Decades of suburbanization across the United States has been a major contributor to our current host of mobility issues. Low-density housing, wide roads with no sidewalks, and underinvestment in transit have made it so people must travel farther and longer to access anything they need.
Many cities lack the transit and bike/ped infrastructure that individuals (especially those who are low-income and/or older residents) need to reliably travel around without the use of a personal vehicle. This is partially due to old styles of planning which led to large swaths of the country depending solely on owning a reliable car, and a focus on travel speed and vehicle throughput to determine “mobility.” This approach is now seen by the majority as an unsustainable and inequitable approach to mobility.
The new approach to mobility focuses more on how people move around in order to achieve goals and access amenities. Land use can and does play a huge role in this new way of looking at mobility by placing amenities close together, and creating “slow mobility.”
Pockets of urbanists and cities are beginning to understand this idea of slow mobility, and many are exploring ways to reestablish spaces that place a diverse set of amenities in close proximity to each other. In Tempe, Arizona, they’re calling this the 20-minute city, one where these services are within one mile (roughly a 20-minute walk or transit trip) of most residents so that they can access the services and locations they need.
In light of this, it’s important to understand the barriers to this goal, and what pushes cities and new development away from the 20-minute city.
Hostile built environment
Consider the 20-minute city concept, walkability is a key pillar of its success and in building vibrant neighborhoods. There is a maze of legislation and regulation that affects walkability, but two frequently cited culprits that take a big toll on the transit- and pedestrian-friendliness of the space are setback requirements and parking minimums.
Setback requirements establish a minimum distance from the street buildings can be built, and parking minimums require new buildings to include a minimum number of parking spaces by unit. When used in in conjunction with one another, they reduce space for pedestrians and encourage the development of infrastructure for cars – an approach that disincentivizes development of pedestrian friendly spaces.
Abundant and low-price parking spaces, in particular, place a heavy burden on cities and their ability to build amenities or mobility options, from transit lanes to other amenities.
Setback requirements and parking minimums are hardly the only offenders, but they illustrate how two seemingly simple things can undermine the built environment for overall mobility. By forcing these two factors into the built environment, traffic engineers then had to focus on moving as many cars as possible at the peak of traffic, sacrificing space that could have been used for other modes like transit and walking.
Another aspect that affects mobility is housing affordability and location. Places like Washington, D.C., struggle with a growing housing crunch, and a lot of it has to do with land use policy, as well as those who control policy decisions. Homeowners tend to prevent dense housing in their neighborhood, forcing options away from economic centers, and therefore spread populations too thin to provide effective transit or bike/ped facilities.
The individuals forced to live beyond the reach of transit systems not only have been priced out of neighborhoods near workplaces and key amenities, but they also must bear the expense of owning and maintaining a car.
Overall, poor land use policy and housing challenges often mean reduced mobility for residents, a greater reliance on cars, and subsequent increases in monetary and time-related burdens on residents as they work to access to locations and services they need. This results in people with the most need having to travel the farthest and with the least reliable options, and making difficult sacrifices about which resources they can obtain.
Change is in the air
In 2013, Houston’s mayor signed an executive order calling for a complete streets approach for the city. It requires planners to account for all road users – such as bicyclists, pedestrians, transit users, and others that aren’t driving alone. Other incentives have been put in place to encourage more walkability-focused development. This opt-in approach has yet to attract significant development, but the city’s new Walkable Places Committee is trying again by developing extensive plans to overhaul the city’s approach to its built environment in a manner that focuses on connecting people within and across neighborhoods.
Tempe, the aspiring 20-minute city, hopes that the looming age of autonomous vehicles will be able to fulfill their vision of connectivity. Though there are a number of unpredictable factors that will influence this, the advent of AVs presents planners with a ripe opportunity to reconsider their land use planning to ensure communities can maximize the potential benefits of this technology by baking accessibility and connectivity into city designs from the beginning.
Mobility managers can use changes in attitudes like these to reinforce the need to consider community mobility in planning decisions. Use public meetings on land use decisions, and harness shifting mindsets on walkability, to engage stakeholders and guide the public toward a mobility-first mindset in their built environment.