Americans in Transit: Building a shared city mobility vision

The Future of Cities Following the release of our handbook for city problem solvers with the Boston Consulting Group and the Center for Urban Innovation at The Aspen Institute, we're continuing our quest to understand what it means to innovate with intention to achieve the best possible outcomes for city residents.

We talked to dozens of city leaders from across the U.S. to develop our handbook for city problem solvers, The Future of U.S. Cities, and learned the many ways that cities are innovating with intention. Building on those learnings, we’ve become increasingly interested in mobility – the ready access to cost-effective, convenient transportation options — and the power it may have to transform life in cities. This series looks at the challenges — and indeed opportunities — for transportation systems in cities, and how many are putting their residents at the heart of mobility solutions.

“Technology is a tool to help you achieve goals, but deploying technology without a clear vision is not likely to be successful.” – Darton Ito, Innovation Director for San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency

In my last post, I examined the importance of listening to diverse perspectives, particularly of those who have been historically marginalised and underrepresented in programs and policies that have shaped the existing mobility landscape. Once residents feel they have been given a voice in the mobility conversation, their expectations will be raised, and they will be eager for action from the city.

City governments should synthesize the many inputs from residents into a compelling vision that serves as a rallying cry for their cities. Without a clear direction, innovation and technology are unlikely to help those who need it most. City governments can use their deep understanding of residents’ perspectives to shape bold, resident-driven visions that inspire action. 

As Gil Penalosa, the founder of 8 80 Cities, notes, “each city must create its own unique sense of urgency for mobility, whether it’s decreasing obesity or reducing carbon emissions – they need to define, share, and prioritize across the community.”

Building a shared understanding of the city’s mobility vision serves three objectives:

  1. Demonstrating to residents that their voice is heard; 
  2. Ensuring actors in the mobility ecosystem are rowing in the same direction; and
  3. Articulating to private sector partners how they can drive public impact.

San Francisco, for example, developed a set of Guiding Principles informed by conversations with residents that set the direction for emerging mobility services. The principles were meant to signal to innovators and technologists in the transportation space what is most important to their city – not the profitability of new companies, but rather core principles residents helped define such as sustainability, safety, and equitable access.Importantly, these principles do not live internally within a city department. They have been broadly communicated externally. 

Ed Reisken, the Director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, described the value of communicating the guiding principles as a vision to important stakeholders: “The principles are aimed at telling private mobility providers, ‘here’s what is most important to San Francisco’s transportation landscape. Here are the problems we are having and would love your help with. Your innovation is welcome here as long as it advances or at least doesn’t conflict with the values of our city.’”

Another place that has set an ambitious, resident-informed direction for its mobility efforts is the City of Vancouver, Canada. The city’s metric-driven targets include increasing the rate of trips that occur via foot, bike, or public transit to 50% by 2020 and reduce the average distance driven per capita by 20%. The city communicated its mobility goals broadly to build a shared understanding, and as a result, hit them well ahead of schedule. They are now pushing for even more ambitious goals, including increasing the rate of foot, bike, or transit trips to 66% by 2030. 

“It has to work for the people,” emphasizes Dale Bracewell, Vancouver’s Transportation Planning Manager, emphasized.

“It’s not about whether we have driverless cars in our future, it’s about how all the innovation and technology impacts people and reduces emissions.” 

Vancouver’s efforts earned them a national finalist in Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge. Notably, while the United States’ smart cities challenge encouraged cities to focus on mobility, Canada’s allowed communities to pick their own problem to solve, attracting nearly 200 entries. To improve the lives of residents, the City prioritized transportation as a critical component of their application.

A final city that serves as inspiration is San Jose, California. Recognizing that new technologies will have profound impacts on their residents, they proactively began a people-centered community engagement process to define their community’s vision for their future. In partnership with IDEO CoLab and Gehl, they are engaging with the public to identify community-specific challenges ripe for innovation, such as the reliability of public transit, the environmental impact on residents, and health disparities. 

As they continue defining their city’s vision with communities, San Jose hopes to leverage city governments’ expertise in “connecting with the public and incorporating the wants and needs of residents” to realize “the potential for cities and private companies to work together to use new technology for the public good.”

Vancouver, San Francisco, and San Jose are among the many cities crafting bold mobility visions that set the direction for innovation. Empowered with a clear direction, diverse actors are motivated to design creative strategies that meet residents’ needs. While city governments build legitimacy among those they serve, private sector actors that choose to move the city in the agreed-upon direction gain legitimacy among potential consumers as deliverers of public value – opening the doors to increased market share in a city.

To bring these visions to life, city governments must create the conditions that unlock the power of the mobility ecosystem. In our final post in this series, we will share examples of how city governments are building cultures where residents, private sector companies, and community organizations can all develop and implement strategies to achieve a city’s mobility vision.

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