David Zipper is a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Taubman Center for State and Local Government. He writes frequently about the future of urban mobility and technology.
There’s a tension in transportation news. On one hand, cities are eager to nudge residents away from automobiles and toward modes that pose less danger, both to people and the planet. But the mobility stories that grab media attention often involve launching buzzy plans for hyperloops, autonomous vehicles, MaaS apps, and microtransit startups — innovations that have yet to prove they can reduce driving. As I’ve argued in CityLab before, city officials touting these tech launches are often motivated more by FOMO than by a strategy to catalyze mode shift.
But local leaders have a choice. Rather than racing to be the first to deploy some new technology, they can instead focus on mundane mobility solutions that actually work. These are fixes that don’t grab headlines, but will give cities a better chance to grow the share of trips taken on transit, on foot, by bike or on a scooter. They’re also unlikely to break a city’s budget or trigger angry pushback. In fact, many people won’t even notice them.
Make intersections safer — and more useful
Drivers often park as close to an intersection as they can without blocking the crosswalk. When they do, the parked vehicles limit visibility of pedestrians or bicyclists at the curb. The intersection then feels — and is — less safe, compelling people to avoid it. The fix: “daylighting” the intersection, preventing cars from parking too close. (The National Association of City Transportation Officials recommends 20 to 25 feet of clearance.)
But rather than simply blocking off the curb adjacent to the intersection, why not turn it into something useful, like parking corrals for bikes and scooters? That is what Washington, D.C., plans to do in 100 intersection-adjacent locations across the city. (Parking was already illegal in these places, but cars were often left there anyway.)
This initiative can achieve several goals at once. The corrals will physically prevent drivers from illegally parking close to the intersection, reducing unlawful behavior and improving safety for pedestrians and bicyclists. Better yet, the city will expand the availability of bike/micromobility parking, making it a little easier to take a ride. District DOT Director Jeff Marootian says his agency will pay around $25,000 in total for the project, with negligible resistance from residents: “It’s already illegal to leave your car in these spaces, so we’re not taking away any established parking spots.”
Build a better bus stop
Time spent waiting for a bus feels even longer when there’s no place to sit or get out of the rain. I mean that literally: A study from the University of Minnesota found that a five-minute wait at an exposed, “pole-in-the-ground” bus stop will seem like a 13-minute wait. If the transit agency simply offers a bench and some kind of roof, perceived wait time falls to 7.5 minutes.
As Pedestrian Observation’s Alon Levy has noted, the price of such a bus shelter is only around $15,000. That makes them a cost-effective way of making bus trips seem faster, even if a transit agency lacks the resources to increase service frequency. And it is perception that drives human behavior.
VIA, San Antonio’s transit agency, spent $12 million to build 1,000 bus shelters from 2014 to 2017. Correlation is not causation, but the steep decline in VIA’s ridership began to taper off at around the same time the program began, and in 2019 bus ridership grew in San Antonio — bucking national trends.
Fix the sidewalk
Sidewalk improvements are just about the lowest-tech urban mobility fix, but they can have a big impact. Even transit or e-scooter riders will be pedestrians for the so-called “first mile/last mile” of their trip, as they walk to and from a station or rented device. But in too many U.S. cities, crumbling or non-existent pedestrian infrastructure make walking or using wheelchairs perilous, and driving an all-too-inviting option.
In Denver, property owners are responsible for maintaining the adjacent sidewalk, leaving many neighborhoods with substandard walkways. In 2017 the city stepped in with a $4 million program to subsidize sidewalk repairs for lower-income residents, with a priority placed on locations with a history of automobile-pedestrian collisions. As the sidewalks improve, they make walking more attractive — and also provide a funnel to other modes of transportation. Smart.
Let bikes on trains and subways
Most people won’t walk more than a half mile to or from a transit stop. For that reason you’d think public transportation agencies would bend over backwards to woo those who might bike to a commuter rail, light rail, or subway station; otherwise such people would likely hop in a car.
But historically, North American transit agencies have been slow to embrace the idea that their riders might use a bike to reach the rails. During rush hour you still can’t bring a non-foldable bike aboard trains run by agencies like SEPTA or NJ Transit, due to supposed capacity limitations.* But other systems seem to have found a way; the Bay Area’s Caltrain offers onboard bike storage, and Washington, D.C’.s Metro began allowing bikes on all trains a year ago, around when Maryland’s MARC commuter rail system opened the door to full-sized bikes on the Penn Line connecting D.C. and Baltimore. Pulling this off required installing bike racks in some cars, shaving off a handful of seats, but it has made a big difference for plenty of commuters.
If North American transit systems won’t allow bikes on the train, they might at least offer enough secure parking near rail stations, as the Dutch do. (The huge bike parking facility beneath Utrecht’s train station can hold 12,000 bicycles.) Systems on this side of the Atlantic have a lot of room for improvement on that front as well.
Without breaking the budget or triggering a NIMBY backlash, these kinds of mundane mobility solutions can make it a little more likely urban residents will opt to leave their car at home — or not buy one in the first place. They can’t take the place of expensive or politically challenging initiatives like adopting congestion pricing, building protected bike lanes, and expanding transit service. But just about any city can implement them, even when big-ticket changes aren’t possible.
That said, don’t assume fixes like these will be prioritized naturally, no matter how intuitive they seem. Compare an autonomous vehicle launch with a sidewalk repair campaign: Which do you think will earn more press attention for local officials? Which is more likely to have private lobbyists advocating for it?
Local leaders who opt for mundane mobility over trendy tech solutions are likely to pay a price in media attention and in private sector support. But if the goal is to save lives and our planet by getting people out of their cars, these fixes might still be a bargain.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that BART did not allow full-sized bikes on trains during rush hours. In fact, bikes are only barred from certain cars.