‘Connected streets’ and the next generation of urban mobility

A Sidewalk Talk with James Corless and Russell Brooks of Transportation for America.

By Eric Jaffe

City lights

Roman Kruglov / Flickr

Later this month, the U.S. Department of Transportation will name a winner to its Smart City Challenge, a contest to get local officials thinking about the future of urban mobility. But the 77 other initial applicants --- not to mention many other cities across the country --- will still struggle with transportation challenges they hope can be met with the help of new technology.

That's one reason why Sidewalk Labs is partnering with Transportation for America (T4A) to build a collaborative network of city leaders who can share ideas about how to get more people where they want to go quickly, affordably, and sustainably by harnessing data and digital tools. The effort will broaden the conversation that Sidewalk has started as a partner in the DOT's Smart City Challenge, building on T4A's vast experience working with local government on transport policy.

"Frankly, cities are interested in different things. We have cities that want to be the electric car cities, the first-last mile cities, the data cities, the smart parking cities," says T4A Director James Corless. "As much as I laud Secretary Foxx for going big on one city in the Smart City Challenge, one city can't figure all this out."

A primary mission of the collaborative is to help cities design and plan for "connected streets." Advancing the concept of complete streets into the digital realm, connected streets aim to provide tech-enabled, multimodal options that expand access to job opportunities across the region. For some cities, that might mean strategic partnerships between legacy transit agencies and ride-hail apps to create suburban last-mile options. For others, it could mean directly subsidizing ride-hail services in areas with weak bus service.

"It's so critical that we get out of our silos of transportation modes on this one and really begin to think like networks," says Corless. "Which again is what connected streets are: networks, regardless of mode."

A key to managing the connected street network is gathering better data on how people move across the city. That means forming constructive data partnerships with the private sector and using these insights to shape policies that incentivize smarter travel behaviors: ride-hail pricing that encourages sharing, for instance, or rush-hour congestion charges that get reinvested back into the transit system. The Sidewalk--T4A collaborative can empower cities to lead the conversation about how to meet their mobility needs with technology, rather than seeing the tech as an end in itself.

"We're in danger of making our urban places so attractive that very few people can afford to enjoy that lifestyle, and the economic opportunity," says Corless. "I don't think we can have any of these conversations around tech-enabled mobility without a very clear north star about transportation haves and have-nots --- reducing that divide. It's real and it's going to get worse if cities don't help shape this."

Sidewalk Talk spoke with Corless and Russell Brooks, T4A's director of smart cities, to learn more about their vision of a connected streets future.

Let's start with the basics. What do you mean by "connected streets"?

CORLESS: Connected streets is similar to complete streets in as much as it's not a checklist. It's an approach. In complete streets, it's an approach to actually designing a street and a network of streets that works for everyone. If this is the next generation, in connected streets, it's really about using data and technology to make sure that transportation systems work for everybody and works for cities --- to move people regardless of the mode of transportation seamlessly, quickly, efficiently, and affordably.

What technologies do you see as integral to a connected street?

BROOKS: I think the biggest thing is information. I think it's knowing what's happening on a street. That information comes from a number of different sources. It comes from sensors, it comes from cell phones, it comes from vehicles, it comes from cameras. And so I think there are dozens of different kinds of technology that can actually form a complete and holistic picture of what's happening. That is the underlying goal: to make informed and educated decisions about how the city manages a street, or how a user uses a street. Or whether the city makes a decision to influence behavior to move people through it in a different fashion.

We're seeing a big push now for smart city mobility, especially with the DOT's Smart City Challenge. What makes right now a critical time?

CORLESS: I think there's a confluence of really important factors. Obviously, the proliferation of the technology being one of them. ... But I also think there's something else that makes this a really important moment in time to be taking on this work, and for cities to be primary in driving this conversation, and that's because we don't believe cities can be passive in this conversation. It's been somewhat unfortunate that there's a binary conversation about companies like Uber. It's either let them operate or shut them down. I think we need to begin having cities understand how to shape this conversation and frankly shape their future. ... They need to be embracing and using these advances in tech-enabled mobility to meet these broader goals.

What are the benefits of connected streets for city residents and communities?

CORLESS: If cities aren't shaping and driving this conversation, we could make problems worse. But if we do drive the conversation, and cities actually shape this proliferation of technology and services, then I do think we're going to be able to reduce the divide between what I'd call the transportation haves and have-nots. If you're on a fixed income or work a late shift, you're going to be able to actually get home faster, more affordably. You're going to be able to connect to more opportunity, be able to get your kids to child care much more easily than you could before. I do think we need to remember from a consumer perspective that if we can get this right and we can empower cities with the tools, the authority, and the funding, we're going to make transportation networks work for everybody, regardless of income, age, and ability. That's a promise of connected streets.

T4A spends a lot of time on the ground with local governments. How do you counsel them in terms of getting ready to partner with the private sector in ways that might be unfamiliar to them, but that need to be productive for everyone to gain the advantages of these technologies?

BROOKS: I think part of it is educating the cities around the possibilities. As I've been talking with cities around the Smart City Challenge, I think some of them don't understand that they have that lever of power, or the extent of what's possible. I think that's a really big part of it. I think it's helping them generate the partnerships from the local community to actually drive that change. Which is something we've been doing for a long time. When it comes to the work we're doing building consensus and coalition in local communities. And helping them identify those outcomes and needs, so they understand that technology isn't the goal but it is the tool.

We talk a lot at Sidewalk about getting technologists and urbanists to see eye to eye. What are the gaps you see that those two sides have when it comes to connected streets?

CORLESS: I think the common thread from both of those perspectives --- and I don't mean to paint with too broad a brush --- but if you don't know where you're going, any technology will get you there. Whether it's the urbanists or the technologists, the bottom line is, cities have to have a vision and goals for what they want to become. And then figure out how either urbanism, public policy, technology, complete streets is going to get them there.

Obviously every city is unique in terms of its mobility systems, its challenges, its regulations. How do you offer a broad framework for a solution like connected streets while recognizing those variations?

CORLESS: Partly that is why we're so thrilled to start this collaborative among cities that frankly are in very different situations and have very different assets. It's why it's important that a connected street is not a checklist. You don't just check stuff off and say: We've got connected streets. Lots of this stuff is still being formed and deliberated, but I think the cities that either have or are building high-capacity transit networks are in a very different situation from the cities that have very skeletal transit systems right now. The high-capacity transit networks --- you don't want to lose those. The incredible value that will only become more valuable over time is the ability to move a lot of people very quickly through dedicated means, whether it's a subway or bus lane. So you want to think about cities that have that in place using shared mobility as a way to do the first-last mile. In other places it might be a larger rethink about, maybe you have a transit system that's offering once-an-hour service right now. That doesn't work for anyone. Those cities are in a very different position. You can't come in with a solution that's one-size-fits-all and works for everybody.

What are some examples of cities on the right path?

BROOKS: There are cities doing pieces of it. Indianapolis is a great example. I think Denver and Southern California are doing really interesting things. A lot of cities are trying pilots. That's the thing that really interests me. I don't know how I feel about what's happening in Altamonte Springs [where the city is subsidizing Uber trips]. But I think that's going to be a really important component of a smart city --- that they're interested in learning and not afraid to test and try new things. That's one thing the start-up community has shown everyone in the last five years, 10 years. Trying, and piloting, and testing, and failing is ok as long as you're learning from it.

CORLESS: I've been in transportation for nearly three decades. I don't think I've ever seen the transportation community willing to test as much. Willing to try ideas. And I think so far willing to fail --- and fail fast and move on and learn from that experience and share failure with other cities. We work a lot with Nashville, Tennessee. The openness of the business community there about the failure of their bus-rapid transit project is helping other cities not make the same mistakes. Kudos to them. They didn't just pack it in and say that failed we're not going to try transit anymore. They're going back to the drawing board, and going with something bigger and bold that has more grassroots support this time around. The willingness of people to share. This isn't all perfect. That's a paradigm. I don't know the last time we saw that in transportation.

If connected streets work as planned, what do you see the future of urban mobility looking like?

CORLESS: A city that's built on connected streets allows people to get where they need to go regardless of who you are, regardless of income, regardless of when you need to get there. It's a city that maintains and enhances its vibrant economy, its attractiveness, and it is a city that attracts a diversity of people, of talent, and is a competitive and livable place.

BROOKS: It looks different every single day, depending on what I need and where I need to go, and what the rest of the city looks like on any given day. And that I'm comfortable with that choice and that it is efficient and affordable for me. If I need to ride a bike to the grocery store. If I need to ride Uber to take my daughter to school. If I need a para-transit vehicle to get my parents to the doctor's office. That it is different depending on the situation but that all of them are seamlessly integrated and moving well, and that it is almost an afterthought for me.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It was originally published on Medium.