Get Ready for a Driverless Future: Neighborhood Planning for the New Urban Mobility

In March, HR&A hosted a discussion with ten transportation and urban development thought leaders on how new mobility options will change our cities. Innovations in mobility – ranging from bike share to transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft to microtransit and future autonomous vehicles – have incredible potential to help cities like Dallas create vibrant neighborhoods and an inclusive and prosperous future. During our conversation, our panelists discussed the possible implications of current mobility trends and identified four key strategies for proactively planning for a driverless future.


Shared-use mobility technologies are rapidly transforming cities.

Ridesharing apps will more than double in users between 2014 and 2020, and bikeshare users have increased more than 10x since 2012. User surveys by the Portland Bureau of Transportation have demonstrated that citizens are already substituting shared-use mobility trips for private car usage and segments of public transit trips. As described in HR&A’s 2017 Driverless Future report, autonomous vehicles are coming soon, and will fuel additional disruption in urban mobility. The average car in America is used only 5% of the time, and there are approximately six parking spaces per car nationwide. TNCs and ride sharing will result in efficiencies that will shift these needs over time, enhancing mobility throughout metropolitan areas and allowing for the reuse of existing vehicular and parking infrastructure.


Cities must anticipate and proactively plan for mobility innovation.

Using the tools within planning, urban design, development policy, and investment, cities can thoughtfully shape private sector innovations. Public guidance and investment is often necessary to support private sector operational excellence and equitable service. Acknowledging that technological change far outpaces the infrastructure that supports it, cities must invest with both strong vision and adaptable policies that can leverage future innovation.


In North Texas, and in similar auto-oriented metro areas throughout the country, new mobility technologies provide a generational opportunity to support inclusive and connected urban development.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) operates the largest light rail system in the country; however, due to last mile connectivity challenges (only 5% of the regional population lives or works within a half mile of light rail), only 1.5% of the regional population uses public transit. Recognizing the potential of new mobility innovations, DART launched an experimental mobility sandbox program – new GoLink on-demand shuttles connecting to select transit nodes and the GoPass shared mobility payment app – that can increase transit patronage and access. Meanwhile, North Texas remains one of the most active real estate development markets in the country. Mobility and access will shape the next generation of development in North Texas, changing the face of urbanism more significantly than in densely growing cities or shrinking cities.


To make the most of the mobility revolution, the local and regional governments of North Texas should implement four key strategies:

#1 Update zoning and building codes to support nimble development. Developers are already anticipating a sea change, most notably in parking needs. According to Ben Crawford of HOK, many of today’s developers are providing adaptable parking structures that can be converted to alternative uses such as residential even though it costs as much as a 25-35% premium per space in Dallas. Currently, Dallas, like many other cities, mandates a number of parking spaces per square foot for developments. But the tide is changing – the cities of Austin and Buffalo have already reduced the parking ratios developers are required to meet. Dallas could seize the opportunities associated with new mobility options to implement its own policy changes – such as reducing parking requirements and implementing curb/sidewalk management tools to encourage bike share and on-demand services – that help its real estate developers be more nimble in responding to a changing market.
#2 Make investments in urban nodes that support multiple modes of access. Today, the urban form in many areas of Dallas sends a clear message to residents: road areas are for driving only. This discourages walkability and bike usage, given the lack of lighting, shoulders, continuous sidewalks or other amenities that create a safe path for other forms of transit. Successful urban districts require public space that prioritizes people over cars. Moreover, the success of tech-enabled transportation depends on access to multiple modes, from traditional mass transit to ride-hailing/AVs to walking and biking. Urban nodes will need new and renewed infrastructure for last mile connections: continuous sidewalks, active public spaces, bike lanes and parking, and curb-space designation for ride sharing.
#3 Rethink 20th century transportation infrastructure. As modes of transportation change, so too must our transportation infrastructure. Rather than having mainly empty busses on certain lines, transportation authorities could run lower-capacity vehicles as on-demand micro-transit services that act as feeders for higher volume routes – improving cost efficiencies, customer experience, and ridership. Additionally, as current highway networks fall into disrepair, there may be opportunities to selectively decommission underutilized infrastructure as public space and/or new development. For example, the IH-345 spur, which separates Deep Ellum from the rest of downtown Dallas, has been identified by both community advocates and TxDOT for potential decommissioning and demolition to reconnect the urban grid.
#4 Explore new funding models that maximize return-on-investment (ROI). Funding streams for transportation are likely to change as rapidly as the change in mode of transportation. For example, as riders transition away from private vehicles, gas tax revenue, the most significant source of highway funding, is likely to decline. With these changes come new opportunities, such as mobility providers investing directly in new roadway infrastructure. For instance, Uber or Lyft could create a “ridesharing” tollway for which they deliver the capital investment and charge access fees to other users.
Meanwhile, reduced transportation costs associated with AVs could drive development away from urban cores, in the phenomenon described by Alan Berger of MIT as “infinite suburbs.” However, such development can only be made possible with ongoing investment in suburban and ex-urban roadway infrastructure, which can be extremely costly on a per capita basis. Local governments must therefore rationalize transportation investment where it can be most impactful in terms of value created and people served – in urban multimodal transit and not on highways to nowhere.
North Texas has a generational opportunity to lead the rest of the country in urban innovation. To succeed, local governments, residents, and private businesses must be united in their vision for a vibrant, inclusive, and people-oriented future. Together, guided by this vision, we must prepare for changes in 21st century mobility and its cascading implications for where and how we live, work, and move. This scale of change will require proactive regional coordination between planning processes and policies as well as local design and investment decisions. We can build on a tradition of collaborative planning established with DFW Airport and extend that tradition to engage private businesses and citizens.
This paper was coauthored by the following individuals as part of a conversation convened by HR&A Advisors: