Gensler’s Urban Strategies group is helping cities and clients vision the streets of tomorrow, inclusive of new forms of mobility and the paths that support them. Image by Gensler/Jordan Kessler.
Gensler’s Urban Strategies group is helping cities and clients vision the streets of tomorrow, inclusive of new forms of mobility and the paths that support them. Image by Gensler/Jordan Kessler.

From Railroads to Electric Scooters: How Mobility Shapes the City of Today and Tomorrow

“Mobility” is a hot topic in the world of planning and urban design. From GPS-enabled electric scooters, to driverless cars, and even aerial ride-share services, disruptive mobility is on the rise. The movement of people (and stuff) deeply affects our lives. Our cities are shaped by the paths, streets, rails, airports, and ports that support the movement of people and goods. With the explosion of disruptive mobility services taking hold in our cities, it’s critical that we, as a design community, build a common language of understanding as we shape a vision for the cities of tomorrow.

People immediately think about the direct physical implications of getting from place to place, but there are less obvious ways to think about mobility. For example, the phrase “upward mobility” describes the ability to move from one socio-economic class to another; “workplace mobility” relates to the untethering of workers from place through use of connected technology; and “capital mobility” refers to the ability of capital (i.e. money) to move from place to place. All of these examples have profound impact on cities, and all of them are currently being disrupted by technology.

Given the breadth of the topic, it’s useful to have a simple model of mobility to better understand the ways in which movement impacts the form and experience of a city. A model helps organize the typological differences of various mobility structures, and acts as a lens to understand the sometimes-dissimilar nature of mobility discussions.

Mobility is composed of three distinct and interrelated components: that which is moved (the vehicle), the space and time through which movement occurs (the path), and the experience of those being moved or adjacent to the movement. Imagine the simple example of a convertible driving down a country road: the car is the “vehicle,” the road is the “path,” and the lived moment of the individuals as they enjoy the ride is the “experience.”

The open road and the vintage car can create an experience that's wildly different from congested city-roads. Photo by Dave Ruck on Unsplash.

All mobility modes can be broken down into these three elements. Putting aside experience, consider just the vehicle and path. Cars are vehicles, roads are paths. Ships are vehicles, water provides the path. Airplanes are vehicles, air provides the path. Even a person can be considered a vehicle; for example, a hiker, where the trail is the path. Vehicles include an act of motion, paths support that motion. Vehicles are generally private or privatized, while paths are typically shared. Vehicles are technologically flexible and current, paths are generally fixed and low tech.

Standard rail sections have changed little in the past 150 years, but the high speed trains of today are technological marvels. Left: Image by Frederick Wilson, 1898 via Wikimedia Commons. Right: Photo by hans-johnson on Flickr.

Consider two interesting, yet divergent examples: rail travel (trains) and the “Hyperloop.” Trains travel on rails, steel extrusions fixed to ties. The rails and ties have changed little in the past 150 years, but the high-speed electric trains that roll over rails are a world apart from the coal-fueled steam locomotives of the past. The technology, embedded in the vehicles, has continued to evolve and the paths (the rails themselves) have been successful because they are decidedly low-tech. This is consistent with a number of enduring modes. The most successful mobility solutions typically include a low-tech or static path combined with vehicles that can evolve freely with technology.

On the other hand, the technology proposed in the Hyperloop concept — sending magnetically levitated pods through near-vacuum tubes at high speeds — takes a completely different approach. This mode requires building cutting-edge technology into the path itself. Understanding mobility through the lens of the vehicle/path/experience model leaves us questioning the notion of embedding today’s technology, however cutting-edge it seems right now, into the long, fixed pieces of infrastructure required to make the system work.

Proposals for the Hyperloop buck the historical trend of a low-tech path by aiming to embed technology into the path itself. Image: Kevin Krejci on Flickr.

The third component of this model, experience, is what we at Gensler care most deeply about. We always strive to leverage design to improve the lived experience within our communities. Mobility structures all come with unique and specific experiences, and literally shape the form of our communities and cities. The paths that form around specific modes shape the composition and fabric of urban space. Some older cities have been built up around foot paths, others around rail, and newer cities around automobiles. This urban fabric is itself a foundation for the way in which people connect, and it shapes the lived experience.

Gensler's design concept for the BQXL leverages 15 miles of underutilized freight corridor to create a multimodal path from Queens to Brooklyn, while providing easier access to the subway lines along the way. Image by Gensler.

Vehicles connect people to each other and to the places they want to go, but they also affect the experience of communities in other ways. They may pollute, they may be noisy, they may be dangerous; on the other hand, they may offer new opportunities to connect with people and jobs, and in some cases, may even spark joy.

Share scooters are flooding sidewalks across the U.S. As a mode without pre-planned paths, they can cause problems for cities, but they are also environmentally sustainable and can often spark joy. How can design help shape the streets of tomorrow so they can better support new modes of mobility? Photo by Brett Sayles/Pexels.

An understanding of the vehicle/path/experience construct will help us understand the nature of various infrastructures, along with their shaping force on the physical and lived experience. It will help us evaluate, critique, and organize new modes proliferating at an unprecedented pace. The model will help us understand the roles and responsibilities of the public and private sectors, as we move from a 20th century, mono-modal construct, to a 21st century, multi-modal construct. Finally, the model will help us leverage design so we can better connect people to place, and most importantly, to each other.

Stay tuned as we dive into various new modes, interview new players and old, and start to unpack the thorny problems that only good design can solve!

Dylan Jones
Dylan is a licensed architect with nearly 20 years of experience in planning and design for both private and public sector clients. As a leader of Gensler’s Mobility Lab and a member of the Urban Strategies group, he works at the intersection of private development and public infrastructure, believing mobility is a core building block of the 21st-century, sustainable city. Dylan is currently leading strategic planning and design efforts with LA Metro directly, and with private developers on Metro Joint Development projects.
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