“The people who design the cars and the people who design the roads never talk to each other,” according to Kati Rubinyi. With a background in architecture, urban planning, and fine arts, Rubinyi wants to enrich mobility planning by bringing everyone involved to the same table. Her book, The Car in 2035: Mobility Planning for the Near Future, includes essays from the different viewpoints of planners, policymakers, architects, and car designers, all exploring the issues of suburban mobility in Southern California; she continues this work with her consulting firm, Civic Projects.
The book focuses on Southern California, yet it’s relevant to any suburban area. What car-related shifts do you see happening over the next twenty-some years in the suburbs?
Kati Rubinyi: Zero-emissions vehicles and autonomous driving are interesting to consider in light of suburban development, because they simultaneously promote opposing trends. On the one hand, if you can work or even sleep in your car as it takes you to your transit hub or place of work, why not live on a large lot, surrounded by nature, if that’s what you like? On the other hand, advances in mobility are going to make parking much easier and traffic less of a hassle, so people will also be encouraged to live in denser environments where personal mobility and transit will be designed to support each other better. Mobility innovations will be pulling suburban development in two different directions.
How can changes like these help create the ideal of walkable suburban neighborhoods?
Rubinyi: Making suburban streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists is imperative to making places more walkable and livable. Technology in cars will help with that to some extent because there will be more sensors for people to avoid hitting cyclists or pedestrians. But something else is required, and that’s limiting speed of traffic. If traffic just moves more slowly on narrow roads, that will help a lot.
Isn’t transit also part of the equation?
Rubinyi: There is a lot of effort to center walkable areas around transit hubs, but we are still left with people having to get from transit to their houses. This is known as “the last mile” problem. I think that car-shared, zero-emissions vehicles, especially if they are autonomous or semi-autonomous, could help with this. Neighborhood Electric Vehicles are electric cars that only go up to 35MPH and don’t drive on freeways. They are too expensive for most people to have as a second or third car, but if they are shared, and are treated as part of the transit system, then suddenly a new type of car is potentially viable.
When talking about suburban transit hubs, parking structures inevitably come to mind. Is there a way to avoid creating more of the vast concrete structures that dominate so many transit landscapes? And how important is parking, anyway, when considering walkable neighborhoods?
Rubinyi: Parking is where all these things all meet. Automated parking, treating the inside of parking structures like a regular building, mixing them with the retail experience, approaching refueling as part of parking, different sizes of vehicles, Neighborhood Electric Vehicles, technology that tells you (and soon, your car) how many spaces are available, and where—all of this makes parking structures more user-friendly and can make denser centers in suburbs more easily accessible by car. In suburbs, parking is now the link between transit and personal mobility.
Won’t existing infrastructure have to be radically overhauled to accommodate all of this new technology?
Rubinyi: It’s very unclear that our infrastructure would have to change very much at all to accommodate these changes. Here’s the thing: autonomous vehicles are only going to make traffic flow more efficient. You can fit more cars on the same roads, both length-wise and width-wise. During the transitional phase, we’ll need some built-in signalization, as well as markers and paints and low-tech ways to help the flow of traffic—all things that are put onto or into existing roads. Roads and how they look in twenty years will not be that different than now.
That said, do you have an ideal of what suburban roads could look like in 2035?
Rubinyi: I want them to be safe for pedestrians and cyclists as well as smaller and slow-moving vehicles. There also needs to be consideration for trucks and buses of different sizes. In some cases, this means communication and information technology helping everyone get along as they comingle on the same roadway. On wider, faster-moving roads, this means separated lanes for bikes, more crosswalks, and dedicated lanes for buses and trucks. But in the end, people have to get a grip and realize that their mode, whatever it is, is not the boss of the road.