Outside my office window, it’s business as usual.
A local coffee shop bustles with its typical morning mix of day-off-ers conversing over frothy cappuccinos and 9-5-ers dashing out the door with overspilling to-go cups. A maroon sedan glides through a yellow light, while a mail courier dashes across the street when the coast is clear.
120 miles north, however, is a lot different. Congestion has a tight grip on Los Angeles. Downtown, cars sit bumper-to-bumper on everything from two-lane strips to the cobweb of interstates. In fact, the city famous for its famous people is also renowned by urban developers across the globe as the most gridlocked city in the world.
LA may be at the top of that list, but it doesn’t sit alone. In the U.S., congestion is unquestionably going to get worse before it gets better. But why is that, and what can we do to ensure “better” is also sooner?
TOP FIVE CAUSES OF CONGESTION
1. Economic Growth
Transportation economists and mobility experts have long identified a direct correlation between economic growth and vehicle miles traveled. As GDP goes up, so does the amount of miles we drive—not to mention an increase in cars purchased, single-package e-commerce deliveries. Based on economic projections, by 2030 we’ll be looking at a 14% (500 billion mile) increase in VMT over the next eleven years. We’re looking at more cars on the road more often.
We’re over the suburbs. The population pendulum is swinging back towards cities at astounding rates. By 2030, 85% of America’s 355 million people will be city based. Yet car ownership is on the rise and only an expected 15% of people will use alternative transportation in their commutes. “Walkability” may be the urbanite’s mantra, but it’s clear that city living is not yet a “no wheels attached” agreement.
3. TNC and Ride-Hailing
TNCs (aka Transportation Network Companies, like ride-hailing services) have benefited consumers but have worsened congestion in already traffic-choked cities. Because their model promotes non-productive circling, free-range ride hailing has increased urban driving by 180%.
4. E-commerce & On-Demand Delivery
We all love Amazon, but e-commerce deliveries are increasing rapidly. Initially expected to decrease private-vehicle use, single-package delivery is actually adding to congestion by putting more cars on the road and upping VMT with failed first-delivery attempts and increases in product returns.
5. Underinvestment in Infrastructure
U.S. public transportation budget is paltry compared to other developed nations. While cars have given us the freedom to roam, we’ve willfully ignored (and misused) the funding needed to keep our transportation systems up-to-snuff. Playing catch-up is putting 80% of the transportation budget toward infrastructure instead of assets, leaving buses and rails systems wanting. Would-be riders have more incentive to commute by car, even if that means sitting in traffic.
THREE SOLUTIONS THAT WILL FOSTER SMART CITIES
1. Rethink cities
Taking an “ecosystem view” of cities, as PwC and the National Parking Association put it in their recent study, means considering the effects of every action, policy, and trend. Everyone in the game needs to think holistically and encourage multimodal collaboration that encompasses consumer behavior, employment and economic growth, and improved infrastructure. It also requires policymakers to be proactive when it comes to mobility trends like e-scooters and TNCs, fines, and taxation.
2. Reduce parking minimums
Though well intended, setting parking spot minimums per development leads to wasted space and increased costs to cover those parking spots. Reducing parking minimums in urban centers will shift parking to underutilized parking structures, pulling traffic off of congested streets.
3. Repurpose street parking
An excellent opportunity for reducing congestion is the humble curb. Better than on-street parking, “curb extensions” can mitigate congestion through designated short-term TNC parking, package delivery points, and/or hubs for e-scooters and bikes. Fully embracing parking garages as curb extensions means we can immediately handle any displaced parking demand caused by repurposing on-street spots for more ecosystem-oriented uses.
But what can we do right now to slow the rapid rate of congestion? Two steps come to mind we can all make today to help ease congestion tomorrow.
Firstly, we need to converse with the powers that be to immediately curb the congestion-causing behavior of TNCs. For instance: enforcing safe drop-off/pick-up behavior so that cars aren’t stopping in the middle of a lane downtown, doors flinging open for one passenger when dozens of cars brake tap behind them. A simple letter to the city could get the ball rolling.
Suggestion number two falls directly in our laps. The parking industry collectively needs to concentrate on smarter infrastructure and technology. Can you rollout a shuttle service? Can you update payment processes to accept BitCoin, PayPal, Apple Pay, etc.? Can you designate a few square feet for Bird and Lime docking? If you’re building a brand new parking complex, what consumer experiences can you build into it based off local trends? Increasing the appeal of parking havens as a waypoint between home and your customers’ destinations will help pull unnecessary traffic off city streets.
Is solving congestion as easy as it sounds? Probably not. Is it possible? Absolutely!
In fact, urban decongestion may be a natural side effect of intelligently redesigning urban areas with people as the main focus. And when it comes down to it, intelligence is the key. Like the correlation between VMT and GDP, the livability of future cities will correlate with their mobility IQ.
By taking each step, writing each policy, and adopting each new innovation sensibly, I believe it will be easier than we expect to clear the way forward—for cars and cities alike.
“Ace Mobility Solutions isn’t just a business. It’s the Mobility Revolution in action.”