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Stuart Cohen: Ensuring that urban communities that need mobility solutions the most get them

Posted by Lauren Hertel on Tuesday, May 21 2019

Fellows: 

Fellow Stuart Cohen, who recently transitioned to private consulting practice after serving as the Founding Executive Director of TransForm for 21 years, is passionate about ensuring that urban communities that need mobility solutions the most get them.

TransForm's mission, according to their website, is to promote walkable communities with excellent transportation choices to connect people of all incomes to opportunity, keep California affordable, and help solve the climate crisis. Stuart and his team worked intensively to shift transportation and land use planning in the Bay Area and California, but new disruptive transportation technologies and business models were starting to shift the ground under them. 

With the private sector rather than government suddenly leading the charge, TransForm started working to focus policymakers on the climate and human impacts of these technologies. Cohen says this is especially important as municipalities try to get ahead of the curve on planning, regulation, and partnerships before automated vehicles start rolling out in force. This will be when the most dramatic shifts happen, says Cohen.

The biggest challenge to what has become known as New Mobility, Cohen says, is getting policymakers and planners to take a broader role. City planning departments, for example, are playing a huge game of catch up, hiring new staff members with new titles that did not exist just ten years ago. His favorite? The Office of Extraordinary Innovation at Metro, Los Angeles County’s transportation agency.

“In general, government has been too slow to respond,” says Cohen. “They don’t have the funding set aside to fund entirely new departments, so these changes can be very challenging. I’m especially concerned these new technologies can be a disaster for social equity. There can be so many barriers, such as limited credit, higher costs or language and technology barriers.”

He says some companies like Lyft and many of the bike and scooter share companies have a strong vision of more livable, equitable cities with many fewer cars. While they are trying, the initial results are just not there. In the case of autonomous vehicles, he says, early optimistic forecasts of widespread deployment by 2020 look unlikely.

“Humans are more complicated than machines,” says Cohen. “We’re really hard to predict.”

And changing timelines make policymakers’ jobs even harder, as they try to weigh what is hype and what is actually needed to change their infrastructure, transit systems and regional planning in anticipation of autonomous vehicles.

“What is the business model that will reign supreme?” he asks. “Will it be a single company or app, like Uber or Lyft, that dominates with fleets of self-driving cars as well as bikes and other modes?”

“We are already having a hard time reducing the number of single-occupant vehicles jamming our roads and climate, and now comes the prospect of zero-occupant vehicles searching for free parking or doing errands," he says. "That clearly leads to the need to start requiring, or pushing through pricing, that autonomous vehicles need to be shared and support, rather than compete, with more efficient public transit for long trips.”

In his new work as a consultant, he wants to work on policymaking that pushes society towards more equitable outcomes instead of letting private companies dictate how the AV rollout occurs. One of his new projects is with the New Urban Mobility Alliance (NUMO), working with cities such as Pittsburgh and Washington, DC, to start pilot projects that have a social equity focus with AVs and other types of New Mobility.

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