Richard W. Willson

Richard W. Willson

Richard W. Willson, Ph.D., FAICP, is Professor and Chair in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

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What Will a 21st Century Transportation System Look Like?

Last week, President Obama had this to say about the future of transportation at his final State of the Union...

Last week, President Obama had this to say about the future of transportation at his final State of the Union Address: “Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future — especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels. That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet. That way, we put money back into those communities and put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a 21st century transportation system.”

We wanted to know—what will this 21st century transportation system look like? We turned to some of our authors to find out:

Ray Tomalty, co-author of America's Urban Future (forthcoming February 2016)
The president was of course alluding to a carbon tax, which he is known to favor over cap-and-trade systems. Economists estimate a carbon tax could raise $1.2 to $1.5 trillion per year in the US, and if even a small part of this were spent on developing innovative transportation technology, a 21st century transportation system would be a real possibility in the US. At present, only about $2.3 billion in federal spending is devoted to transportation research. This is helping to test new technologies such as vehicle-to-vehicle communication, which has great potential to avoid accidents and improve traffic flow, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve travel times, and obviate the need for road infrastructure expansion. This technology is being tested on small stretches of urban highways across the country, but at the present rate of investment, it will be decades before fully automative vehicles are widespread in the US.

Many transportation experts believe the most pressing application of driverless technology is in driverless buses, which can greatly reduce the cost of public transit and vastly improve service. Unfortunately, little research and development is being dedicated to this purpose, something that could be addressed with funding from a carbon tax. Drone technology is another research and development area in need of greater public investment, a technology that is bringing the driverless movement to aviation and creating new possibilities for personal and goods transportation. Beyond research, new investment is needed in innovative transportation infrastructure. High-speed train service is a proven technology all over the developed world but in its infancy in the US (only one high-speed route in the country, the Acela Express linking Boston to Washington).

More thinking and research is also needed to explore the link between new transportation technologies, behavioral responses, and land use planning. This will require greater cooperation among local, regional and state planning authorities and cross-sectional cooperation among planning and transportation agencies. As the soon-to-be-released book, America’s Urban Future, written by Alan Mallach and myself shows, this is a field in which Canadian metropolitan areas have a long history of experimentation, so there may be something to be learned by looking north of the border for ideas on moving forward on this front.

Photo credit: Shutterstock
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Grady Gammage, author of The Future of the Suburban City (forthcoming April 2016)
By about 2050, driving your own vehicle will be a recreational activity like off-road four wheeling.  Routine travel in autonomous, mostly electric vehicles will be commonplace.  The cars will be smaller, lighter and often shared use but mostly they will still have only one or two people in them at a time.  Transit in all forms will dramatically increase, but in most cities people will still be living in houses with driveways and garages and they’ll use personal mobility vehicles to get around. 

Carlton Reid, author of Roads Were Not Built for Cars 
Cars? Where we’re going we won’t need cars. The past can tell us a lot about the future, and the past tells us that we’re very poor at predicting the next transport revolution.

18th-century folk thought canals would last forever. Early 19th-century folk thought the same about turnpike roads. And for those who grew up in the "railway age," the only future imagined was of steel rails and steam trains. Few predicted the motor car’s eventual dominance, and it’s reasonable to assume that the same inability to accurately predict the future afflicts us, too. As "car age" people, we tend to extrapolate into the future of transport using what we know, and that’s car-shaped objects on roads. The Tesla is a wonderful thing but the technology that underpins it is hardly new – electric cars were more popular in the 1890s than gasoline cars. And electric cars may appear to be “cleaner,” but this is only true if they’re replenished by solar power – all other recharging methods involve traditional power sources so, really, most electric cars are coal-powered cars.

And what of autonomous cars? Again, this is hardly the disruptive technology that many think it is. I’ve been using driverless cars for 50 years, cars which scuttle away and hide when not needed. Taxis. I can summon one with an app when in a meeting and it will appear outside and whisk me to wherever I want to go. When I use taxis, including Uber, I can kick back and let the driver – a silent automaton if I so will it – worry about the road ahead. I fiddle on my smartphone without even raising my eyes. Where autonomous vehicles might change the world – if we let them, and I’d rather we didn't – is over who has priority on roads. Currently, driverless cars are programmed to avoid cyclists and pedestrians. In a city full of cars driven by onboard computers it will be a great game to ride or step in front of them, safe in the knowledge they’re programmed not to touch you.

Because cities are expected to fill with more and more people I don’t see how driverless cars will be able to navigate around these empowered pedestrians or emboldened bicyclists, at least not in central business districts. It’s far more likely that there’s another technology waiting in the wings that we can scarcely even imagine. That is certainly what happened to our forebears. Until then (and, if I’m allowed to, even after then) I’ll continue to ride my bicycle. A driverless car has clear user benefits, but an autonomous bicycle would be rather dull and pointless.

Richard Willson, author of Parking Management for Smart Growth
Just as we need to stop subsidizing the past in energy policy, we need to stop subsidizing the past by favoring driving and parking over more appropriate transportation modes. Parking should be priced to cover both its actual cost and the costs it imposes on others and the planet. This is rarely the case in US cities, where the dual legacies of excessive minimum parking requirements and parking subsidies have distorted vehicle ownership and travel choices. These distortions have in turn, undermined land use efficiency, design, social equity, and livability. The 21st century transportation system will have fewer privately-owned cars and less parking. New technologies will ensure that we have all the mobility we want with fewer cars. Car companies know this – that’s why they are redefining themselves as mobility companies.

Photo credit: Shutterstock
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Jeffrey Kenworthy, co-author of The End of Automobile Dependence 
New technologies will clearly be part of any 21st century transportation system, including autonomous cars, but they should not be embraced in the way they are currently envisaged. A car is a car and takes up space with roads and parking, as well as helping to facilitate the continued destruction of agricultural land and natural areas through sprawl. This can be said of autonomous cars as well as electric cars, so ideally a 21st century transportation system will not look like the current automobile-dependent system in the USA, where cars are still responsible for around 96% of all the motorized passenger travel in cities. 

A 21st century urban transportation system will have a multitude of modes (walking, bikes, car-sharing, transit, car-on-demand, private cars and probably other innovative technologies such as pedelecs, Yikes, etc.) seamlessly linked together. This will be achieved increasingly through the use of smart communications technologies, which will give people instant access via smart phones and tablet computers, for the best combination of modes for any trip.

In all the excitement over autonomous cars, we must not forget that electrically powered conventional transit modes such as light rail (LRT) and metro systems are still vastly under-provided for in US cities, due to being starved of adequate funding over the last 80 years. With advances in design, materials, comfort, on-board facilities, wireless networks and many other improvements, especially more protected rights-of-way, using transit in the future will be very different from what we know today. 21st century transportation systems should not only see more transit, but much more non-motorised movement, such as walking and cycling, leading to a less obese nation. This change alone will see billions shaved off US health care costs, not to mention the cost savings of a "road diet.”

John Renne, co-author of Transport Beyond Oil 
Rapid changes in technology, such as self-driving electric cars and trucks, hold promise that the transportation industry will continue to innovate during the 21st century. Combined with a societal move towards an information and sharing-economy there is no doubt that marginal efficiencies will allow for a less carbon-intensive transportation system. However, the scale and intensity of weather impacts due to climate change necessitate a more drastic approach to achieve the key goal of limiting global temperature rise. The good news is that the path is simple. Anything we can do to promote walkable and bikeable communities will have the greatest impact. Therefore, we need to prioritize mass transit, which is the only transportation technology that has been proven to create walkable communities at the local level and deliver regional connectivity with the lowest consumption on carbon and emissions.


Parking: A Tale of Two Churches

Parking expert Richard Willson reflects on the recent news story of a D...

Parking expert Richard Willson reflects on the recent news story of a D.C. church opposing the construction of a bike lane in front of the church.

Religious institutions - churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship – are excellent prospects for shared parking. They need parking most on Saturdays or Sundays, in the morning, when there is lower overall parking occupancy. This post discusses two very different positions. The first is a progressive one that advances the church’s mission by selling off a church-owned parking lot and using shared parking resources. The second is a “protect our parking” approach common in disputes about parking, in which a church opposes bicycle lanes that would reduce on-street parking capacity.

Case #1. This is a positive parking management example from California. I recently helped the Board of the Pasadena Presbyterian Church assess the prospects for selling a surface parking lot it owns to a private developer for a mixed-use development. The sale included the condition that a small number of spaces in the new development are permanently allocated to the church, but the rest of the parishioner parking would be accommodated in the on-street and off-street parking in the Playhouse District. An analysis showed that there was plenty of parking capacity within walking distance of the church. The church is currently seeking city approval for a variance from the zoning code parking requirements. This arrangement converts an inefficiently used asset, a surface parking lot, into monetary resources that the church can use to augment its operations and advance its mission.

When it comes to approving shared parking, many cities are stuck in a counting game of seeking guarantees of shared parking access, requiring long-term agreements or covenants. This leads to complicated accounting that muddles property titles and makes parking owners wary of sharing. My view is that shared parking arrangements should be dynamic and changeable according to the circumstance of the entity needing the parking and the facilities providing it. Cities should rely on on-street parking prices to balance supply and demand, and to incentivize owners of off-street parking to share excess parking.


Photo credit: Richard W. Willson


Case #2. The second case, the United House of Prayer in Washington, D.C., shows that organizations often fight for the status quo. They raise the convenience of parking in front of one’s destination to the level of a human right, or in this case, a constitutionally protected right. Long story short, the attorney for the church has claimed that replacing on-street parking with a bike lane in front of the church is a government action that “substantially burdens” the free exercise of religion. The controversy is impeding the development of innovative parking management ideas.

The District of Columbia is evaluating where to build a bike lane on the east side of downtown. The church’s representatives are arguing that a reduction in on-street parking brought about by the lane infringes on its “constitutionally protected rights of religious freedom and equal protection of the laws.” There is nothing in the constitution that creates a right to parking free in front of one’s desired destination. Some people may choose a church for the free parking, but that seems far from the more powerful explanation of finding a religious community that supports one’s personal growth and spirituality.

On-street parking is a public asset that should be used in the way that best serves the broader public interest. No one has a right to the on-street parking in front of a property s/he owns. But the “we own it” view is common, e.g., residential parking permit districts keep “outsiders” from parking in neighborhoods, and city governments rarely have the will to take on this notion. Acknowledging this political reality, a promising strategy is to price the use of on-street parking and return a portion of the revenues to the neighborhood for sidewalk repairs, street tree trimming, shared parking facilities, or other local priorities. That way, neighborhoods have an incentive to share their parking.

No one likes change, and I understand why the United House of Prayer is concerned. But opposing a bicycle lane would hold back progress in developing a multimodal transportation system. There are a host of way to get parishioners to church, including shared parking with nearby institutional or commercial uses, remote parking with shuttle busses, church busses, valet parking, time-specific conversion of travel lanes to parking, carpooling programs, taxi programs, and so on. It takes some effort but shared parking is a better approach than blocking the bicycle lane. 


Disarming objections to parking pricing

Since the beginning of time, parkers have argued that they should park free. Yet the economic justifications for pricing are well documented - pricing leads to more efficient parking use and a multimodal transportation system. Many arguments...

Since the beginning of time, parkers have argued that they should park free. Yet the economic justifications for pricing are well documented - pricing leads to more efficient parking use and a multimodal transportation system. Many arguments against pricing don’t hold up to scrutiny. I have been chronicling them in my work with local stakeholders over three decades. This blog post summarizes the top five arguments I’ve encountered and provides responses that are useful in the heat of the battle.

Photo credit: Richard W. Willson

Pricing won’t work.

  • Arguments: “People love their cars and will park regardless of the price”, or “I have to drive because of reasons x, y and z and everyone is like me,” and/or “I enjoy showing off my parking skill by circling blocks looking for the best space.”
  • Response: Yes, some people love their cars, must drive and/or enjoy hunting for parking, but that’s not the point. Parking pricing seeks to change behavior at the margin, not for everyone. In other words, if your alternatives to driving are good and you drive because parking is free, pricing will induce you to consider changing modes or parking location. Seeking 85% curb parking occupancy with dynamic pricing, for example, requires that only a few people change.


Pricing will kill business.

Photo credit: Richard W. Willson

  • Argument: “I won’t shop in this shopping district if you price parking, and no one else will either.”
  • Response: That’s a bluff. People who spend $100 on dinner say they won’t pay $3 to park.  A few people may do that, but most will go to the restaurant they like. People will pay for parking to gain access to a district with competitive businesses. Instead of improving their businesses, uncompetitive districts hold on to free parking like it is a life preserver in a stormy sea, thinking it draws customers. The stakeholders screaming the loudest about parking charges probably spend the least money in the district.


The past is an entitlement to the future.

Photo credit: Richard W. Willson

  • Argument: “Since parking was free in the past it should be free now. My community has a small town feel and I want it to stay that way.”
  • Response: Communities are dynamic and change over time. Change addresses important social, economic, and environmental objectives. Past parking policies didn’t recognize resource limitations, climate change, and current goals for livability and multimodal transportation. But one can’t ignore this sentiment – it is powerful – so frame and design pricing programs in a way that positions the place as a “modern” small town.


Pricing is unfair.

  • Argument: “No one should pay for parking because charges burden low-income drivers.”
  • The SF park dynamic pricing program shows that while prices on the prime blockfaces increased, the average price declined because prices were lower in less-used locations, so affordable parking was still available, albeit with a longer walk. Using parking revenues to improve transit and active transportation is a better path.


Pricing is a money grab by local government.

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  • Argument: “Cities push parking pricing just to generate revenues for the general fund.”
  • Response: Fair enough. Lots of cities are so motivated. The answer is to set prices to achieve target occupancies, not a revenue target, and return all or a portion of the funds for local parking, transportation and community improvement in the neighborhood being priced.


Convincing a person to change her or his mind is, of course, the greatest challenge of all. It has stumped teachers, marketers, philosophers, and religious leaders through the millennia. But is it possible, and it is more likely, when you understand the core ideas in the objections and frame the issue in a way that acknowledges them.