Multimodal Transportation


Author: David Shachar-Hill

Residents, visitors and commuters in cities have always used multiple modes of transportation. Whether walking, riding an animal or cart, cycling, or using a boat, multimodal transportation seems to happen naturally; so why should we consider it as a design principle for improving current cities and implementing future ideas such as the smart city? Because current transportation and its domination by conventional car use – “unimodal transportation” - is at the heart of several of the most serious problems facing the current city. “The New Urban Crisis” illustrates the connection between transportation and the global urbanization crisis, gentrification, and other issues [1]. I believe that multimodal transportation is central to addressing those challenges. It is also needed to implement other design principles aimed at improving city life in the decades ahead. In this essay I make this argument by first connecting the car to current urban problems, then showing how multimodal transportation is central to addressing such problems and to implementing other design principles. I then highlight in greater detail the importance of multimodal transportation to implementing two principles: tackling inequality, and creating economic opportunities. Finally I outline key challenges facing the implementation of multimodal transportation.

The problem of the car as unimodal transport. People need transport for commuting, shopping and accessing services and leisure activities. Doing so efficiently and flexibly has always been a goal - and in the developed world it is an expectation. But is the car the best answer to all these transportation needs? I think the livability of our cities has been undermined by cars, which dominate the structure and functioning of cities like Lansing/E. Lansing as well as in bigger cities. The people who sit in traffic for up to hours a day (even commuting to/from suburbs here – route 127 is frequently at a standstill in rush hour) are isolated from the neighborhoods through which they drive and from the others around them. Wide roads (such as the 4-5 lanes of Michigan Ave) and widely spaced residences and businesses due to parking, disconnect neighbors and communities. In larger cities, major road projects have divided neighborhoods, or even destroyed them. The importance of squares in the life of cities is documented and explored in “City Squares” [2], the car threatens those spaces. For me, one striking example of what putting the car before people does to urban spaces is the Place Charles De Gaulle in Paris, where twelve wide roads meet at one of the most important monuments in Europe: the Arc de Triomphe. People are literally forced to go underground to reach the monument, whose space is dehumanized by being reduced to the status of traffic island.
In the US, people who don’t drive are severely limited because the car has driven out public transport, polluted the air they breathe, and crowded out bike and pedestrian spaces. In my own neighborhood in Okemos, there are no sidewalks but every house has a driveway. On a global scale, cars are major contributors to CO2 emission and the sedentary life style enabled by the car contributes to the ongoing epidemics of obesity, diabetes and other health problems. However, while most people can agree on the problems associated with the car being the dominant, almost “unimodal”, transport method in cities, replacing it will require both making the argument for replacement from principles that people can agree on and also meeting the needs that it currently serves in ways that are affordable and convenient.

The connections between multimodal transportation and other design principles. Livability has become an enormous challenge in modern cities large and small. Smart cities and other design principles attempt to improve livability and other challenges. As pointed out in an article by Laetitia Gazel Anthoine [3], cities that have made good progress towards improved livability have all tackled car-related problems by increasingly multimodal transportation systems. Other design principles and challenges include: decreasing pollution, increasing economic opportunities for city residents, enhancing green spaces and ecological sustainability, and putting quality housing within reach for all. Making progress on each of these is hindered by current transport systems and would be greatly facilitated by multimodal transportation. This is not always obvious when one reads about plans to implement design principles or tackle particular problems. At the highest levels, discussions of big principles such as the article “What actually is a good city” [4] often fail to mention transportation at all, but when you dig down into what it takes to implement a Big principle, it is not long before the need for alternative transportation modes emerges as a core aspect. For example, urban revitalization and redevelopment plans such as the impressive cases described in “29 Ideas to Activate Empty Spaces in Your Community” [5] barely mention transportation. But a few moments’ thought makes it clear that workers, shoppers and residents of all the schemes described will have transportation needs, and that those needs can’t be addressed by simply increasing the number of cars in those cities. Another design principle whose popularity is increasing is green space. The success of the work of Majora Carter [6] is just one demonstration of this. Obviously, creating green spaces, or other community urban spaces, requires space. In some cases, like the linear park in New York, older transport infrastructure can be converted to green space. But because of our excessive reliance on the car too much area in our cities is devoted to parking, multi-lane roads and highways and this limits green space. Implementing more efficient multimodal transport including public transport, car sharing, and cycling, can free up space for parks and natural areas as well as creating opportunities for access to and use of existing green spaces.

Multimodal transportation is needed to serve the economically disadvantaged. Access to jobs, shopping and to community and government services are all major challenges faced by economically disadvantaged city residents. Indeed, Richard Florida identifies urban inequality and economic segregation as key aspects of the new urban crisis [1]. Access to affordable multimodal transportation is essential to tackling these issues of inequality. People unable to afford cars are shut out of many economic opportunities. Recent plans by Columbus Ohio, which won a nationwide Department of Transport design contest [7], dramatize how multimodal transportation can help address economic disadvantage and segregation. Columbus’s plan places multimodal transport including autonomous vehicles, ridesharing services and improved access to public transport at the center of its plan to help neighborhoods with high concentrations of poorer residents. For example, it is envisaged that autonomous vehicles will give residents of the Linden neighborhood, where unemployment is three times the city average, free transport to a nearby jobs center. Ohio plans to improve access to ride-sharing and ride-hailing services by creating transit cards for low-income residents who may lack a smartphone or bank account. In these and multiple other ways I believe that multimodal transportation can go beyond providing physical mobility to promoting socioeconomic mobility and reducing inequality.

Multimodal transportation boosts local economies. Even though it is recognized that reducing congestion saves time and therefore money, the importance of multimodal transportation to urban economic development goes much beyond that. Indeed, public investment in multimodal transportation has been opposed with the economic argument that it requires funds that could otherwise be better used. However, this fails to take into account the very real financial costs that traditional car use imposes on individuals, communities, and cities. The inefficient use of roads by traditional vehicles incurs enormous costs in road building and maintenance. Indirect costs include health impacts such as pollution, death and injury due to car accidents, and poor health outcomes due to the sedentary lifestyle that constant car use encourages. Implementing multimodal transportation systems is closely linked to bringing young professionals back to urban centers and to attracting high-paying jobs in technology and other sectors. Failure to implement multimodal transport options creates economic opportunity costs for cities that lose out to cities that embrace them.

Challenges for implementing multimodal transportation.
Multimodal transportation is not by itself an answer to all the challenges for urban design and urban renewal – we must also take into account other design principles and the enduring appeal of the car. The principles of local community involvement and awareness of specific local cultural and economic conditions need to be kept in mind when implementing multimodal transportation. This is highlighted by the article “When a Neighborhood Says No to Bike Share” [8]. Bike share schemes can tend to leave out economically disadvantaged residents when bike docking stations are not placed in areas regarded as creating risks of theft or vandalism. The costs of bike sharing can be high for poorer residents, and made even less accessible by being linked to smartphones and/or credit cards. This can be tackled, as it has been done for example in San Francisco [8], through subsidies and mechanisms to make bike rental schemes accessible to economically disadvantaged people and to ensure that such schemes are only implemented where they fit local needs. We must also tackle the historically poor image of public transport and the American love affair with the car. Simply arguing that this is a historical effect of massive advertising by the auto industry, will not be enough. We will need to make public transport safe, efficient and affordable – the congestion charges on using cars in central London, England are used to subsidize public transport without banning cars.
Another potential challenge to multimodal transportation is its frequent connection to the Smart City concept. The gathering and use of vast amounts of data to plan and regulate transport has sparked criticism, as discussed in the article “The truth about smart cities: ‘In the end, they will destroy democracy'” [9], raises concerns about who decides what to do with, and who profits from the data. I believe that planning for multimodal transportation needs to address these concerns, by emphasizing consumer and community input into decision making at all stages. I also believe that key aspects of multimodal transportation will be responsive to consumers and citizens through market forces and local democratic channels.

[1] Richard Florida (2017). The New Urban Crisis: how our cities are increasing inequality, deepening segregation, and failing the middle class – and what we can do about it. Basic Books, New York, NY.

[2] Catie Marron, Editor (2016). City Squares. Harper Collins, New York NY.

[3] Laetitia Gazel Anthoine (2017). Building smart cities in 2017 will begin with transportation infrastructure. The Smart and Resilient Cities organization. Retrieved on 11/01/17 from:

[4] Paul James, Belinda Young, Brendan Gleeson and John Wiseman (2017). What actually is a good city? Retrieved on 10/25/17 from:

[5] John Karras (2017). 29 Ideas to Activate Empty Spaces in Your Community. From the website of the URBANcsale planning/consultancy company. Retrieved on 11/05/17 from:

[6] Majora Carter (2016). Greening the ghetto (2006). Ted talk. Retrieved on 10/30/17 from:

[7] The Smart Columbus Project. Information retrieved on 11/02/17 from:

[8] Andrew Small (2017). When a city says no to bikeshare. City Lab. Retrieved on 11/03/17 from:

[9] Steven Poole. The truth about smart cities: in the end they will destroy democracy. The Guardian. Retrieved on 11/05/17 from:

An example of this principle at work: San Antonio MultiModal Transportation Plan