Just as rapidly urbanizing U.S. neighborhoods grapple with the challenges of auto-oriented land use patterns from the past, millennials and entrepreneurs have come up with a solution: the sharing economy. Flexible new transportation services like Uber, Zipcar, and bikeshare programs can reduce parking requirements and free up street-level space for more dynamic urban uses.
At a ULI’s Fall Meeting, Jeff Risom, partner at Gehl Architects, explained how Copenhagen has incrementally transformed a downtown, once dominated by cars and surface parking lots, to one that prioritizes pedestrians and bicyclists. Copenhagen’s multi-modal transportation system comprises 36 percent bikes, 33 percent transit, 23 percent cars, and 7 percent pedestrians. “More than half of the city’s residents cycle to work or school every day; 63 percent say they do so because it’s fast, easy and convenient, even in the Scandinavian winter,” he pointed out.
Much of the city’s former parking space has been reclaimed for pedestrians, cyclists, sidewalk cafes, and parklets. Some bike parking spaces become available to cars after 5:00 pm; in other instances, rows of parallel-parked cars shield cyclists from auto traffic. Perhaps as a result of their people-friendly urban spaces, Risom noted, Danes are the happiest people in the world.
While the Danish mode may not be fully adaptable, some U.S. cities are moving forward rapidly. Timothy Papandreou, director of strategic planning and policy for the San Francisco Municipal Travel Agency, said “San Francisco is at ground zero for the sharing economy. The city’s jobs and population are expected to grow by over 35 percent, but we can’t allow any more cars in the city. So how do we accommodate growth?”
The solution includes shared transportation modes: ridesharing, car sharing, scooter sharing, bike sharing, shuttles, driverless vehicles, transportation network companies like Uber and Sidecar, and public transit, Papandreou stated. “These modes are evolving and distinctions are blurring. People are choosing to live in the city without owning cars, and we have to provide choices.” Furthermore, he concluded, the city is working to link the various modes of routing, booking, and payment, because “too many smart cards makes for a dumb wallet.”
Shared transportation modes have evolved because they provide ease and flexibility of use, said Alan Owings of Forest City. The millennials who drive the sharing economy are drawn to quality, he added, and like the idea of using a higher quality service even if they can’t afford to own it. And even as they share services, they feel ownership; some customers request, for example, a particular car.
With more city dwellers eschewing private car ownership, Owings said, parking can be reclaimed for other uses as it has in Copenhagen. In the DUMBO section of Brooklyn, for example, a parking lot has been temporarily repurposed as outdoor café seating and a bike sharing facility.
Similarly, Gehl Architects is helping New York City put the square back in Times Square, transforming 350,000 square feet of former traffic and parking lanes — the equivalent of 18 Rockefeller Centers — into pedestrian-only areas and parklets. As a result, noted Risom, retail sales have increased 14 percent around the new seating areas; pedestrian traffic has increased 11 percent while pedestrian injuries have dropped 35 percent; and auto travel time has improved by 17 percent because intersections are now less confusing.
Forest City’s Owings commented that with lower or even zero parking requirements, “it will become more economical to build community into mixed-use environments on the ground-floor plane, with a diverse mix of uses, some curated and some subsidized.” Twenty-first century cities, he concluded, can survive without parking.