Pecha-Kucha: The more things change…

This post originally appeared on Spur.

I recently had the chance to give a Pecha-Kucha at the Student Summit of the Canadian Institute of Transportation Engineers. A Pecha-Kucha is a presentation with 20 slides, each timed to be exactly 20 seconds long. Since I had written out what I wanted to say, I figured I could post it here for you to read through. Enjoy.

The famous baseball playing philosopher Yogi Berra once said: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”. But, we are talking about the cities of the future, so I suppose I should make some predictions of my own. They might not be what you’re expecting, though – I try to be unpredictable.

When I talk over beers with people about transportation, the conversation inevitably focuses on technology.

We look to engineering to solve our transportation problems, whether with flying, self-driving cars or with hyperloops. But, to quote transit consultant Jarrett Walker, “Providing cost-effective and liberating transportation in cities is not an engineering problem, it’s a geometry problem”.

To understand why, we have to accept first that people want to live in cities. In his book Triumph of the City, economist Edward Glaeser shows us that cities are the healthiest, greenest, and richest places to live. All the way back to the ancient empires, people have been living in cities. They provide us diverse experiences and economic opportunities.

Ancient thinkers understood the second principle that I have for successful cities of tomorrow: people need to be able to move around.

Aristotle recognized the need for access to all parts of Athens by emergency services. Plato observed that “the city must remain sufficiently small to permit the holding of public meetings with all of the citizens present”. The need to travel and gather together has been around for thousands of years.

These two principles, that people want to gather in cities, and that people want to move around in cities, create a scarcity of space. We see the advantage of reducing the space between us, but we also need space to enjoy the freedom of mobility. What we have is a good old fashioned trade off, and when we have a trade off, we can look for places to optimize.

And so, I will make my first bold prediction: Great cities will continue to be the ones that understand and embrace the scarcity of space. When decisions are made about transportation, zoning, or development, they are done first and foremost with that principle in mind. These cities will be the successful cities of tomorrow.

Our cities have grown beyond Plato’s dream of us all walking to city hall, but the philosophy of connection remains the same. We have found ways of extending our reach beyond what’s feasible on foot, but to do that we have had to invent machines to carry us around at higher speeds. Some of them take up less space than others.

This is where public transit plays a key role. A well used mass transit system will move more people in less space than a personal vehicle. Draw a box around the space you use in a car and on a bus, and you will see exactly what I mean. These are the efficiencies that allow cities to grow in diversity of culture and economy. We must recognize them.

Here’s my next bold prediction: Successful cities of the future will be made of people who, thinking for themselves, recognize and celebrate ways to make better use of space in transportation. This will mean driving less, and sharing more. It will mean leaving the suburbs and living in the city. Which, by the way, is already happening all around the world.

It’s worth pausing here for a moment to emphasize what I just said. Good cities of the future will drive less, and share more. We must move away from our reliance or obsession with a single technology, and towards an attitude and culture of interaction diversity, and sharing of space. These attitudes are just as important now as they were thousands of years ago. This isn’t about a car versus a bus, it’s about living and interacting together.

Currently, in Calgary, it is clear that we are not utilizing our space for mobility in an ideal way. Empty buses wandering the suburbs, congestion on our freeways,How do we get to the point of maximizing our use of space in transportation?

One way is to change the culture of how we use space in our cities, but this is very difficult. Slow and extensive change is hard to rally behind, and large-scale transit infrastructure projects require a social license that we seem to have lost since the building of the railroad across Canada.

Another way is to actively work on improving the physical, built space in our cities.

Successful cities will be the ones that seek out projects that move us towards freedom through mobility. This will require re-thinking how we build our neighbourhoods, encouraging mixed use constructions, and embracing the grid. Here are some suggestions for building cities of the future, from a transportation focus.

My first suggestion is less curves, more squares. Curved suburbs, as you can see, take up more space, and are more costly and difficult to serve with utilities, garbage collection, and transit. These curves encourage personal vehicle use, which in turn requires that we build our houses further apart and further away from the city. It’s an unsustainable feedback loop.

My second suggestion for the future is, perhaps unsurprisingly, more mixed use developments and neighbourhoods. From a transportation perspective, this creates a “many to many” demand situation, and transit thrives best when people want to go everywhere all of the time, and when transit thrives, so too does walking, cycling, and the city in general.

From a more specific transit perspective, Calgary and cities like it need to embrace the grid. This means bus routes that run parallel to each other in a criss-cross pattern. If this is done in tandem with an increase in mixed-use development and many-to-many demand, this creates a positive feedback loop.

Another specific transit trade-off is ridership and coverage. If we spend more resources making sure everyone is close to a bus stop, we spend less effort moving more people in places with higher concentration of riders. In Calgary, we focus on coverage, and we need to revisit where we fall on the ridership-coverage spectrum as a city and how changes in our land use can be encouraged with more ridership-focused service.

I’ll end with a couple of things that I am very sure will never change. The first is the concept of induced demand. The more capacity we add to freeways, the more lanes and ring roads we build, the more people will drive. We simply cannot out-build congestion, but we can find ways to make our cities move more people to more places in less space.

And the final, most important take-away that we need to focus on for the future of cities that we cannot out-engineer geometry. There is nothing we can invent, without breaking the laws of physics, that will change the fundamental aspects of geometry and the scarcity of space. The future is full of fantastic, shiny inventions, but at the end of the day the push and pull of urban advantage and mobility will remain.

Everything I’ve told you today revolves around the principle that people want to live in close proximity to each other, and that people want the freedom to connect to each other in cities. These axioms, and the fundamental axioms of geometry don’t care about technology, trends, or engineering. They will remain as true tomorrow as they were in ancient Greece. We must not forget that.

Thank you.

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