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Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Pandemic Gives Us a Chance to Change How We Get Around

One late summer evening in New York City, the pandemic held uneasily in check, my wife and I headed for a meal at one of the city’s new outdoor dining spots. As we stopped at a midtown intersection to check the restaurant’s address on my iPhone, I noticed something striking: the sheer multiplicity of transport modes swarming around us.

Many people were on foot, like us (Gotham is firstly a walking town). There were people on bikes, a gaudy variety of bikes—from narrow fixies and restaurant couriers on Chinese-made e-bikes to bike-share CitiBikes and rusty cruisers. Someone glided by, poised and erect, on a hoverboard. At least two people rode e-scooters, even though NYC has yet to authorize a sharing program. Somewhere underneath the street, the subway rumbled. There were, of course, also the cars, the box trucks, the taxis. But they weren’t dominating the streets the way they normally do. The pandemic had temporarily rejiggered the composition of the streets, as if an unseen hand, playing a real-life game of The Sims, had tweaked the traffic parameters.

It took us a moment to navigate through all this, and I had a curious sense of second-degree déjà vu—not some experience I’d actually had but one that I’d seen in historical photographs. Look at images from the last turn of the century, from a place like New York’s Lower East Side, and you’ll see streets that are less places for rapidly moving vehicles than teeming open-air markets and gathering places that begrudgingly let some traffic through. Maybe a tram slowly parting a crowd, perhaps a nascent automobile or two. Call it chaotic, or call it a bit of self-organizing emergence, but the overall sense is of a diverse, flourishing ecosystem, comprised of many actors.

Over the next century, that ecosystem would gradually diminish in places like New York City. Watch midcentury films like North by Northwest and you’ll see cars occupying every inch of the street, pedestrians occupying every inch of the sidewalk—and ne’er the twain shall meet. The street had gone from a rich ecosystem to a monoculture. Once “artisanal” streets got the postwar Wonder Bread treatment—standardized vessels for raw efficiency, with all the granularity stripped out—and, for a brief heyday, progressive planners thought they could have it all: livable urbanism and mass motorization.

The tide has been slowly shifting back away from car-centric modal bifurcation in cities worldwide. And the pandemic has only accelerated it; as people’s usual work and life habits got disrupted, their travel habits were disrupted too. Cities rushed to change laws, change lanes; the “15-minute city,” as theorized by urbanist Carlos Moreno —what Paris calls the la Ville des proximités—the idea that city dwellers should be able to walk or bike to everything they do in a quarter hour, became toute la rage. New people, on newish conveyances, were occupying urban space in new ways.

And yet, there was something else that struck me about that scene in New York. For all its feeling of novelty, just about every one of those ways that people were getting around were technologies that dated back to the 19th century. The subway? It officially opened in 1904, but its basic technology was first demonstrated in 1869—the year Jesse James robbed his first bank. The car? Karl Benz sold his first in 1885. The bicycle? 1860. Ferries have gotten a revival in New York City in the past decade, but they have been around since the Dutch. Even e-scooters, which could be read as some Millennials-led plot on boomer NIMBYs, were piloting New York City streets—albeit powered by gas—more than a century ago.

And, sure all those forms, thanks to improvements in materials and technology, have gotten better. They’ve all gotten a boost from the smartphone, which has been called “the most important transportation innovation of the decade.” But there seems a disconnect—a sort of technological jet lag—going on, in which one domain hasn’t kept up with the other. You order up a burrito on a smartphone, track it in real time as it’s delivered—something that not long ago was science-fiction—only to find it delivered by a single driver in a street-clogging two-ton vehicle that runs off the residue of dead fossils. For all our progress in moving bits, we’re still moving atoms with dial-up efficiency.

It raises the question: Why hasn’t there been more innovation in transportation? Why is the 21st-century street still being trod by 19th-century vehicles? The pandemic gave the world a pause, the sort capable of disrupting entrenched habits—Zoom changed our notions of social connectivity almost overnight. Had a similar glitch in the matrix allowed us the temporary means to envision better—safer, cleaner, quieter, more efficient—ways to move around?

Transportation tends to resist rapid innovation. There’s the simple physical bounds of being human; as of yet, we can’t be zapped through the ether. The form of cities, built up over centuries, also makes wholesale change difficult. Transportation, too, must account for the way people actually want to move around: It needs to go to where people want to go and get them there reasonably quickly; it needs to be stored and then be available when you want it. Proposed innovations like Personal Rapid Transit (little pods that run on elevated rails), or the “Travelator” (moving sidewalks) have largely failed, outside of places like airports, either because there’s no room (or money) to build them or because they don’t carry enough passengers to where they actually want to go. The Hyperloop, for all its promise, can’t get around the idea it might take longer to get to a terminal in either San Francisco or Los Angeles than it would to travel between them.

All of these X factors are why you can’t simply take a transportation technology, however exciting it may be, and expect to seamlessly slot it into society. Igor Sikorsky, the helicopter pioneer, rightly chuffed by the wonder of his device, predicted, in a 1946 Atlantic article, “We shall see hundreds of thousands privately owned direct-lift machines carrying Americans about their business and their pleasures.” You can see his thinking: If one helicopter is cool, then a thousand helicopters is a thousand times cooler! But where to park all these helicopters? And what about the other externalities, like noise: When a handful of Uber Copter and Blade rides to the Hamptons on weekends already generate a substantial number of NIMBY complaints, it’s not hard to imagine the terrifying hellscape above any city in Sikorsky’s helicopter-in-every-driveway scenario.

This sort of overly rosy projection, notes Scott Smith, managing partner of the futures research firm Changeist, is “the armchair futurist view” of how innovation works. “Development isn’t a steady march of new forms and technologies reaching inexorably upward at fixed speed,” he argues, “but a much more complex interaction among supply, demand, culture, context, and behavior.”

Even if you have a revolutionary device like the Segway, or a working prototype “air taxi,” doesn’t mean there’s a desire or even place for it in cities, and just because you’ve developed an inexpensive e-scooter doesn’t mean you can dump them en masse on the streets—“mobility spam” Smith calls it—and expect immediate adoption. Technology and context don’t always sync up at the same time; sometimes, technology lurks, as a dormant virus, awaiting its proper cultural expression. The original Segway was supposed to change the world—it didn’t—and yet much of its technology lives in the smaller devices hitting the streets today. Or consider the oft-posed question of why the bicycle wasn’t invented sooner than it was. We had wheels, we had gears, we had people riding upright on horses. Perhaps no one made the connection, perhaps people just decided the existing ways of getting around were good enough.

Maybe this is why it’s so hard to change how we get around, at least in America: The automobile has sucked up most of the oxygen in the room. When you’ve basically built an entire country around a single transportation form, it gets hard to think outside that two-ton box.

For several decades, this is the problem the designer Dan Sturges has been grappling with. A young “car nut,” he spent his early career in Detroit, designing cars that looked “like they wanted to eat children.” But he was haunted by the idea that he was designing highway-worthy vehicles that were overengineered for the short, lower-speed jaunts that characterize most car outings in America. But his idea, which became the first of what’s now routinely known as a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle, was judged not to be street-legal, for reasons of safety. “You have 4 million miles of roads and freeways, all designed for this vehicle that is the size of two king-sized mattresses laid on the ground,” he says. “And when you try to introduce something smaller, people don’t feel comfortable in it unless we can somehow change the lanes.” (For reasons of safety, he notes drily, you weren’t allowed to own an NEV that goes 30 mph, but you could buy a motorcycle that goes 150 mph).

When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finally approved the NEV in the 1990s, Sturges notes, it was the first new vehicle category to gain the agency’s blessing in its entire history. The spark for this great leap forward, “this crack in the ice for the monoculture where all the vehicles were the same,” he says, was not some forward-thinking mobility lab but golfers in Palm Desert, California, who wanted to ride their golf carts from the links to the country club. And yet NEVs are still a relative rarity—it takes more than a few duffers coming home from the links to overturn a century of path dependency.

Horace Dediu, a technology analyst credited with inventing the now widely deployed term micromobility—as he describes it, “anything that moves that has a motor and isn’t a car”—notes that transportation, for the last century, has been largely absent of any “disruptive innovation,” as famously articulated by management thinker Clay Christensen. The idea is that an upstart competitor in a mature industry comes along with a cheap, “good enough” product or service and eventually moves “upstream,” reordering the whole market (think of how Netflix, even though you had to wait weeks for new DVD releases, killed Blockbuster). The self-driving car, the current obsession of mobility futurists, is not a disruptive innovation under this model because it’s simply a more expensive upgrade to an existing high-end product (which, whether it drives itself or not, comes with any number of what economists call “negative externalities”).

What transportation is now getting, in the form of micromobility, Dediu notes, is a “worse car”—ways of moving cheaply and easily around cities. “The cost of storing information or communicating has gone to zero,” he notes. “And yet our costs for transportation keep rising.” But just as advances in technology—and, crucially, battery technology—enabled life-changing devices like smartphones, Dediu suggests that transportation has the potential to go through a similar change. “We're seeing scooters and e-bikes and all kinds of new, maybe three-or-four wheel devices,” he says, “that have effectively a gallon-jug-sized battery in them that can end up delivering on 90 percent of the trips you need in an urban area."

But we shouldn’t, he argues, expect disruptive innovation to come from the car companies. “The faster the thing, the slower the change in its architecture or in its adoption of new technologies,” Dediu says. Go look in the cockpit of a commercial jetliner, he notes, and you’ll see pilots printing forms on dot-matrix printers.

Micromobility technology, by contrast, is evolving as fast as fruit flies. As Anthony Townsend notes in Ghost Road, the dockless bike operator LimeBike “put no fewer than nine versions of its flagship bike into service during its first year and a half of operation,” while scooter company VeoRide, he notes, can transform a new idea into “on-street hardware in 15 days.”

And yet for all the flurry of micromobility activity, the state of macromobility—which in the US means the car—has changed little, and in some ways is going backward. “The curb weight [of vehicles] is higher than it’s ever been, and these are the second-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions over the past decade,” says Greg Lindsay, director of applied research at New Cities, an urbanist think tank. “The OEMs—who don’t seem to be particularly financially healthy—have basically hooked the earth on these extremely expensive vehicles. It’s like the SUV boom has happened against the backdrop of this supposed mobility revolution.”

One of the problems with futurism is that it, by necessity, must occur in the present—and so comes time-stamped with all of an era’s proclivities and perceptions. Think of the gee-whiz image, from the 1950s, of a nuclear family playing a board game in their convertible as it whizzes autonomously down a scenic country highway. As Townsend notes, in The Ghost Road, the image gets wrong many things about the future that has come to be: There are no trucks shown (though moving goods by road is bigger than ever); the family structure depicted is now the exception; and most people get around on traffic-clogged urban roads.

But, he argues, we don’t challenge the image’s key assumption: “Why, in this coming world of wonder, are we still getting around in cars?” The passenger car so dominates our thinking that we find it neither desirable, nor possible, to easily imagine alternatives. “Even in our wildest dreams,” Townsend writes, “we can’t free ourselves from the status quo.”

The future of mobility doesn’t have to stop—as much of the current discussion would seemingly have it—at a self-driving, electric car. Maybe it’s not a car, maybe it doesn’t require new infrastructure, maybe it doesn’t even move people. A week after my walk through that mode-rich Manhattan intersection, I found myself being followed by a robot on a quiet gravel road in Vermont.

My family and I were renting a guest house from Jeffrey Schnapp, a Harvard literature professor who directs Harvard’s MetaLab, a sort of speculative design studio. A few years ago, Schnapp (along with architect Greg Lynn) was tapped by Italy’s Piaggio—the maker of the venerable Vespa scooter as well as the three-wheeled Ape “tuk-tuk”—to head up a design lab called Piaggio Forward. The question, Schnapp says, was, “How could they step outside of the fold of this 133-year-old company and think about mobility forms of the 21st century.”

The company made two things clear, says Schnapp. One, it didn’t want a think tank. “They told me, ‘We’re not an automobile company, we can’t afford to produce expensive showcase vehicles,'” Schnapp told me. Second, he says, “Piaggio was very clear that they did not want to see improvements on existing vehicle types. They didn’t want a scooter that could park itself.”

Fast Forward played around with any number of concepts, including a “human-powered self-driving vehicle.” Wanting to “turn the whole autonomy paradigm on its head,” however, they instead turned to the oldest transportation form of them all: walking. “It’s the most fundamental expression of human mobility but also the domain where the least innovation had happened over the course of the digital revolution,” Schnapp says. But, as walkability grows in importance as a quality of life measure, he notes, “why couldn’t there be vehicles that support or augment that activity rather than trying to displace it?”

The result, introduced a year ago, was Gita (“jee-tah,” Italian slang for trip), a “following robot,” a two-wheeled self-balancing machine, capable of carrying 40 pounds of cargo, that tags along with its user as they navigate sidewalks. Gita, says Schnapp, is not trying to overtly look like a robot, or a humanoid, or a pet, or your best friend. “It speaks its own language as a vehicle,” he says. “Once you get used to it, hopefully it seems like a natural category of objects that should have existed.”

Following robots, from companies like Fetch, have been deployed in warehouses, but Gita is the first to be let loose on public sidewalks—where it doesn’t need NHTSA approval—preprogrammed with “pedestrian etiquette.” It’s like a semiautonomous version of the old granny cart that was once common in urban neighborhoods. “There was a lifestyle connected to that,” says Schnapp. People “who went to the neighborhood market every day, rather than loading up the back of their SUV at a superstore.” There’s been a “powerful drive to re-create—or reimagine—that kind of living,” says Schnapp.

Gita also reminds us that, despite all the fixation on Teslas piloting individuals around while they check email (or nap), an increasing amount of mobility today does not involve taking people places, but moving things to people (an idea that got a dramatic booster shot during the pandemic). And once you remove people from cars, cars don’t have to look like cars (the autonomous delivery vehicles from the startup Nuro, for example, don’t need the weight or crash protection—nor the rear-view mirrors—of standard vehicles). “Automation won’t reduce the variety of vehicles we use,” argues Townsend in The Ghost Road, “but will instead radically expand it.”

The pandemic has altered how we work, how we communicate with friends and colleagues, how we shop. Amidst so much change, why should we be stuck on the same road when it comes to how we get around?

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