Urban areas that are designed to shape and enable new mobility — by rethinking streets, parking, and more — can lower emissions, enhance health, and improve equity. Experimentation is key to best realize the potential of new mobility while avoiding negative and unintended consequences. Rocky Mountain Institute’s (RMI’s) recent report, Cities Designed to Shape and Enable New Mobility, describes the concept of MOD Cities — living test sites where local municipal governments, developers, financiers, vehicle manufacturers, mobility service providers, and urban designers and architects actively collaborate to co-innovate at the nexus of urban design, vehicles, and new mobility services. MOD Cities would put people first and be seamlessly integrated with the communities and urban fabric at their edges.
Designing Cities for People
Cities have traditionally been designed around the automobile. However, as the world moves away from personal gas-powered vehicles and toward automated, electrified mobility as a service, it’s time to rethink city design. Compact, mixed-use development reduces trip lengths and the likelihood that a private car is the necessary or preferred travel option, particularly when combined with access to transit. City design also determines the way mobility services are hosted and sited, and therefore whether travelers have a positive and safe user experience before, during, and after their trips. Physical spaces designed to enhance mobility also tend to enhance users’ sense of inclusion and social connectedness. The physical location of a mobility access point or hub, as well as design features within it, can help increase access to services in underserved parts of a city.
“As the world moves away from personal gas-powered vehicles and toward automated, electrified mobility as a service, it’s time to rethink city design.”
Other impacts of new mobility on the design of our cities could include a dramatic reduction in demand for parking; a complete rethinking of curbs, street widths, stop lights, and other elements of city infrastructure; and more green spaces as we reallocate land previously reserved for automobiles.
What types of cities would we have if we opened up the approximately one-third of all urban space currently dedicated to parking for temporary and demand-responsive uses that serve the needs of people rather than cars? Do roads need to be dedicated to cars around the clock and at all times of the year? Do habitable office buildings need to remain vacant each night, particularly in cities in which housing demand is outpacing its supply? Can cities increase their urban resilience to climate-related stresses by adopting more moveable and reconfigurable buildings and public spaces?
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The Importance of Experimentation
Cities can quickly and cost-effectively unlock the benefits of new mobility by setting themselves up for flexible experimentation at the nexus of urban design and mobility through MOD Cities. While urban development has historically been viewed as having decades-long design cycles and being limited by prescriptive zoning codes, the notion of the temporary, demand-responsive city is beginning to take hold from Detroit to Barcelona to Bogotá. At the same time, innovative experimentation with new mobility technologies and service models is at an all-time high. Steering experimentation with environment, health, equity, and other metrics is the key to getting cities to the future they want, rather than letting the future happen to them.
For example, the Better Block Foundation in Dallas transformed a corridor in the Oak Cliff neighborhood by painting temporary bike lanes, trucking in large container trees, and filling sidewalks with homemade furniture. Virtually every element was technically illegal under existing Dallas code, so the foundation invited the city’s policymakers to come visit the Better Block as an illustration of the regulatory barriers to improving cities. Prior to the modifications, the corridor resembled a classic auto-centric thoroughfare, but through these simple modifications, the environment transformed into a human-scale, vibrant center, more akin to a European boulevard.
With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, RMI is exploring and testing industry interest in MOD Cities, where “MOD” is short for “modular” and “modifiable” and also stands for “mobility-oriented development.” RMI’s report Cities Designed to Shape and Enable New Mobility describes the MOD Cities concept in further detail, including potential next steps for making them a reality. The report also provides a toolkit, drawn from best practices around the world, for cities to position themselves to reap the benefits of flexible experimentation in the near term.
For more, download Cities Designed to Shape and Enable New Mobility.