Viewpoints

How cities are satisfying the public's new appetite for mobility options

There has been a key change in the hearts and minds of Montreal residents over the past decade, says Valérie Plante who is a little over six months into her term as the city’s mayor. Like many cities, Montreal is congested. Ten years ago, residents would have demanded higher-capacity roads or other car-friendly projects. Today, she says, they want choices.

“There is now an appetite for options,” she told the audience for the opening session at Michelin’s Movin’On 2018 conference in Montreal. “They may want a car for the weekend, but they may want to go to work by bicycle or transit.”


Satisfying options
The fact that there is now an appetite for mobility options is both great news and difficult news. On the bright side, cities understand that they must change the car culture. Los Angeles, one of the most congested cities in the world, has nearly one car per resident — a number that simply isn’t sustainable.

“We really need to start weaning people, particularly Americans, off their car addiction,” said Kate White, California’s Deputy Secretary for Environmental Policy and Housing Coordination. “And I really see it as an addiction in many ways. People see cars as an extension of their family. But that’s starting to change.”

The challenge for cities, however, is that when people now crave options, the next steps aren’t clear. Different people may have different wants. Or even if they want the same things, they may want them at different times.

“For me, it is not to put them into opposition, but to come up with creative ideas to bring them together,” said Plante. “We all share the same grid. That’s the reality.”


Going beyond congestion
Mobility projects are also opportunities to deliver larger community benefits. Kansas City, MO, began with a simple streetcar line to connect neighborhoods. When the construction disrupted business, the city looked for ways to use the project to provide broader benefits — among them, free public Wi-Fi. It’s a “holistic stack” that brought dozens of partner companies together to deliver meaningful results, said Bob Bennett, Kansas City’s Chief Innovation Officer.

And he says it’s important that cities also look at mobility projects as more than just instruments of relieving congestion. He says his city doesn’t have traffic jams the way we tend to think of them. He’s in one of the least densely populated major cities. So he thinks of congestion differently.

“What we bump into is congestion not in terms of vehicles, but in terms of opportunity,” Bennett said. If transit can’t get kids from a trade school to the part of the city where the jobs are, that’s a lost opportunity.”


It’s not sustainability vs. profit

Sustainability was one of the key themes of the conference. For its part, Michelin announced that by 2048, 80% of its tires would be made of sustainable materials and that every tire would be recycled. Its Biobutterfly program is already replacing oil products with wood, straw and beets.

Michelin says new regulation is part of the answer. It says we could actually get more miles out of the tires we use today. Today’s regulations are not based on performance data over the life of tires, in some cases mandating that we change our tires before we really need to.

But the message for cities is that we may also need to reframe the sustainability message. When it comes to sustainability, profits and the environment are not a case of either-or.

Bertrand Piccard of the Solar Impulse Foundation and co-pilot of the first round-the-world solar powered flight, told attendees that being environmentally friendly is in most cases good for the bottom line. It creates new business opportunities and profitable lines of work.

“We have to be logical,” Piccard said, “not only ecological.”

 

Kevin Ebi is Global Managing Editor at the Smart Cities Council, which helps cities become more livable, workable and sustainable. Register for Smart Cities Week, October 2-4 in Washington, D.C.

 

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