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The future of our cities is the future of our streets

street
Canterbury-Bankstown Future Street event held by Place Design Group. Attendees experienced a tour along a "future street".

The executive director of planning at Place Design Group, Chris Isles, is arguing for a minister for local streets.

Now I know I might be going out on a limb here, as I suspect there aren’t too many other people out there that geek out on streets and specifically all of the change and tech influence happening in our cities, but the last month for “street nerds” has probably been as epic as it has been for the Marvel and Game of Thrones fans out there.

To start with, we’ve had the IPO [Initial Public Offering] of Uber on the New York Stock Exchange, where it raised a lazy $70 billion. Not bad for a company that has never made a profit in its five year existence.

I’m sure no one would argue the disruptive effect of Uber, regardless of whether you are in the pro or con camp, and they (and now their investors) clearly see a long game of continued disruption and, theoretically, money to be made from mobility.

Then we’ve had Lime Scooters hit one million trips in my hometown of Brisbane, which also isn’t bad since they’ve only been on our streets for just over seven months.

These one million are part of the roughly 50 million scooter riders globally in the two years since they launched.

The astonishing reality is that the vast majority of these trips have been in the last 12 months.

National Association of City Transportation Officials in the US in a recent release undertook a breakdown of micromobility trips in 2018 which showed that in the last year alone e-scooters accounted for more than 45 per cent of all micromobility trips, up from nothing in 2017.

That is a staggering statistic, and if a “soft drink” entrant came to the market and secured 45 per cent market share in their first year of operation it would be all anyone talked about.

The scooter revolution

I was lucky enough to ride one of the first ever Lime Scooters about 18 months ago, and it has been amazing to see the growth of this form of mobility in cities globally.

I deliberately use the words “form of mobility” alongside scooters because  in my mind they are no longer a gimmick for the young and tourists.

Scooters are a genuine and valuable part of the mobility puzzle that cities need to get in front of and treat just like cycling and walking.

I was at an event recently where “pro and anti” scooter advocates clashed, and it was suggested by the pro-scooter advocate in response to a suggestion that scooters are just street clutter, that:“micromobility is not street clutter, it is a form of transport that has yet to be given a home by cities as opposed to the multi-tonne emission producing tin cans that get given too much of our valuable public realm for their accommodation”.

This really resonated with me, because while many Australian cities are grappling with the concept of letting scooters into their cities, the sheer growth in ridership shown through the data highlights the role they can play in mobility.

This is not an “if” discussion but a “when and how” discussion.

Cities need to move from defence to offence and start exploring how we will accommodate scooters on our streets and footpaths.

City streets are at the frontline of advancements in a host of areas, yet the fundamentals of street and public right of way design, delivery and operation hasn’t changed in decades, while the current velocity of change in technology deployment and data acquisition is unprecedented.

Cities are being introduced to new forms of mobility and other urban infrastructure every day, which is placing new demands on our public realm, on existing and new technology infrastructure, and on the assets in our streets.

Urban freight is the new smoking

This is the other reality to hit me after some research and digging: that the health and congestion effects of urban freight are the big issue that no one is really on the lookout for and will be the next to truly blindside cities.

It has the potential to cause significant passive productivity and economic impacts.

This is an interesting cost causation versus cost socialisation impact question and raises a secondary question as to why cities and businesses accept some day freight impacts upon cities just because of consumerism.

Current data shows 15 per cent of all goods were purchased online in 2018 and this will likely only grow, with predictions that urban freight in Australia is likely to exceed two billion parcels annually by 2022.

To ground this, that is about one million parcels per day for Sydney and Melbourne and a bit less for Brisbane.

That is an enormous volume, which requires urban freight trips into the inner parts of our cities for us to balance from a traffic, access to the kerb and delivery sense.

In noting this, it’s important to recognise that future productivity and mobility for cities largely relies on having good quality access to the kerb, and that cities will need to make kerb space more productive than simply just dollars in revenue from parked cars.

The hidden value of kerb appeal

This “Zone of Exchange” is worth billions but currently given away for free, and the humble footpaths that adjoin the kerb are arguably the single most misused and contested spaces in all cities — that need to be a new focus of effort, attention, innovation and investment in coming years.

There is an opportunity to stop and reconsider how we use and perceive the kerb to achieve bigger city objectives, such as treating it as critical space for cities that can’t simply be given away, or be neglected in the drive to achieve wider city goals.

Streets reflect the values of a city and their residents, and I would like to think that my values and therefore streets are not about car sewers, but productive and vibrant parts of our communities.

Technology is reshaping the way citizens move around our cities, but we haven’t changed the building blocks – our streets.

We really stopped planning for, or caring for, most of our streets years ago.

We are still designing and ruling streets with antiquated engineering and infrastructure led design logic, often with an incomplete picture about the emerging issues and pressures on streets that are not car related.

Current approaches are quite defensive, attempting to enforce behaviour on what is in reality a planning problem.

But you can’t enforce your way out of this problem. Cities need to address the problems around share ride pickups, freight in bike lanes and food delivery challenges. We need to start treating the street as a utility

It is a valuable resource for communities and has limited capacity.

If you design a city for people it removes the bias from tech influence of mobility, and particularly cars.

There has been too much attention and focus on autonomous driving in current transport planning and strategies.

Sure, autonomous cars are here, and they are going to change everything but AVs are probably 20 years away from being ubiquitous and certainly the prevailing mode.

In the meantime all the technology in the world can’t make up for bad streets (in fact, bad streets are going to hinder the effective roll out of AVs, ironically).

Consequently, cities are neither delivering new streets worthy of celebrating, nor ensuring our streets evolve to respond to modern pressures and challenges from changes in our cities and technology.

There is an opportunity to be thinking about how we “curate” our streets and that is why, to avoid the potential dystopian outcomes, we need to carefully and clearly think about the role of streets in the future.

I believe that our streets are critical pieces of our cities and an asset that can ill afford to be accidental victims of an unstructured and uncoordinated technification process. We have not adequately invested in them to ensure that they remain physically able to perform the role they need to do (which isn’t just about moving cars).

We have let them become complex mixes of asset ownership, responsibilities and confusion. Streets and everything in and under them, are an incredibly complex mix of ownership, responsibility, legislation and mandate.

So, to be provocative, I believe it is time for state governments to introduce a minister for local streets.

This new minister and department would begin to coordinate and seek collaboration amongst the multitude of infrastructure and utility providers burying things in our streets and verges, and take over the curatorial role for streets in our cities.

It would deliver streets that provide opportunities for all users, be they pedestrians, cyclists, scooter riders, car drivers, public transport users and operators, or delivery drivers.

A minister and department would champion a brighter future for local streets, one that puts people and trees first and other mobility and engineering outcomes second.

A future that seeks to make streets safer, more accessible, and easier for everyone, in the process creating better and more vibrant communities for people to live, play, work, and shop.

This minister and department would tackle emerging mobility and technology challenges ahead of time whilst exploring new models of revenue and business that reside in and use streets as their assets.

Time for a Change.org petition?  Who’s with me?

Chris Isles, executive director, planning at Place Design Group will be presenting on ‘The Future of Mobility’ at the Asia-Pacific Cities Summit which takes place from 7-10 July 2019. For more visit apcsummit.org/.

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