Smart Cities

Building a ’smart’ transportation system will require thinking beyond cars

EV adoption is growing fast, but cars aren't the most efficient way to move people.
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Illustration: Morning Brew, Photo: Francis Dean/Getty Images

· 8 min read

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Becoming a “smart” city is not just about sprinting toward the shiniest new tech—it’s also about creating a sustainable future.

When it comes to making transportation more sustainable, electric vehicles have emerged as the preferred choice to decrease reliance on fossil fuels. EV adoption is growing fast, but this enticing tech—while necessary in some cases—is not sufficient to bring about smarter mobility on its own. Swapping in EVs won’t solve traffic congestion or address the safety risks that vehicles present for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers, for example. Cars simply aren’t the most efficient way to move people around.

“Electrification is awesome, but it’s still a car,” Ryan Gravel, an urban designer in Atlanta, told us. “It still takes up a lot of space.”

In Atlanta, a particularly car-centric city with a metro area that has grown outward into a sprawling collection of cities and counties, urban planners are rethinking the role mobility, housing, and infrastructure play in decarbonizing city transportation. Whether their vision for a multimodal metro area pans out is still TBD, but efforts in the metro area of more than 6 million reflect a broader push among some city planners to focus not only on tech solutions, but on the right tool for the right job.

“The smart cities are the ones doing the dumb things really well—technologically dumb things really well,” Nathaniel Horadam, a lead consultant at the Atlanta-based Center for Transportation and the Environment, told Emerging Tech Brew. “It’s not about throwing sensors everywhere. It’s about reallocating the right-of-way and building sidewalks and doing land use well and making it more conducive to lower-tech modes of transportation.”

Simonskafar/Getty Images

Going public

The Atlanta Regional Commission is conducting a study of EV infrastructure as part of its role as the region’s planning agency, but it’s also considering other types of transportation as the population of metro Atlanta grows, Samyukth Shenbaga, managing director of the community development group at the ARC, told us.

“You can never look at it in a vacuum without thinking about what are some of the simple, effective, time-tested ways to improve air quality, have a high quality of life—like walking, biking, and transit,” Shenbaga said.

Nearly 60% of the money in the ARC’s latest 2050 transit blueprint for metro Atlanta—equal to about $102 billion—is currently allocated to maintaining or upgrading existing infrastructure, like roadways. Funding for public transportation, biking, and pedestrian projects in Atlanta accounts for ~12% of the total budget, but the goal is to increase allocations to these transit options over time, Shenbaga said.

Traveling via public transit reduces greenhouse-gas emissions from a typical trip by 55% compared to taking a car alone, according to research from the Transit Cooperative Research Program.

Horadam is working with MARTA as it deploys its first fleet of electric buses to further cut emissions, but “if no one is riding the bus, then it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “The most impactful strategy is increasing ridership and getting folks out of their cars—either walking, biking, or taking transit.”

Historically, development of transit infrastructure in Atlanta has been stymied by racism, with suburban jurisdictions rejecting plans to connect outer population centers to the heart of the city. But today, there’s a growing momentum for transit in the region, Shenbaga said, pointing to proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) projects in Gwinnett County, north of the city, and Clayton County to the south. BRT service typically includes a dedicated bus lane and can take advantage of some existing roadway infrastructure.

“As a regional agency, we track the arc of this work over time. It’s very, very evident that transit is going to be a big part of the future and it’s going to take away the emphasis from single-occupancy vehicles,” he said.

Expanding the rail system in Atlanta would be an expensive undertaking. Extensions of rail lines in the US since 2000 have cost between ~$50 million and $3.9 billion per mile, according to the Eno Center for Transportation.

For now, MARTA, Atlanta’s public transit agency, is working on the city’s first BRT route—expected to begin service in the summer of 2025—and conducting studies for several other potential BRT projects.

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For Horadam, actually building new public transportation is the top priority; whether it’s rail or bus service is a secondary concern.

“At the end of the day, getting high-capacity service and doing it well is the most important thing,” he said. “We haven’t done really any high-capacity transit expansion in a very long time,”

Transit trails

Traveling on foot or by bike has a smaller carbon footprint than driving any type of vehicle, electric or not.

“If I could wave a magic wand with the infrastructure bill, I would not be focusing on building new roads really much at all—certainly not new highways. I would be focusing on building sidewalks and bike lanes in our existing communities,” Ellen Dunham-Jones, director of the urban design program at Georgia Tech, told us. “I think we would do way more to decarbonize by just allowing more people to make more of their trips that are not by car. It’s totally low-tech, so it doesn’t sound like a smart city solution.”

Atlanta’s roadways are not very friendly for pedestrians, cyclists, or other electric vehicles like scooters and e-bikes, but the region is making progress when it comes to building multi-use trails. There are more than 3,000 miles of planned walking and biking trails across the metro area, according to the ARC, and the city’s BeltLine Trail, which repurposed abandoned railroad lines to create a path that loops around Atlanta, has received national recognition as a creative, sustainable development project.

Pedestrians on Atlanta’s BeltLine (Bluiz60/Getty Images)

But building these paths for transportation rather than just recreation will take more planning and work, especially since the region’s growth has been so fragmented, Shenbaga said. According to the ARC, the median length of a bikeway in metro Atlanta in 2020 was about half a mile, making it a difficult way to travel.

Trails can help replace car trips more often if they connect people to public transit, said Gravel, whose 1999 masters thesis originated the idea of the Atlanta BeltLine as a transit investment.

“If you are on a trail from your house and it takes you to the MARTA station, and you can put your bike on the train, which you can, then you can get a longer distance. And so it can solve the problem of that last mile—that the transit station just doesn’t come straight to your door,” he said.

Sharing walls

Urban sprawl and the status quo of single-family housing are two of the biggest challenges to supporting new public transit and micromobility options in Atlanta, experts told us.

“Even the urban core of Atlanta is pretty sparsely populated,” Gravel said. “Once you’ve hit a critical mass of population, then it makes all kinds of other things possible.”

Population density needs to increase, experts said, both to make housing more affordable and to give residents options besides commuting in single-passenger vehicles.

“Housing is very critical to this whole transportation conversation for us, because we think that having housing—affordable housing and enough housing—in places that have the jobs and that have the services is almost as important as having better access and having different transit and other modes of transportation options,” Shenbaga said.

Some parts of Atlanta are eliminating parking minimums, hopefully avoiding the construction of new parking lots and decks in areas near transit stations.

“Both downtown and midtown have been working on those kinds of policies for decades, and you’re starting to see the fruits of that work,” Gravel said, noting that areas like Ponce City Market are now walkable and bikeable in a way that they weren’t 20 years ago.

But he would still like to see areas like midtown shrink the amount of space dedicated to parking, rather than urban living.

Increasing the number of dwelling units per acre supports more frequent public transit service—a “game changer” for suburbia in particular, which could eventually lead to autonomous shuttle buses in the future, Dunham-Jones said. And a 2018 UC Berkeley study of more than 700 cities in California found that urban infill housing—aka, adding housing to already developed areas—had some of the biggest emissions-reduction potential.

“We need to share rides—shared autonomous vehicles, transit, and all the other ways of sharing—but we also need to share more walls,” Dunham-Jones added.

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Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.