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3 Big Challenges for Planning Multi-Modal Cities

It's just not as simple as "stop prioritizing cars."

Benson Kua / Flickr

Cities of all sizes are reorienting their transportation priorities toward people over cars. Rebranding streets as "complete," "shared," or "great" reflects a turn away from automobility as the only choice for urban travel. Local transportation officials and planners now place a larger focus on offering many modes of travel and consider quality-of-life rather than simply encouraging driving everywhere. Though cars are still dominant, the era of automobility seems to have peaked. Yet continued reductions in driving require true multi-modalism: rather than relying on one mode of transportation, or expecting that most driving trips can be substituted for transit trips, people need to be able to choose from a network of options, including not traveling at all.

The promise of multi-modal streets hides the fact that such a dramatic shift away from the traditional American form of auto-oriented personal urban transportation is much more difficult than just accommodating drivers everywhere. Supporting many modes requires including multiple actors in the planning process, all with different priorities and preferences. More travel choices also means private entrepreneurs will take the lead on some services normally offered by the public sector: from taxi or bus services to parking management to goods movement. And with the benefits of redefining and reallocating street space in a multi-modal system come new political problems in terms of fighting for that space, too.

Here are three of the biggest challenges cities will face as they shift away from car-reliant transportation systems and toward multi-modal ones.

1. Moving Beyond Car Vs. Transit

As the cost of driving increases through higher gas prices, tolls, and parking charges, more people will look toward alternatives. Yet less driving does not necessarily mean more transit use. When people drive less they travel by all alternatives more; they also telecommute and use home deliveries. Greater use of alternative modes to driving adds bikes, pedestrians, trucks, transit, and taxis to already crowded streets. New thinking about the design and use of street space is needed as new modes, actors, technologies, and uses change the function of public roads.

For too long, transportation options have been debated and presented as a choice between autos and transit, as though these modes are perfect substitutes. Of course they are not, which is one reason our cities have such difficulty getting drivers to abandon their cars. An example of binary thinking about cars versus transit and how complementary multi-modalism is ignored is seen in Tyson's Corner, Virginia, where a new Silver Line Metro station recently opened. While it is nice that the area now has rail transit service, multi-modal concerns for reaching the station were ignored during design and construction. The usefulness and attractiveness of the Metro service is diminished through the challenge of getting to and from the station.

While these design errors may be fixed in the future, it shouldn't be the case that pedestrians, cyclists, taxi passengers, and other street users are an afterthought to cars and public transit. Multi-modal planning should be the norm.

2. Accommodating Public and Private Modes

Whatever clear lines once existed between public and private transport have blurred. Start-up technology companies, large corporations, and informal operators offer meaningful alternatives to driving, but also subvert the traditional public monopoly for supplying transit services. Ultimately we don't know if private transit and app-based taxi services will succeed or improve transit ridership—that remains to be seen—but the increase in private transit operators is certainly different and affects investment and regulatory decisions.

Private firms operating on public roads present similar issues as the shifting role of public space for private activities. Mass transit and taxi medallions are set up as regulated monopolies partly due to the fact that they use public assets for their operations. From a transportation perspective, we should welcome more taxis and buses and trucks if they can help minimize wasteful driving. The public does give up some control over how their public assets are managed, though, and confrontations between public transit and private operators will increase.

The commuter tech shuttles in San Francisco are a well-known example of unresolved tension between private and public transit, as both complete for scarce curb space to pick up and drop off passengers. While publicly operated transit has legal claim on bus stops, private transit service is growing rapidly across the country and needs access to curbs, too. In any city with taxi services or app-based ride-sharing services, curb space is critical for safe passenger access, but there are few examples of multi-modal curbside management in practice. In parts of dense cities, taxis, ride-sharing, and delivery trucks can cause far more traffic congestion and dangerous conditions for pedestrians than drivers cruising for parking spaces.

3. Balancing Transport Networks

Beyond new challenges for management and allocation of street space, multi-modalism makes travel patterns less predictable and more difficult to anticipate for investment and maintenance. How we travel around cities changes as available alternatives increase.

One feature of planning for automobility, or really any particular travel mode, is that there is a nice symmetry to travel. If you leave your house in the morning as a driver, you are almost certainly going to make all subsequent trips for the day by car, eventually driving back to your garage. With many choices, however, we might leave home on foot to the coffee shop, then take transit to work, then cycle to the store and lug our groceries home in a taxi. For this example, one car has been replaced by four separate modes of travel, all of which represent choosing a mode for each trip based on what works best for each person.

There are two takeaways from the multi-modal travel day. First, the choice between driving and transit isn't one or the other. To reduce automobility, many alternatives must be provided, and not as a bonus. The second takeaway is that multi-modal cities have a lot of one-way travel. For shared-travel modes, this results in large imbalances of vehicles across the networks, leaving many without the options they expect when they want to use it. The rebalancing problem is hard enough for bike-share, let alone many different types of vehicles.

In the end, multi-modal transportation options reflect the abundance of choice that make cities great. But having many choices means balancing many interests. The issues facing cities as they expand alternatives to driving are complex and should be treated as such by local officials, advocates, and transport planners. Redesigning streets to reduce reliance on cars and are big steps for cities, but these efforts will fall short if they don't welcome all travel modes—from walking and cycling to taxis and delivery trucks—as critical functions of our streets.

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

About the Author

  • David A. King
    David A. King is assistant professor of urban planning in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University. He lives in New York.