Moving beyond a mobility-focused approach to city planning

When an earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay Area in October 1989, it damaged what was then known as the Embarcadero Freeway. The roadway moved many cars, but it also separated the city from its waterfront access. To fix the suddenly unsafe highway, San Francisco had two equally expensive options: Repair it, or tear it down and reimagine the space. The city opted for the latter, resulting in what is today the pedestrian-friendly Embarcadero.

This transformation is an example of what Erick Guerra and Stefan Al of the School of Design call “recalibration,” and one of the main thrusts of their new book “Beyond Mobility: Planning Cities for People and Places.”

“A mobility-focused approach to city planning is really about moving people from point A to point B quickly,” says Guerra, an assistant professor of city and regional planning and a fellow at the Penn Institute for Urban Research. “We argue that the focus should instead be more on A and B themselves, making them pleasant places to live, and less on the movement between them. If you go back to the history of urban freeways, we basically destroyed A and B to make it quicker to get from C to D.”

In other words, though highways allow people to get places quickly, they also confer environmental and economic costs on nearby neighborhoods. Such challenges—in this case, the contradiction of the perceived progress attached to a new highway versus the outsized but often hidden costs to local areas—make up the first part of “Beyond Mobility.”

Guerra and Al, with Robert Cervero of the University of California, Berkeley, then move into case studies and success stories, such as a notion called road contracting in which a four-lane arterial road gets converted into three lanes or two, adding a bike lane in the first scenario and a transit line in the second.   

“In a number of cases, this has been done with really positive effects on land value and on mobility,” Guerra says, “by giving more priority to some of these higher occupancy modes of transportation.”

The next section touches on the intersection of travel behavior and transportation technologies like ride-sharing and self-driving cars, and the book closes with demographic trends—an aging society, an expanding millennial population—that the authors believe will shape the future of mobility.

Al, an associate professor of city and regional planning, says the paradigm is already shifting away from tools that simply get people from one place to another, toward a more comprehensive view of this kind of infrastructure.

“We argue for marrying transportation with place-making, thinking about improving access rather than mobility,” he says. “For instance, train stations could become more than just where people get on and off of a train, but also where people work, where people do business, where people live.”

Even still, these changes will take time, particularly in large cities, Guerra adds.  

“There are these echoes that reverberate around a city over the course of its history,” he says. “Cities are not going to change overnight; change in the built environment is measured in decades. But we do have to shift the dial, and as we do, form will change slowly, too.”