How Cities Are Adapting to the Mobility Revolution (Episode 90)

John Farrell spoke with ILSR Senior Fellow and Co-Founder David Morris about how new technologies — such as app-based ride sharing, e-scooters, and online shopping — are changing how we move people and goods around cities. Their conversation focuses on how cities have to reevaluate the use of public space as companies like Uber move in. They also discuss:  

  • The long history of cities grappling with transportation revolutions, from bikes to scooters to delivery drones.  
  • How mobility, social movements, and equity are closely tied together. 
  • The cities that are leading the way in regulating these new technologies, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Austin.  
  • How mass transit systems fit into our current mobility revolution.


“Cities are going to have to reassess the public spaces, reprioritize who has access to those public spaces, and gain a great deal more sophistication and capacity.”


New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

John Farrell: [00:00:00]
John Farrell: Welcome to Building Local Power. I’m your host, John Farrell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. For this episode we’re talking cities and the mobility revolution with David Morris, ILSR senior fellow and co-founder. From Uber to scooters to drones, we talk about the ways technology is changing how we move people and goods and how cities have to wrestle with prioritizing the use of public space to match the demand. I know that this is forgoing local power and I’m supposed to give some sort of like, clever intro or welcome or ask you about a number or something but I’m not good at that in the way Chris is.
David Morris: That’s fine, by the way.
John Farrell: That’s good. I just like to dive in. There’s so much interesting stuff to talk about.
David Morris: Go.
John Farrell: I think I’ll start by just saying, electric scooters. I’ve ridden on them a couple of times. I find them fascinating. I’ve also been in enough cities even across the world to see that they’re all over the place. I was hoping to start by talking to you about scooters and other mobility options, bikes and e-bikes. I feel like cities are confronting a sort of wild west of transportation mobility in this day and age. Where I wanted to start with, because I know that you are someone who researches deeply these threads throughout time, is this something that cities have had to confront before?
David Morris: Well yes, cities did have to confront it before and when I say “this,” what I mean is a technology driven, in some ways, transportation revolution where cities are going to have to reassess the public spaces, reprioritize who has access to those public spaces and again a great deal more sophistication and capacity. This happened once before, it happened in the 1890s and it happened around the introduction of the bicycle. Actually the introduction of the safety bicycle, that was the bicycle that we ride today that has two equal wheels and the like. It was easy to ride and what it did, it became a craze in the 1890s. There was a million, more than a million bikes that people were riding. It was like a tidal wave and it was embraced most vigorously and aggressively by women. It was seen as a very liberating technology for women because they had the ability then to just get on their bike and go. Women were very constricted in their activities in those days and if they were on transportation there was a male chauffeur.
David Morris: This was their liberation and Suzan B. Anthony, who was a leader of the women’s movement for many years, said in 1895, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling, I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” It also, since bicycles are cumbersome devices to ride on if you happen to have your corsets and your low flowing dresses and the like, low hanging dresses, it changed the dress code if you will for women. Women created what they called the “rational dress movement” where they wore, we call them “pants,” they called them “bloomers.” It was a very useful technology to create a social movement but also it created the question of who has access to streets because at that time in the 1890s everyone had access to streets almost equally.
David Morris: You had, of course, horses, then you had pedestrians, then you had horse drawn wagons and the like but they had fairly equal access. In the 1890s two technologies came into cities. One was the bike, as we mentioned and the other was the electric street car. The electric street car got a lane all to itself because it was laying down tracks. The bicycle then was having to dodge the electric street car but also had to dodge very angry men on horses and their wagons. There had to be some rules created about streets and at the same time they had to create a walking path for pedestrians, which we call sidewalks. The 1890s was a time where they really were creating new rules and by the end of the 1890s you had electric bikes that were beginning to look a little like cars, you had the first electric motorcycles beginning to be created and you had motels, if you will, that were for bicyclists. You had people who would take your bike, their concierges and they would park your bike, they had parking garages. They had bike paths between cities. That is, there were bike paths next to the roads but they were much better maintained than the roads.
David Morris: Then the car came in. When the car came in it came in timidly at first and then after the Model T was introduced in 1908 and it became a mass vehicle it became a great deal more aggressive. We sort of know the history of the car. Where it essentially claimed the streets. In the 1920s and the 1930s, for example, you couldn’t park on the streets. In fact, by the 1870s there were rules that you didn’t park on the streets, you didn’t leave your wagon on the streets and the like. That etiquette had to be changed for the cars to demand not only the width of the street but it had to demand that it could also take up part of that for stationary vehicles. It got to the point where the sidewalks became narrower and narrower and at one point there were some who were thinking that sidewalks should be eliminated if cars were going to be so dominant.
David Morris: Then the car companies undermined the street cars and by the 1950s the cars were so dominant that cities were passing rules, regulations about parking on private land. So far we’ve been talking about cars on public land, which is the streets and the parks, but here we’re talking about codes that required a certain number of off street parking for businesses. By the late 1950s you really had the heyday, if you will, of cars.
John Farrell: It feels like since the 1950s we’ve dabbled in other forms of transit. We have buses, which of course just share the road with cars for the most part, we’ve gotten some new transit by rail in various cities but a lot of cities that had their transit, like subways, kept them and cities that had street cars lost them. Then some have come back with other forms. This seems like a really dynamic time all of a sudden where we have private companies coming in, providing mobility options so there’s … A decade ago or so, or maybe a little longer we started talking about car sharing, which was interesting but it didn’t really change the rules. Now like you’ve said we’ve got all this issue about public space and whatnot. I feel like I have a couple different questions for you. One is about what are some of the technology drivers here? We’re not talking about the introduction of a bike in the way that we did in the 1890s but we are talking about technology driving this. Then the second one is about how are Uber and Lyft fitting into this? Because they sort of created this craze around ride hailing and cars but they’re now getting into these other forms of transportation, as well.
David Morris: Yes well it’s a good question and what we’re seeing here is a revolution in personal transportation. The reasons for it is the coming together of several trends sort of simultaneously. One is the technology, which is the introduction of the smartphone, the introduction of GPS systems and the introduction of lower cost batteries. You had for the first time the capability of essentially calling up a vehicle, which would be the ride share like Uber, or renting a vehicle by the minute with your smartphone, which is your electric e-scooters or electric bikes. You can have on demand personal transportation. That technological revolution came about around 2010, 2012 if you will. The second thing was the revolution in business financing. This is also a-historical. Where you used to start a business and you started it small and you gradually got larger. Then you might become global eventually.
David Morris: With the new startups the capital, they raise enormous amounts of capital up front and then their goal is not to start a e-scooter in one city or an e-bike in one city, but actually to start them in 100 cities or 200 cities within 12 months. That is to dominate the cities, to brand themselves and dominate the cities. As a result they lose an enormous amount of money for a long time. Some might say forever. Certainly Uber and Lyft are still losing a great deal of money. What it means is that cities are caught unaware and overnight, literally overnight, they suddenly see all of these things within their jurisdiction. The third sort of coincidental movement is political and the political movement was the renewed or resurgence of the bike, that is the pedal bike. You had, in fact, a group of people, bicyclists that is, that began to demand bike lanes. Then around 2010 or so you had these docked bike racks and so you would go and you would essentially put your credit card in and then you could rent the bike but they were docked.
David Morris: There was an enormous increase in the number of docked bikes. In fact, from 2010 to 2017 the number of trips that were taken by docked bikes went from 300,000 to 35 million. Then in late 2017 the e-scooters came in and in 2018 the number of rides on e-scooters was 40 million. That is it dominated the docked bikes and docked bikes have just about disappeared, actually. You have dock-less bikes but you no longer have docked bikes. Those are the three things, the three sort of coming together, the fact that technology has made it possible, the new finance systems made it everywhere at the same time and the political movement was that there was already the beginnings of the struggle around access to the streets by personal vehicles and by bikes.
David Morris: That’s what essentially is the new revolution and e-scooters came out of Santa Monica and I believe it was June or July of 2017 that they in fact dropped a few of them around Santa Monica and then sent a note to the city saying they’ve done this and within six months they were in 50 to 75 cities. Within a year and a half there were many companies and they were going around the world. The revolution there was simply, there was a technological revolution but the essence of the revolution was that you didn’t need to have a dock. You just rented it and when you were finished you dumped it someplace and somebody else would collect it during the night and then they’d set them up and you’d do the same thing. Cities literally woke up one morning and saw these things were all over the sidewalks and all over the parks, people were stumbling across them, people were putting them on fire, people were dumping them in the rivers.
David Morris: You literally had to deal with them. Cities had to deal with these new creatures and cities had had experience a couple of years before that with Uber and Lyft. Uber and Lyft were sort of the first generation of these technologies that essentially scaled very quickly because of the capital behind them and abided by the principal that you essentially do it first then ask permission afterwards. That you go fast and break things. That’s the motto of Silicon Valley. They came into cities and cities had to deal with these new vehicles. That was a real learning experience for cities and so when the e-scooters came in a number of cities, not that many but a number of cities, actually had some sort of capacity to understand what these creatures were based on their experience with Uber.
David Morris: For example, when Uber came in it essentially said, “We are going to get rid of the car. People aren’t going to drive anymore because they’re going to call an Uber vehicle” and cities bought into that. Of course, part of this political movement that’s in favor of the bike was against the car. You have a massive anti-car movement for a whole bunch of reasons now and so you essentially had Uber saying, “We’re going to reduce congestion” and it turned out that the data indicated that they increased congestion. That if you didn’t drive your car but you called Uber, that’s sort of a one-for-one relationship. While the Uber drive is roaming around waiting for another ride that’s a car that’s essentially congesting the streets. Cities felt they were taken by that propaganda and when the e-scooters came in they felt that they needed to treat them very differently.
John Farrell: Yeah, let’s talk about that. It seems like the big issue here with all of these is the use of public space. Whether it’s Uber ride hailing cars trolling around looking for jobs or dock-less scooters or now dock-less bikes, there’s all this new use by these different mobility things of streets or sidewalks and public right of way. How are cities dealing with that? Then I think after that let’s tackle some of the other big issues that are raised by these forms of mobility but let’s start with that issue of public space. How are cities confronting this?
David Morris: Well what cities did originally was to ban them. Then some cities just picked them up and essentially confiscated the vehicles. I mean, they were sprawling all over the place and there was huge public outcry against them. Cities banned them. Then cities began to figure out regulations for how they could regulate them. Cities have been essentially promoting personal transportation. The feeling is that this is a technology that could be liberating, that could be helpful and they shouldn’t, essentially, ban it but there needed to be rules around it. Over the last two years cities have been evolving the rules that they impose. First of all they had to impose their authority. They had to say, “You can’t do this unless you get a permit from us.” That was the first step because there really was no regulations around this.
David Morris: Then the second step was what would that permit entail? What would be the conditions attached to it? Part of those now are that you are limited to a certain number of vehicles. It might be a bike, it might be a scooter. The second that a number of them have done is you can’t ride on the sidewalk. They identify the public space that you’re allowed to ride on. Then the third might be a helmet or insurance and the fourth might be lights and the like. Just the way you have regulations related to bikes riding at night. Slowly but surely cities are in fact trying to grapple with this and the pedal bicyclists have been very supportive. There’s been a coalition if you will of pedal bicyclists and electrified bicyclists and e-scooter operators, primarily because the pedal bicyclists felt that the e-scooter companies had an enormous amount of capital and in fact they would be the battering ram that could in fact raise that whole struggle over public space because the bikes were taking … It was a very slow struggle to get a lane of a street carved out for bikes, especially a protected lane. There was a coalition.
David Morris: As the technologies themselves have evolved there’s an evolution and it’s interesting. The scooters to me are a technological fad which will, I mean, it’ll be a niche thing and it might continue but it’ll be niche because people don’t like to, I think, they don’t like to be mobile standing up. Let’s just put it that way. You’re going to have a seat. Once you have a seat it becomes a somewhat different vehicle. Then you have a seat and you have a roof. Well you have a roof, now you have doors, so you now do have these vehicles. You have cargo bikes, for example, electrified cargo bikes that carry things. These new types of vehicles are small enough and narrow enough that they can go into the bike lanes. Now the bicyclists are not happy. Pedal bicyclists are not happy about that. You’re now having attention, really, between different forms of technology. There would be less tension if the entire street was available for them but there’s a lot more when it’s just a narrow lane that is.
David Morris: Cities have learned about this and I was just reading an interview with a director of the San Francisco Metropolitan Transit Association and San Francisco and Los Angeles have one of the more sophisticated transportation agencies in the sense that they really are pondering what this thing means. He was talking about how what he would like governments to do is view this the way the federal government viewed the electromagnetic spectrum in the 1930s. That is, what the federal government did was to say, “This is public. We own it. That is we collectively own it and we want to create rules that foster innovation but do it in a way that promotes competition and a free and a fair market.” It was a limited resource and they would allocate it based on what promoted the public good.
David Morris: Now, we know what happened to that in terms of commercialization and privatization and the like but he, and I think so, too, it’s a useful way to think about how we use the public space. It’s a very sophisticated way of thinking about how you use the public space. We haven’t talked about the issue of transit and personal mobility because mass transit systems still exist and is the cheapest way, by far, of getting from point A to point B if there’s a lot of people that want to go from point A to point B. Cities are dealing with this by, a number of cities, growing number of cities have bus lanes but they’re bus lanes that nobody really respected. That is commercial freight vehicles would park there and other people would drive onto those bus lanes. What they did interestingly enough was to paint them red. Now it seems like a very minor innovation but when they painted them red suddenly people actually didn’t use them. I mean it was astounding the reduction in the amount of traffic on those bus lanes which meant that there was a great deal more speeding up of the bus and also a great deal less congestion overall on the roads, believe it or not. There’s that kind of innovation that is going on.
David Morris: Finally in terms of innovation there are cities starting with Los Angeles that said to the scooter companies at first and now it’s the e-bike companies and the ride share companies that they needed to share their data with the city in real time. That is, well actually somewhat delayed time but not greatly delayed so that the city would have access to the information that it needs to design a transportation system within the commons. The companies have been very reticent of doing that. They scream about privacy rights and of course there are privacy issues involved in that but essentially they wanted to own that information and not share it at all. Cities said, “You’re using a public space. You don’t have to use it but if you’re going to use it you’re going to have to share that information with us so we can plan to use that space more efficiently.”
John Farrell: [00:23:49]
John Farrell: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, David explains how mass transit fits into this mobility puzzle. The role of e-commerce in clogging public thoroughfares and what cities need to do to adapt to the micro-mobility revolution.
John Farrell: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Building Local Power with David Morris, ILSR senior fellow and co-founder. Hey, do you think you’d be a great guest on Building Local Power? Are you dying to tell Chris Mitchell what he could do better? Want to just share some love? Email us at You can also send your love with a small donation. If you listen to other podcasts you might hear about a mattress company or a meal delivery service but the Institute for Local Self-Reliance is a national organization that supports local economies so we don’t have national advertising. Instead, please consider making a donation to ILSR. Not only does your support underwrite this podcast but it also helps us produce all the resources from reports to podcasts to interactive maps we make available for free on our website. Please take a minute to go to Any amount is welcome and sincerely appreciated. That’s We also value your reviews on Stitcher, iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you so much. Now, lets get back to our conversation with David about the micro-mobility revolution.
John Farrell: I think this is really fascinating. You’ve raised, I think, a really crucial question here about transit at large and you brought up this notion of mass transit and bus lanes because it seems very interesting, right? I feel like the way that cities have been involved in trying to facilitate transportation planning is number one, they have had transit agencies and bus service and ways to help people who sort of can’t be part of the personal car transportation economy for one reason or another. Maybe they can’t afford it, maybe they can’t drive a vehicle physically, maybe there are other values laid and reasons why they don’t want to. Now we have mass transits in some ways sort of competing with personal transit for space and it raises a number of interesting sort of equity issues not just about income, which has been kind of the defining factor between mass transit and personal transit to some degree but you also have issues around disability access. Someone in a wheelchair using the sidewalk, the sidewalks now got scooters all over it. You have bike lanes and bus lanes.
John Farrell: How does this whole issue of transit fit into the puzzle? I feel like you were starting to get there, too, as you were talking about this notion of sharing information, right? How can cities make these good decisions but talk a little bit more about mass transit versus some of these personal transit options and where there are tensions and where there might be some harmony?
David Morris: Yes, well the issue of equity came up very quickly and in terms of the e-scooters, for example, one of the conditions that cities now routinely impose on those companies that are allowed to essentially introduce their vehicles into the city is that they introduce them in a way that are in all parts of the city because these were essentially focused on downtown and the sort of square mile around downtown. The feeling was that low income neighborhoods needed this just as much if not even more and they also required them to discount their rates in low income areas. There has been an equity position related to that. In terms of the mass transit, Kansas City, Missouri is just about to make their bus system free. Their light rail system is already free but their bus system is just about to be free and they see that, in fact, as equity. In fact, they see it as transportation is a right for people and access is a right for people that they should share equally. In some ways you could think of it as comparable to a medical system that says that everyone should have access to medical care and that means free or low cost for people that can’t afford it but in this case it’s free. It will be free for everyone.
David Morris: In terms of the disabled issue, that’s a fascinating issue because it was people on wheelchairs that initially, and the elderly who needed help in moving around, who complained most bitterly about the e-scooters that were littering the sidewalks. That was the major, if you will, impetus to cities essentially imposing a ban initially. The disabled have also been suing cities on the issue of sidewalks. Now sidewalks, you know we talked about how sidewalks almost disappeared in the early part of the 20th century and sort of held on but they have been in complete disrepair for the past 60 or 70 years in many cities. You have roots that are growing out, you have uneven sidewalks, you might even have a pothole or two in a sidewalk. The disabled actually got a law, which is the ADA law and before that they had another one, that got cities to put ramps on so that a wheelchair would not have to somehow get over a curb but more recently you’ve had the disabled sue cities for the fact that they’re hurt on the sidewalks.
David Morris: There was a suit just in the last few years in 2015, Los Angeles settled the suit and agreed to spend $1.4 billion to fix its sidewalks. Just a year ago Portland, Oregon settled a class action dispute by agreeing to upgrade its sidewalks at a cost of $110 million and other cities are being sued as we speak. It’s a fascinating situation where you’re having to really deal with so many different variables but cities are beginning to create the capacity to do that. There’s one other ground transportation issue that we should talk about, which is e-commerce. That is that you now don’t go to a store you just, on your phone, you order something and it gets delivered to you. It used to be that it got delivered to you in a few days and then it was delivered to you in two days and then it was overnight and now it’s two hours in some cities. That’s just overwhelming the streets.
David Morris: In fact, daily deliveries to households in New York City tripled in the last eight years and in a number of places there is more deliveries, that is product deliveries, to households than to businesses. You’re pushing this congestion into neighborhoods that really, the streets weren’t built, the neighborhoods weren’t built for truck traffic and that kind of traffic related to those deliveries. Cities are having to deal with that already. We’re only talking about ground transportation, you know? We haven’t even talked about the air invasion. Cities were invaded by ground, electrified vehicles, by ground in 2017 and 2018 and then in 2019 you began to have the beginnings of what you’re seeing full fledged in 2020 which is an invasion by air. That is by drones, initially, then by air taxis. The thing about air is that cities can’t regulate the flying vehicles.
David Morris: In fact, Newton, Massachusetts, about two years ago passed an ordinance that banned drones and a federal judge overturned them. They banned low flying drones and the federal government, the federal judge still overturned it saying it was preempted by the federal government. But cities can, in fact, regulate the landing. They can’t say that no drone can fly but they can say that no drone can land. They’re having to essentially create rules, if you will, that relate to the delivery of goods and soon maybe people by air as well as by the streets.
John Farrell: I mean, the fact you even brought in drones and air taxis, my mind is sort of spinning thinking about what the job of a city planner is like right now trying to account for all of these things that are happening. You have the individual movement of people that is changing rapidly with ride hailing and cycling and scooters. All these different ways of using that public space that is between the sidewalks, the street, which now there’s all that competition for that space. Then you have the competition for that same space because of package deliveries because of course instead of going individually to get things as we used to do all the time, now we’re having that stuff delivered right to us but somebody still has to take that trip and now it’s these delivery vehicles. Then now of course we’re going into the air to do that, as well. I guess I’m trying to think of a couple different things here.
John Farrell: One is what are the things that cities are having to grapple here? What is the scope of this? It seems like there must be so many different departments within a city that have to sort of coordinate and work together to do this. Then I want to follow up with that and ask if there are cities that are providing a good example of how to grapple with this. Even if they don’t have the solutions yet but are even like, able to wrap their heads around the challenges that are presented in terms of public right of way and the regulations of space?
David Morris: Yes, well I mean I think some of the bigger cities are grappling with it best. Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City. There are smaller medium size cities, Austin and the like that do have a relatively good handle on this which doesn’t mean that they’re coping in a way that doesn’t keep them up at night but they are beginning to understand how to approach it. When you think about a city, a city, that is a local government, makes the rules and has jurisdiction over a finite piece of land. That’s what it is almost by definition. That’s why, by the way, when you ever have corruption among city officials it almost invariably has to do with land development. Cities have been having to grapple with the issue of affordable housing, the issue of how tall you can build your buildings, density, public parks and so forth. In this case we’re also talking about the streets and it’s not unusual for 30 to 40% of the area of a city to be devoted to transportation. Either in moving transportation, in parking, in the driveways and the parking lots and the like.
David Morris: It’s an enormous swath of the city and when you look at it when you step back you can look at it and say, “Who should have priority? How do we create rules around this?” There’s an interesting, I mentioned that interview with the director of the San Francisco Metropolitan Transit Association and he said that you might begin to think about imposing a fee based on the amount of space that you take up. For example, somebody on a crowded bus in San Francisco the fee would be, the admission fee, the bus fee, is $2.50 and that’s for two square feet of space, essentially. The question then becomes, “Well what should it be for a single occupancy car that takes up 300 square feet of space and how do you play with those different parameters?” It’s fascinating because after all what are you taking into account? You’re taking into account how many people can pass a given point in a given amount of time and by the way, that turns out to be bikes. Certainly not cars. Then you have to have enough bikes. Then what do you do if you happen to be a city that has a very hard winter so everything is peaking in June or July and that area’s not really used in February and March.
David Morris: There’s a lot of things that are on the table and one takes into account the impact on the environment, one takes into account the equity implications of it and cities are trying to develop the rules but no city has done what I’m about to suggest but I think that they need to which is to essentially get on the bully pulpit and say to people, “Look, here’s the problem. We all have wants and desires and the technology is now capable in a physical way of catering to those wants and the desires but we have a finite amount of space available and a finite about of psychic energy available. Maybe we should have a discussion about which of those wants and desires will not be fulfilled” or I think more obviously, “Will not be fulfilled as quickly as you would like it to be.” For example, drones are noisy. Well you’re now imposing a noise. Now cities can create noise ordinances for ground level traffic but they can’t for air traffic. What do you do? Do you say, “Well you’re just not going to have one hour delivery by drones. You will have the use of drones the way you have the use of helicopters that is for medical emergencies or the like but you’re not going to have it routinely.
David Morris: What about your two hour deliveries in cities? What is the cost of a two hour delivery? Maybe what we should do is have a culture that says, “No, we’re actually not going to have two hour deliveries. Is it that important? After all, 50,000 years and let’s just say 200 years or 100 years or 50 years or 25 years of living perfectly well with having to go to a restaurant rather than having the restaurant come to you. It seems to be we need to begin to think about these things in a meta way as well as thinking about things in the rules way because right now we’re trying to effect rules that enable these things to happen. I mean, every city that I have been in touch with is trying to figure out rules that enable the delivery of things within two hours and it may be that we need to step back and say, “Well why don’t we think about whether in fact we … What will be the cost of those rules?” There will always be a cost and maybe they will overwhelm the benefits and we can have, maybe delivery for people who can’t get out, maybe delivery in certain circumstances but that, once again, will not be routine.
John Farrell: This is, I think, a really interesting question. I’d like to leave it, this conversation, and in some ways I just … Ground it with a couple more examples. I don’t know if these would be specific examples, real examples, I guess, but in terms of these trade offs, in terms of [inaudible 00:40:37] with this, I think you’ve really highlighted cities sort of have to call this question of values about how we use public space. What’s maybe an example? I think I’ve heard you talk before about bike lanes as an interesting example and you mentioned the winters. I’m hoping you could talk a little bit about that. Then is there any other kind of example like that about when we make a decision? Like to build a protected bike lane and take away a lane from cars that requires us to make this kind of values trade off. Maybe you could start with Minneapolis is a great city to give this example, right? Not a a lot of cyclists in the winter but we do have a number of miles of bike lane that have taken a lane from car traffic that is claimed year round. What implication does that have in terms of the values that we have and how might we change that policy or change what we do to more align with the values that are behind having that bike lane, which are presumably around environmentalism and different kinds of mobility?
David Morris: Yeah, that’s a very good question and in some ways it’s a key question. People now when they think about the street they think about the current car, which is an internal combustion engine car that gets 20 miles, 30 miles maybe per gallon and it’s big. Now one can envision electric cars and so now electric cars you’re talking about much less polluting and not polluting at all within the city and one could envision small electric cars. We do now have very small electric cars. If one thinks that the actual, the car piece of the street, will be profoundly different then when one thinks about the environment impacts of these it becomes a very different equation. The second thing is that if you’re building a new city or a new neighborhood and you can do it from scratch then you may very well have streets that aren’t as wide or you will have more lanes within the streets, either lanes will be narrower. There’s that, as well. In terms of the issue of the bike lane maybe it’s not a bike lane, maybe it’s a light vehicle lane and then if it turns out that really in terms of health, let’s say it’s pedaling that you’re actually doing in that vehicle and are having the same number of people pass a certain point so you can get from point A en mass, then that might be something that you put into the city.
David Morris: It becomes an interesting question if, let’s say for example, you are talking about smaller electric vehicles essentially as the vehicle that’s the primary if not the only vehicle that’s on the street and then you have a protected bike lane that is taking some of that space and is protected and people don’t use it three months out of the year. Well then what you need to do is to have a discussion about that. We can make choices. That’s what we do, really. You don’t want an algorithm to make that choice and you don’t, in some ways, want transportation planners to make that choice because they might not have your values. It may be that a city says, “Look, that’s okay and there are a number of people that will, in fact, do it during the winter months and we might have a technological ability to expand the number of months out of the year that we travel on our personal vehicles but let’s say we don’t, still the advantages, the enormous advantages in so many different ways of being able to have that access without worrying about public safety for six months a year, or eight months a year, or 10 months a year outweighs the fact that that lane’s not going to be used that much during the winter.”
John Farrell: Well David, thank you so much for taking us through not only what’s happening now in cities but also the history that has led us to this fascinating debate about mobility and equity in cities and how they are wrestling with the use of their authority around this. We often wrap up Building Local Power with a reading recommendation and I realize I didn’t prompt you before our conversation to think of anything but you seem to be reading amazing things all of the time so I’m confident that if I toss this to you, you probably could recommend something that you’ve been reading recently.
David Morris: Well it caught me unaware, otherwise I would have had a marvelous book for you to read about transportation but let me not do that and suggest a book by Kim Stanley Robinson, who’s a science fiction writer, also happens to live relatively nearby me now and he’s been writing for a number of years. He wrote a book, his most recent book I believe, is essentially New York 2040. It’s the first book that I had read, which is a book set after global warming has melted the ice caps. The seas have risen by 15 feet but it’s not a post-apocalyptic book, it’s a post-sea level rise book and it’s set in Manhattan in New York City because in Manhattan, the upper Manhattan is about 30 feet higher than lower Manhattan. Lower Manhattan is submerged, middle Manhattan is sort of, half of the buildings are submerged and upper Manhattan they’re dry.
David Morris: Then the book essentially talks about how life goes on. You have a finance industry, you have crooks and frauds and developers and tenants and so on and so forth that are all trying to figure out how to operate while the seas are now 15 feet higher. I found it to be a very, very useful way to sort of get the point that no matter what happens to the environment, human nature may very well not change and the institutions are going to change very, very slowly and so we need to think about what it would mean in a changed environment if we did have the same institutions and the same value systems.
John Farrell: I really like that recommendation, David and I think it’s really apropos to our conversation because in a way it’s saying in the same way that human creations like technology, like GPS or scooters, have caused us to have to wrestle with how do we deal with this? That the environment right now is going to throw similar curve balls at us and we have to adapt but not necessarily that everything’s going to come to an end but that we have to wrestle with very interesting challenges. So thank you for that recommendation.
David Morris: Well thanks for asking.
John Farrell: Thank you so much for tuning in to Building Local Power. This is John Farrell, ISLR co-director. I was speaking with David Morris, senior fellow and co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can read more of David’s work on our website feature From the Desk of David Morris, where he explores complex issues of the public good in depth. While you’re at our website you can also find more than 80 past episodes of the Building Local Power podcast and show us some love with a contribution to help cover the costs of producing this podcast. You can also help us out a lot by rating this podcast and sharing it with your friends via Apple Podcasts or Stitcher or wherever you find your podcasts. Or just drop us a line at This show is produced by Lisa Gonzales and Hibba Meraay. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunctional. Please join us next time in Building Local Power.


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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Photo Credit: pxfuel

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