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9 cities with smart ideas to improve transportation

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From planning for walkable neighborhoods to autonomous transit, how some U.S. cities plan to upgrade public transit

Santa Monica, California, kicks off its Dockless Mobility Device Pilot.
City of Santa Monica

Transportation systems don’t just move people around—they can also be catalysts for moving cities forward. But too often, between state-level inertia (see: New York’s inability to cope with New York City’s subway crisis) and the lack of serious federal investment in infrastructure and public transportation efforts, U.S. cities face gridlock when it comes to transportation reform.

Hope tends to come from smaller-scale initiatives: In cities across the country, local politicians, transit advocates, and commute-weary citizens are responding to the need for more sustainable, equitable, street-level transit solutions, delivering on promises to make daily commutes more multimodal and connect more workers to jobs. In the year of dockless scooters and city-led climate summits, new tech is spreading rapidly, while electric vehicles are ever more widely adopted.

Curbed spoke with transit experts from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), Overhead Wire, Smart Growth America, the Eno Center for Transportation, and the National Resource Defense Council, asking them to identify U.S. cities with progressive transit plans or intriguing proposals to solve difficult issues. None of these cities has devised the perfect transit system—and some of these ideas haven’t even been realized yet—but, taken together, they show different means to make transit more effective.

As part of the Sacramento Green City electric vehicle program, a fleet of Envoy shared electric cars will be available at dozens of buildings across the city.

Sacramento: Creating the capital of electric cars

Electric vehicles have made great strides in recent years, but even evangelists acknowledge a persistent problem: how to create cars—and infrastructure—that won’t leave any electric vehicle drivers stranded or worried about finding their next charge.

A new $44 million Green City initiative in California’s capital seeks to bring electric vehicles to the city’s streets and build out a web of chargers and electric transit options to support them. The plan, which will begin rolling out this summer, consists of two new car-sharing services with hundreds of EVs, a pair of zero-emission electric bus lines, an on-demand electric shuttle, and 10 charging depots.

By offering more options for zero-emission rides, as well as adaptable infrastructure—new super-fast chargers, which aren’t yet available commercially, work as fast as gas fill-ups—the initiative hopes to create a template for cities to plug in.

Photo by Michelle & Chris Gerard

Detroit: Multimodal Ambitions in the Motor City

Detroit’s revitalization has strained a transit system that’s historically been underfunded and ignored. But a new vision for mobility in the city, while lacking the flash—and sky-high price tag—of other metro-area transit overhauls, promises more equitable, and eclectic, solutions.

Building on the backbone of an improved bus system—which includes new designs, stops, and a mobile app—the Strategic Plan for Transportation, drawn up by Bloomberg Associates and former New York City Department of Transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, seeks to add more car- and bike-sharing, beautify streets and alleys, and focus on partnerships with other area transit agencies. The goal is to “build a better city, one where Detroiters’ opportunities are not limited by their choices for getting around,” says Sadik-Khan.

Indianapolis: Rapid electric bus line brings equity

It can be challenging for small cities to afford the kind of heavy lifting that reshapes entire transit systems. But Indianapolis may accomplish just that with the introduction of its Red Line bus service next year.

Running a 13-mile path that travels within a quarter mile of roughly 150,000 jobs, this north-south route presents an axis of opportunity. In addition, the all-electric bus rapid-transit line will run every 10 minutes for much of the day, offering frequent service on a dedicated lane for a fraction of the cost of light rail. Voters believed in the project enough to raise their income taxes to fund it, and plans to roll out two additional electric BRT lines are already in the works.

Santa Monica, California: Scooter City, USA

It’s hard to imagine, after months of media pandemonium, that dockless electric scooters arrived only a year ago on the West Coast. Santa Monica, home to Bird, the multibillion-dollar transit startup that helped launch the rush for micromobility, has arguably done the best to not only adapt, but take advantage of this two-wheeled trend.

In addition to recently launching a pilot program that will grade scooter services on issues like safety and social equity, Santa Monica has also used operator fees to invest in new bike lanes and transit infrastructure. By inviting both Uber and Lyft to take part in its dockless vehicles pilot program, the city now offers one of the widest arrays of car-free transit options in the country. Lyft debuted a new app there this week that will give riders transit directions as well as access to scooters.

Gainesville, Florida: Pushing a driverless shuttle pilot

High-tech innovation is usually seen as something happening in so-called tech centers. Many assume the real advancements in autonomous vehicles are only happening in places like Pittsburgh. But this Florida city has become one of a growing number of places experimenting with driverless, autonomous shuttles, small, usually electric vehicles, sometimes operating on fixed routes, with capacity for fewer than a dozen riders.

In partnership with the University of Florida and the mobility operator Transdev, Gainesville will run four different shuttles through downtown as part of a three-year pilot, all free of charge to residents. Larger cities, such as Detroit and Las Vegas, already have driverless shuttle trials and services of their own. But this trial, exploring the impact of smaller, circulator routes, shows that smart city innovation isn’t a matter of a city’s size.

Downtown Denver

Denver: Planning that puts pedestrians first

The population boom in Denver has exposed the gaps in the existing transit system. What’s impressive about the recently submitted proposals to reshape how people get around is the strong focus on walkability.

Created at the tail end of a two-year “Denveright” outreach program, the comprehensive series of plans, which address transportation, land use, parks, and trails, seeks to connect neighborhoods by the simplest and most sustainable way to get around. According to the plan as proposed, by 2040, all 78 of the city’s neighborhoods would have an environmentally friendly park within a 10-minute walk, and half of the homes within 60 of those neighborhoods would be in walking distance of transit, jobs, and retail.

In addition to focusing on walkable neighborhoods, the plan has concrete goals to reduce automobile use, cutting the share of commuters with solo car commutes to 50 percent and making sure three-quarters of residents live within a quarter-mile of reliable transit service. Achieving these aims would require political will and significant investment in infrastructure. But in an era of technological hype, it’s good to see a city focus on friendly, walkable, and sustainable urbanism.


Phoenix: Using autonomous vehicles to bring riders to public transit

Ever since Waymo launched its driverless car trials in Phoenix, promoting the service with a video showing suburbanites extolling the benefits of driverless transportation, the AV startup seemed focused on everyday, even mundane, aspects of travel. That’s a good thing, since new transit tech is uniquely positioned to make existing rail and bus lines even more efficient.

Last month, Waymo announced it would be partnering with Phoenix’s Valley Metro to offer first-mile/last-mile rides with its fleet of hybrid Chrysler Pacifica minivans. By bookending a bus trip with autonomous shuttles, this collaboration could make public transit more desirable and orderly, all while keeping riders out of the scorching Southwest sun. As study after study shows that services like Uber and Lyft only add to urban congestion, it’s promising to see tech devoted to augmenting, not overtaking, existing investments in transit.

Los Angeles: Going all in on all-electric buses

As California continues to trim its carbon emissions, transportation has emerged as the state’s top source of CO2. While a lot more work needs to be done to wean the car-happy state off internal combustion engines, the city’s transit agency, which operates the second-largest bus fleet in the country behind New York City, has made a commitment to clean up.

Metro’s push toward swapping out its entire 2,200-vehicle fleet with quieter, cleaner-running electric models by 2030 will not only modernize transit and help build out charging infrastructure, but will save the city money, roughly $11.2 million over the 12-year lifetime of a vehicle. The push isn’t without problems—many early electric models purchased by Chinese maker BYD have proven to have mechanical issues and poor performance—but if realized, it will show the value of embracing electric transit. The state may soon follow; the California Air Resources Board recently proposed the entire state only purchase zero-emission transit vehicles starting in 2029.


Seattle: An all-of-the-above approach to better transit

The home of Amazon has long been held up as a poster child for the ills of tech-fueled development. While it’s still coming to grips with housing costs and homelessness, Seattle has become an oft-cited model for building a more functional and diverse transit system. The city’s playbook for new mobility has focused on adding high-capacity rail and bus lines and expanding cycling options to accommodate a growing downtown, and there’s evidence the work has paid off.

More than 70 percent of weekday trips to downtown aren’t in a private vehicle, thanks to the city’s Commute Trip Reduction initiative, and significant investment in new transit options, including the 62-mile ST3 rail plan, will strengthen a growing mass transit system. Seattle has even bucked the trend of decreasing bus ridership, expanding and improving service at a time when other cities struggle to maintain rider numbers.