Future Mobility

SPECIAL REPORT: Why Do Cities Waste So Much Space?

If you take a snapshot of Berlin from space on any given day, you might see 1,260,000 cars, 60,000 of which are in motion. Why are so many cars parked? Because cars are used only 36 minutes per day, while 95% of the time they stand around, fully unused. In Berlin, these 1.2 million parking spots take up the area of 64,000 playgrounds, or the area of four Central Parks.

 

Globally, wasted public space is not unique to Berlin. Cities everywhere are dedicating space to transportation modes that sit idle. But why is so much space wasted to begin with? How fair is the distribution of space in regards to other forms of mobility, such as bikes and trams? How can we raise awareness – or even improve the situation?

 

What the Street!? is a public tool for exploring urban mobility questions systematically and interactively, while having some data geek fun at the same time.

 

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Let’s first look at how much space there is in a city for moving around, and how it is allocated for bikes, rails, and cars. Inspired by new data visualization techniques for unrolling, packing, and ordering irregular shapes, we packed and rolled all mobility spaces into rectangular bins to visualize the areas they take up.

– How do you visualize the total area taken by parking spaces? You pack them
tightly.
– How do you visualize the total area taken by streets and tracks? You roll
them up tightly.

 

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The resulting shapes give a mesmerizing, never-before-seen perspective of urban spaces. We found some gems: Rockaway Beach on Rockaway Peninsula in New York City. What a nice, green space next to the beach. Seems like a lovely place…but, whoops! It’s actually a huge parking lot.

 

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How huge? Those tiny specks are cars. Notice the skid marks? Looks like someone had fun. This parking lot is about 750 x 600m large, or an area equivalent to 2,000 playgrounds.

 

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The moovel Mobility Triangle

Looking at particular spaces is fun, but what can we learn? By making sure that we packed and rolled different spaces to take up a similar area per pixel, we directly compared different modes of transportation in a giant bar chart. Additionally we created the we call the moovel Mobility Triangle – a way of showing disparity between the allocation of space and how people actually move.

 

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The Mobility Triangle shows how people move in each city, and how much by car, bike, or public transport. Each dot stands for one city:

– A dot in the top triangle means people in that city only move by car
– A dot in the bottom left corner means they only use bikes
– A dot in the bottom right corner means they only use public transportation,
such as trams
– A dot in the middle means an even 33.33% of each of these three forms of
transportation is used. This is called the “modal split”, based on data that
is regularly measured and available for most cities

For each dot, we attached a second dot that shows how much space a city has allocated for moving around with this particular transit mode. These are all the parking lots and street areas you can explore in What the Street!?, condensed into one single data point. If the first and second dots coincide, this would mean that city space is allocated in a fair way towards all forms of mobility: cars, bikes, and trams. All of them get the same fraction of space that they “deserve” from their usage.

In reality, however, the triangle shows that space is not always equally allocated: cars get much more space than buses, and bikes get mere scraps.

The Republic of Parking

Looking back at Berlin, we counted over a million cars parked in the city. Typically, the use of individually-owned cars is limited to a few moments of everyday life, and there is a huge untapped potential for optimization.

Car-sharing concepts aim to solve this inefficiency. Users can access a public fleet of vehicles and rent for a given time. And, with autonomous driving vehicles just on the horizon, this inefficiency in car ownership can be addressed even further. Self-driving vehicles don’t need to park. Hence, in an optimally shared mobility scenario, parking garages would become a thing of the past, allowing us to conserve up to 93% of all parking spaces.

 

If It Were Only That Easy

Of course, a delicate, multimodal balance is needed between different forms of transportation. Self-driving, shared cars will not be the ultimate solution to all of our transportation problems. Our analysis concludes that the car is by far the most inefficient use of space. Making cars shared or autonomous does not change this fact. However, our relation to cars might change, and they might become “last mile” scenarios, connecting train stations to homes.

In the future, urban planners should avoid pitfalls, such as induced travel or continued prioritization of cars over bikes and trams. Further, getting rid of all parking spaces isn’t the best solution; even with self-driving cars, we will still need hop-on/hop-off zones.

None of the challenges exposed by the moovel Lab’s “The Mobility Space Report: What the Street!?” can be easily solved. When it comes down to decisions about public space, the public needs to be asked. The goal of “What the Street” is to provide as accurate and comprehensive information as possible. We hope it helps participants make their own decisions about who should own the street.

Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.

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