In 1898, the world’s first international urban planning conference was convened in New York City to solve a global transportation crisis: cities were suffocating under horse manure. Newspapers warned London would be buried beneath nine feet of dung by 1950, while Manhattan already boasted malodorous hills forty feet tall. But the meeting ended early in acrimony because no one could conceive of an alternative to the horse-drawn carriage.
Fortunately, Henry Ford had unwittingly hit upon the answer two years earlier with his motorized Quadricycle. By 1913, Ford’s mass-produced Model T was well on its way to putting millions of horses out to pasture before remaking the world in its image. What the planners couldn’t resolve on their own was finally achieved through a combination of new technology, policies and infrastructure. Working together, inventors and mayors saved cities from mountains of manure.
Challenges of the car-centric city
Fast-forward a century, and cities are facing a new crisis. The International Transport Forum predicts the number of vehicle kilometers traveled will almost double between now and 2050. Prioritizing private auto ownership at the expense of public transport means that typical residents of an American city are only able to reach 30% of the available jobs in less than 90 minutes using transit, according to the Brookings Institution. Another study found that nearly half of affordable housing residents spent more than 15% of their incomes on transportation costs, while traffic congestion in general costs the U.S. between 2 and 4 percent of GDP.
Automakers like Ford Motor Company helped cities escape the mounting externalities of one mode of transport, only to impose a new set of challenges. As they rush to explore new business models including car-sharing, bike-sharing, micro-transit, and autonomous vehicles could they once again offer solutions for cities.
To that end, last month, Ford hosted the “City of Tomorrow Symposium” in San Francisco, convening 600 policy makers, transportation experts, entrepreneurs, and urbanists to test the company’s vision of smart mobility and how it might partner with cities to realize it. Ford executive vice president and president for Mobility Marcy Klevorn described its overarching goal as a “transportation operating system” combining data from public and private vehicles, streets, and infrastructure to improve the flow of people and goods, while making room for more than just cars.
While competing upstarts have built multibillion-dollar businesses through exploiting public roads, keeping data under lock and key, and challenging regulators’ authority, Ford is offering cities an alternative — join us to solve the dilemmas you and other startups can’t see. “There are so many players in this ecosystem that we’re only going to do this by working together,” Klevorn said.
Unlimited plans for mobility
One form this alliance might take is “mobility-as-a-service,” which aims to combine various modes of transport into a single, seamless mesh with the help of big data and digital services. This idea makes sense for both Ford and cities alike — the former has cars, shuttles, and even a bike-sharing pilot to offer, while the latter are constantly striving to make public transport more accessible and appealing. Such a service would package all of the above with potentially unlimited use for a single monthly fee — old hat for your smartphone’s data plan, but revolutionary when it comes to transport.
Cities of bits
Another way to think of a transportation operating system is to re-imagine cities as strata of data. “There’s topography and geography — the streets and what’s above and beneath them — along with the objects — the cars, buses, bikes — operating on them,” says John Kwant, vice president of Ford Smart Mobility’s City Solutions team, created last year to work with cities on proposing, piloting and developing new mobility services. “Once you’re able to orchestrate the entire system, you can connect loads to roads for moving goods more efficiently.”
All of this requires copious amounts of granular, real-time data, which is the one thing ride-hailing operators refuse to share. Without it, says former New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, “cities are planning blind.”
Once again, Ford is offering to partner with cities instead, whether that means potentially sharing (anonymized) vehicle data down the road, or encouraging such initiatives as OpenTraffic, which aspires to create new standards for traffic and location data. To that end, the company has invested in the startup Swiftly, which works with dozens of transit agencies to leverage the data they have to improve system performance and reliability while sharing real-time updates with millions of passengers.
Taming the autonomous vehicle
Looming large in this vision are autonomous vehicles, which promise (or threaten) to be the most efficient data harvesting machines cities have ever seen. In San Francisco, Ford president and CEO Jim Hackett downplayed the potential of autonomous vehicles to solve congestion, noting that the dream of cars never needing to park would be tempered by the new structures necessary to recharge and support them. “The problem of where cars dwell today in both the analog and robotic worlds is the same,” he said. Autonomous vehicles are no magic bullet.
Conversely, the advent of autonomy and development of new transportation models offers an opportunity to revisit the form and function of city streets. In her symposium opening address, Sadik-Khan recounted how once-diverse streets teeming with pedestrians and commerce — approximately 80 percent of cities’ public space — were quickly brought to heel by the automobile. “This didn’t happen by chance,” she argued. “It happened by design.”
Streets are for people
Just as automobiles transformed streets from diverse thoroughfares into traffic arteries, new mobility services pose an opportunity to transform them back. At Ford, that task fell to Greenfield Labs, which took a “human-centered” approach to asking just how valuable streets could be without traffic. Last spring, it partnered with the architecture firm Gehl to create the “National Street Service” — a winking urban analog to the National Park Service, complete with ranger uniforms — in order to pilot these ideas.
Crunching the numbers, they found a bicycle rack is worth $1,935 per month to San Francisco businesses, that a tree is worth $159 annually to residents, and that the cost of maintaining a parking space could pay for nearly 300 transit rides — and the plot of land could grow 216 heads of broccoli.
Which isn’t to say Ford is about to enter the urban agriculture industry. “The point is to understand how we would be received if we launched new services in these communities,” says Erica Klampfl, Greenfield Labs’ director. “We want to understand it from their point of view — we don’t want to disrupt them.” (In that respect, Ford and its partners still have a ways to go. Residents of San Francisco’s Mission District recently blocked expansion of Motivate’s Ford-branded GoBike service due to fears of gentrification.)
Whether Ford’s efforts to closely partner with mayors will bear fruit remains to be seen, as does the company’s attempts to make the whole of its mobility investments greater than the sum of its many parts. But for now the company’s executives are bullish on the belief that working together with cities rather than at cross-purposes will one day be worth it.