Guest Op-Ed: Repurposed Streets + Small Vehicles = Big Wins for Climate, Safety, and Justice

Three-quarters of the U.S. population resides in cities and suburbs which share a common denominator: proximity to destinations. As a result, every other time an American gets in a car, they travel fewer than four miles; more than one-third of all daily trips are less than a couple miles. The magnitude of these short trips presents an opportunity for communities to pivot to new policy solutions that will provide quick wins and big gains: residents easily getting around in urban areas using means that are more equitable, energy efficient, cleaner, and safer.

Rapid urban mobility innovation is making this change possible. Anything that is roughly the size of a Christmas tree (smaller than 40 inches wide and 100 inches long) and moves people fits into this new constellation of smaller vehicles, including electric powered scooters, boosted skateboards, and three- and four-wheeled variants of bikes that allow increased stability and  space to carry goods. Mobility innovations run the gamut of affordability and provide ways for people to move across a broad spectrum of physical abilities. If desired, these vehicles can provide comfort from the weather and address safety needs. A short urban trip on small e-vehicle is time-competitive with traditional auto trips, especially when one considers the time spent parking and walking to destinations.

The reality of getting more people into smaller vehicles is challenged, however, because most residents don’t feel safe in them.

It’s time to lean into the public right-of-way and see street space as a solution space—as a valuable asset that can be leveraged to solve our climate, safety and equity crises. The capacity in our existing streets can and should be leveraged to design safe networks for innovation to thrive.

But it requires our expectations of streets to shift, including the design and planning practices that guide their use. Transportation is an inherently sclerotic industry, resistant to change. Excessive regulations and codes stymie progressive initiatives. Rigid standards that guide the footprint of automobiles—growing ever larger—and subsequently, how we prescribe wide travel lanes and broad turning radii at intersections handcuff progress. Many of us know the problems with designing our communities around cars; we now have the knowledge and power to enact a meaningful alternative.

We are beyond the point of settling for marginal improvements of the usual tools: tinkering with ridesharing, transit, electric vehicles, walkable cities, and telepresence. Even a tripling of current transit rates would yield fewer car trips than is currently being achieved through telecommuting.

Furthermore, we rarely acknowledge how long it takes for impactful solutions to come to fruition. Consider the time required to enact the most familiar remedy to the climate crisis: electrifying cars. Roughly one in 50 new cars are fully electric. The average age of a car on American roads is 12 years. If all new cars sold tomorrow were 100 percent electric, a full transition could extend well beyond 2050—notable, but not soon enough to meet mitigation targets. And we’d still be stuck with all the other problems—equity, safety, infrastructure—troubled by standard-sized cars. If we maintain the same type of planning, we’ll continue getting the same answers.

The optimal solution sits before us: retrofitting streets to make them safe for people using myriad smaller and lighter vehicles—and doing so quickly. Through concerted policy efforts, meaningful networks can be realized on a shoestring budget and within weeks. Fleet operators already await movement on this front; economic development incentives could be provided to spur companies to produce more of these types of vehicles (hundreds already exist), which bolsters the idea.

Streets barren of automobiles at the outset of 2020 made the unimaginable suddenly plausible. The space devoted to automobility oriented mindsets was laid bare—from the basic assumptions of how streets should be used to rules, process, metrics and financing. For urban transport, a window of opportunity opened as street experiments took shape. It allowed a new paradigm to take root—one built around providing access to goods and services without dependence on automobility.

Lacking audacious actions (e.g., fervent support for street experiments; scrapping old codes), we are hobbling a powerful strategy to implement tomorrow –a strategy that combats climate change, makes our cities safer, and increases the equity of our urban transport systems. City leaders, supported by transport industry professionals, are well-suited to shout to the rafters with calls to solidify a better future based by rolling out the “welcome road” for smaller vehicles.

Much of the world has already reckoned with the high costs of automobility. The time is now ripe for U.S. cities and lesser developed countries to do the same. They can leverage this pathway for change. Putting smaller vehicles into the lives of individuals and ensuring their safe use by providing a strong network can radically change the rules of the game, thereby shifting how most people make most trips. Benefits will swiftly follow suit.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation. 

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