To Reach New Mobility Frontiers We Have to Look at Cars

Originally published on Industry Today.

I get it: the cars of our past fundamentally lack the allure of micro-EVs or universal public transit. And for good reason.

Internal-combustion cars make only marginal improvements every few years, they’re one of our biggest sources of emissions, and they simply don’t have the luster of more novel mobility options. So, it’s no surprise that the smart city conversation anchors on the more optimistic options for our future.

But’s it’s a failure of these conversations to ignore cars. We can’t take on new mobility initiatives without looking back – and around us – at the vehicle-centric world our scooters, bikes, and electric vehicles are being dropped into. The way we work, the way our cities are laid out, and even how we perceive distance have all been dictated by cars for generations. Breaking out of those isn’t as simple as giving people new options.

Our communities finally do have more sustainable alternatives for commuting or enjoying a weekend in the city. The challenge doesn’t end there, though.

Not everyone can walk to public transit or take advantage of electric scooters. For suburban to urban commuters, a bike is rarely a practical option. For those people, the car is – and will continue to be – essential.

As our local governments and businesses continue the pursuit of a smarter city, cars are inevitably a part of that picture. Even if we don’t want them to be.

Delivery Faces a Dilemma

The challenge delivery vehicles are facing at the curbside is a perfect illustration of the lopsided mobility pursuit. While eCommerce moguls pursued the reality of two- and now one-day delivery, the focus was – without fail – on achieving the result at any cost.

In 2019, UPS paid $33.8 million in parking fines in New York City alone. Finding a legal place to park is so often a challenge that the company has simply relegated fines as a cost of doing business.

The failure of the curbside to meet this sudden and multifarious demand isn’t lost on any of us. It’s evident to the delivery drivers blocking parking spaces and driveways just to do their job — and surely to the logistics firms doling out millions in fines.

Even city governments themselves are no stranger to the curbside. Often local initiatives to make the most of our curb space often aim to minimize use for cars and increase utility for things like eScooter parking and city services. The problem is: all that responsibility shifted away from the curbside has to fall somewhere.

Think Inside the Box

With more people, more goods, and more places for them to go than ever before, this feels like a novel challenge. The solution, on the other hand, is anything but.

Traditionally, the responsibility of what we want off our streets has fallen to one place: the parking garage. It’s a fixture of the urban core that sits just steps away from the valuable curbside; a quiet occupant of some of the most valuable real estate in every city across the country; and most importantly, it’s a vastly underutilized asset in the early stages of the mobility transformation.

In a time when we’re reluctant to acknowledge that our present, traffic-ridden reality is our own doing, parking garages are a prudent reminder that we’re still living in the automotive city. And even though our behaviors have proven to be malleable, the roads we drive on, the neighborhoods we’ve built, and the workplaces we rely on are still very much fixed.

We strive to sit in less traffic, emit fewer toxins into our air, and have more resources within a fifteen-minute walk of our home. And we can build better ways to get around, thoughtful highway systems to reduce commute times, and smarter cars that will be better for the planet. But we will still be forced to integrate these better ways onto the same streets, sidewalks, and yes, parking garages we neglect today.

Turning to our overlooked and underutilized parking assets is great way to accomplish our mobility goals while reviving the infrastructure our smart world will have to exist within. As hubs for more than just cars, the parking garage can become an asset to the smart city boom.

An Inclusive Lens of Infrastructure

Infrastructure like that supports mobility today will come center stage in the next administration. With record numbers of Americans out of work and a climate crisis looming over us, Joe Biden’s plan to “build back better” cites infrastructure as a means to the end of a cleaner, more equitable future. And Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg speaks directly to the president elect’s efforts to bridge race and class disparities through mobility initiatives.

“At its best, transportation makes the American Dream possible, getting people and goods to where they need to be, directly and indirectly creating good-paying jobs,” said Buttigieg. “At its worst, misguided policies and missed opportunities can reinforce racial and economic inequality, dividing or isolating neighborhoods, undermining government’s basic role of empowering Americans to thrive.”

With more concrete goals for transportation outcomes, the next wave of innovation in mobility will hinge on investments in infrastructure – both new and old. Parking is undoubtedly a critical piece of that puzzle. The more services we introduce – whether they are public or privately run – the more places we need to put those things away. Not every mode without a hub is as conspicuous to the general public as scooters strewn across sidewalks, but everything in motion has to have a place to stop

And the most unexpected, albeit obvious, place for new mobility to come to a halt is the next iteration of the parking garage: the multi-modal mobility hub.

Parking garages are inherently versatile spaces, it’s our perspective of them that’s rigid. When we come to see parking in a new light, garages can serve new needs.
Parking garages are inherently versatile spaces, it’s our perspective of them that’s rigid. When we come to see parking in a new light, garages can serve new needs.

Mobility Needs a Hub

It’s funny that the concept of a mobility hub has taken on an air of modernity in the smart city space; when, in reality the mobility hub is one of the oldest, tried and true organizational techniques this country has taken advantage of.

Train stations? The original mobility hub. Airports? At their most basic level, they are a place where transportation converges, connects, and disperses. With the addition of sky trains, shuttles, Ubers picking up and dropping off, people parking cars and leaving them for weeks at a time, the airport is arguably the most successful example of a mobility hub.

Why is it then, that when put in the context of a city block, the mobility hub seems distant?

If we want our cities to have a better system of movement, we can’t just create new ways to get around and drop them into the exposed chasms of our transit model, expecting decades of rigid behavior and traffic patterns to part the red sea for a scooter.

We need hubs for modern mobility: nodes in the transportation network where our trusty cars can converge with their electric counterpart, where eScooters and bikes can find respite off the sidewalk, and where delivery drivers can pull aside without accruing millions in fines.

The place I propose? The parking garage.

Miranda Waldron Curry Flash
Miranda Waldron Curry

Miranda Waldron Curry is a writer, researcher, and creative producer with an interest in urban mobility and climate technology. As a content producer at FLASH, she tells the story of parking’s emerging role in the smart city. Connect with her on all things marketing, mobility, and food on Twitter and LinkedIn.