities, with issues such as insurance and safety still unresolved. In Anaheim, autonomous vehicles are a frequent topic of discussion, but it would take five years for the city to develop the framework and infrastructure to bring them to city streets, Kotler says. “We’ve begun conversations,” she says. “That’s where we’re at.”
Amid change and uncertainly, it is difficult to evaluate a proposal like Uber Air, even though Uber executives insist it will be months, not years, before people see skyports. Uber’s financial backing and the number of industry players participating suggest it should be taken seriously. But there are still mounds of regulatory and cultural hurdles to overcome before communities are happy with streams of eVTOL flying overhead, industry executives say. (Uber executives declined an opportunity to comment for this story.)
Cassani is one of many who say they are a skeptical of flying options. “These things are still far away, from my point of view,” he says.
Any transportation concept looking to make a dent in traffic patterns will almost certainly raise social and cultural issues, in addition to the regulatory debate. UberAir will likely develop as a service for the wealthy, which will revive discussions about the growing segregation of transportation according to the ability to pay. Some planners have suggested that autonomous vehicles will require a complete rethink of roads and the pedestrian right-of-way, including such elements as gates at crosswalks to better control the flow of people on foot. Nothing about developing the transportation future will be easy.
“We need to be prepared for erratic change,” Tumlin says. “Change is going to be bumpy.”
KEVIN BRASS is a writer based in Southern California.