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The Future of Cities and Transportation

Bus rapid transit systems and "complete streets" are great. But to design urban transportation systems that are truly sustainable, we have to think much further ahead.

By the end of the 19th century, cities throughout Europe faced a crisis: They were literally drowning in horse manure. Thought leaders of the day knew it to be a forgone certainty that dealing with the waste of horses was going to be the most pressing concern for urban planners of the 20th century.

At the time this thinking made perfect sense. Horses had dominated commerce and personal mobility for centuries, and as the population grew, it was logical to expect that solving this looming infrastructural problem would demand larger amounts of intellectual and financial capital.

Of course, cars solved the horseshit problem.

The parable of the horse illustrates an inherent tension of futures thinking. While we must build towards a better world based on current problems, the future is almost certain to be radically different from what we plan for. This is why successful solutions to the complex problems faced by cities need to strike a balance between addressing current needs and building in flexibility that can accommodate future behaviors.

Today, cities are again facing important dilemmas about infrastructure. From the efforts described in Robert Sullivan's excellent New York Magazine piece on Bus Rapid Transport, which addressed the growing complexity of commuting patterns in New York, to plans for bringing bicycle superhighways to cities such as London cities, there is a growing realization that we have to reform our resource-depleting, socially-isolating reliance on single-occupancy car travel.

But how? Solving problems such as bus routes is extremely important, but within the coming decades these solutions may themselves become obsolete. Will Bus Rapid Transit make sense in a world without reliable oil supplies? Similarly, the problems themselves may become drastically transformed or even obsolete. While we are engineering solutions to current problems, we should also make sure that our cities are being designed for long-term resilience.

Transportation is one area where the mismatch between planners' assumptions and the uncertainly of future needs is growing alarmingly wide. One way to anticipate future needs of cities is to better understand the changing ways, and reasons why, people move around cities. This kind of understanding will allow us to start creating cities that are flexible enough to respond to the as-yet unknown future demands we will place on them.

For example, transformations to the organization of our cities will undoubtedly come from how advances in communications technologies are reshaping our personal interactions. So, one way to apply futures thinking to city planning is to think about how information technologies are changing the way that people conceive of themselves within cities, and the reasons they move around them.

Anthony Townsend, a colleague of mine at the Institute for the Future who consults on urban development projects around the world, has suggested that we think of our cities as "information spaces to be navigated, and browsed more efficiently with our bodies." In other words, when we realize that our locations in cities are continuously connected with information about location-specific historic and projected events, for example, we can make more meaningful decisions, both as individuals and at the level of city planning.

The implications of location data are clear when we look at developments like Twitter mood maps, and think about how we might design cities based on insights gleaned from location-aware information produced on a social media platform. By mining and analyzing this information—maybe a particular intersection shows people expressing high levels of frustration at particular times of the day—we will begin to see how our infrastructures and patterns of interaction evoke certain emotional responses. Any city dweller knows how empty the space beneath elevated highways feels. As we start to be able to map these emotions to physical spaces, we can start developing infrastructure that addresses needs like happiness as well as efficiency. What if Google Maps provided a “happiest route,” along with the most direct one?

We can also imagine that the purpose of transportation will change in a world that blends the physical with information. We can start by re-envisioning how a highly mobile, highly connected individual might situate herself in such a city. What if the commute environment wasn't designed to physically move people as quickly as possible, but instead was a connected and functional work environment itself? Or a site for games and fun social interactions? Or a mobile day care? What would change in the way that we design and implement changes to our urban infrastructure?

For an example of how transportation might change, we can look to Barcelona-based Citilab. Citilab has experimented with ways to make our commutes less isolating by, say, conducting meetings on city buses, turning them into collaborative, productive work spaces. Watching a video of a meeting conducted on the Barcelona metro, we can see a potential future commute, which moves beyond using our mobile devices to type out emails while we head to work, towards sharing ideas and resources with a theoretically limitless roster of colleagues.

In a recent Newsweek series on the Future of Work, the architecture and design firm Gensler introduces a vision of the future of Los Angeles that is very much in line with this thinking. Gensler’s vision states that, "In the future, life, work, commuting and recreation will not be experienced as distinct activities, but will blend into one lifestyle."

Reinventing the city as a place where this kind of blending can occur requires planners to reject long-held assumptions about where we do work, where we play, and what occupies the space between.

In short, the future requires city planners who have learned from the parable of the horse. The future needs of cities will almost certainly look different than the needs we are planning for today, and so while we develop solutions for problems in the short term, we also need to make sure that we re building cities that can adapt to the ways we will want to live.

Mathias Crawford is a research manager at The Institute for the Future.

Illustration by Claire A. Thompson.

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