Transportation Trends for 2020 (And What Cities Can Do About Them)

William Riggs, assistant professor at the University of San Francisco School of Management, predicts the trends that will continue an ongoing revolution in transportation.

9 minute read

February 10, 2020, 12:00 PM PST

By William Riggs


New York City Street

David Mark / Pixabay

Over the past ten years, the world has experienced a revolution in transportation. 2012 saw the emergence of Uber, Lyft, and a number of other competitors who changed the way we purchased rides. I discussed these changes in 2015, when we were only beginning to understand the implications of these platforms. Amazon also changed the logistics industry, evolving from an online bookstore to a company that delivers electronics, household goods, and even groceries, something I talked about in a 2017 post. The automotive industry has also changed, with incredible growth in electric vehicle sales and continuing integration of automated features into cars, which I have dialogued with Michael Boswell and others for Planetizen's "Autonomous Future" series.

Given all these developments, there's an opportunity to sift through the primordial soup and look for ideas about where the transportation sector is headed in the coming year, so I offer the following five potential market trends for 2020, as well as advice for what cities can do about those trends. While many of these predictions parallel urban planning trends to watch in 2020, some provide counterpoints or more critical views on the transportation industry. All, however, warrant potential action by the cities that will grapple directly with the challenges that will result from these changes.

VMT from TNCs and E-Commerce Will Continue to Increase, Despite Pricing Efforts

A growing body of work points to continued increases in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) due to Transportation Network Company (TNC) services like Uber and Lyft, which induce auto travel and pull people from transit, as illustrated in the "Fare Choices Study" study by the Boston Metropolitan Area Planning Council. While the costs of TNC services are expected to rise dramatically, with price increases estimated as high as 50 percent, based on legislative changes addressing employment classification, demand for ridership will likely stay the same, based on the reliability and the convenience of the service—two of the primary attributes many users look for in mobility services. The economic viability of these TNCs will remain nebulous even as providers integrate autonomous vehicles into certain routes.

E-commerce and increased delivery services are likely to continue compounding these upward VMT trends. The "2019 Urban Mobility Report" estimated that trucking generated 11 percent of congestion in the United States, while only accounting for 7 percent of traffic, not even accounting for holiday spikes in deliveries and returns. UPS alone had a 50 percent increase in volume over the 2019 holiday season and forecasted an increase of 26 percent in returns.

What can cities do:

Consolidation in the Logistics Economy Based on the High Cost of Last Mile Deliveries

E-commerce and delivery services account for a large amount of traffic, have high costs, and generate low revenue, particularly for the last mile. Inherent economic inefficiencies plague the last-leg of most deliveries—what's referred to as the “last-mile” to describe the final transport link that many sharing-economy technologies attempt to solve. Most logistics companies (e.g., UPS, FedEx, and OnTrac) find the last-mile the least profitable component of their business.

There have been scant attempts to innovate in this arena, particularly in the area of non-automotive travel. While UPS has explored cargo bike delivery in select urban markets, most experts speculate that the future of urban deliveries will be comprised of a combination of same-day, delivery drones and robots, autonomous vehicles, or “parcel drop” or “box” facilities, though research by McKinsey & Company finds strong consumer preference for direct home delivery. It is likely that we will see automation in logistics before passenger vehicles, particularly with aerial drones.

Due to the inefficiency of last-mile home deliveries, I expect to see consolidation of these services (which could mitigate the VMT increases described above). The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) and FedEx have already established a partnership for online sales deliveries and returns that tap in to the existing local network of USPS. And both Amazon and UPS are exploring incentives for customers to pick up packages dropped in secure, convenient locations—perhaps at boxes or stores. Expect mergers and platform changes, not just with robotic delivery, but also potentially with new sharing economy services for package delivery.

What cities can do:

  • Encourage local drop off facilities with major logistics providers that allow for consumers to pick up their own packages. UPS and Amazon have already been exploring this model in many suburban locations, where service does not make financial sense.
  • Require a certain percentage of deliveries be made via bicycle and pedestrian trips, particularly high-density locations.
  • Look for strategies to price deliveries at the curb.
  • Be prepared for the future of robotic deliveries and the implications for pedestrian and rooftop space. Given that UPS has already received approval to begin making certain deliveries via drones and companies like Amazon (PrimeAir) are not far behind, it is highly likely that autonomous aerial deliveries are fully operational far sooner than self-driving terrestrial vehicles.

Continued Underestimation of the Transition to Electric Vehicles

Government and the market have continued to underestimate consumer demand for electric vehicles. In 2018 and early 2019 no one would have believed that Tesla would have exceeded all expectations in production goals and become the most valuable car company ever in delivering the Model 3. Now many European companies, including Volvo and VW, are following suite and preparing to phase out fossil fuel vehicles, while legacy companies like Ford and BMW are struggling to catch up. While the two legacy companies may have some of the "Ten Electric Vehicles to Watch in 2020," they are still playing catch up, and many policy makers continue to dismiss efforts toward electrification.

What cities can do:

  • Require Level-2 charging infrastructure in all new homes.
  • Waive permit fees for infrastructure and panel upgrades for existing homes to install EV charging capabilities.
  • Make sure to provide EV-ready parking spaces in new buildings and allow for flexibility in parking standards accommodate EV chargers and meet required Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) standards. Many cities in California, for example Palo Alto, are grappling with tension between parking minimums and new requirements for EV and ADA spaces, which require a larger footprint than traditional parking.
  • Explore the conversion of on-street parking meters to charging stalls.

Continued Resistance to Transit Platform Innovation

To the great frustration for transit agencies, TNCs "beat" transit at the mobility game in recent years. Transit systems have been outcompeted by more reliable, more convenient, door-to-door rides that can be accessed from the palm of your hand. Many transit champions want us all to enjoy the communal bliss of taking the bus, yet that is not a universally held value across society or demographic cohorts. As such, many transit agencies that employ people who share those same values have continued to resist innovation in platforms and services, and have failed to learn useful lessons from TNCs and the changing demands of customers.

A handful of large and small transit operators have found that they can use large mass transit platforms in parallel with smaller door-to-door services to make the system more efficient, convenient, and reliable. One of the largest examples is BVG in Berlin, which has deployed a large-scale, app-based, on-demand, on-demand, last-mile service that connects to existing rail and is beginning to use small self-driving buses. Likewise, while debate continues on free and reduced fares, cities like Monrovia, California (Go Monrovia) and Dublin, California (Go Dublin) have saved costs by providing on-demand services and optimizing trunk-line performance through partnerships with TNCs. Expect these trends to continue.

What can cities do:

Continued De-Prioritization of Active Modes of Transport

Despite the sustainability, livability, and equity benefits many cities continue to prioritize automobiles in street design efforts. As James Brasuell indicated in predictions for the start of the new decade:

Traffic fatalities continue to worsen for the most vulnerable users of the public right of way (pedestrians and people on bikes), and the findings of analyses from both the beginning and end of the year indicate that the potential for walking and biking to break through car culture remains unfulfilled.

Unfortunately, I agree, and if the continued market for driving muscle cars is any indication (which will likely be proven by the 2020 Corvette), we likely have a long way to go ween many in society from driving (even part of the time).

The crowning example of this resistance to focus on driving has been the troubled relationship cities have had with scooters (aka, “micromobility”). For the past two years, rather than embracing the mode as yet another way to get people active, out of cars, and connect them with transit, policymakers have placed restraints or outright bans on the availability and use of scooters and other forms of micromobility. The more common dialogue focuses on injuries, as opposed to how streets are designed for cars, but not human-centered travel. It is likely that this hostile trend will continue into the new year, despite the recent article in Streetsblog USA, which aptly stated that it is "time to build a world where micromobility riders stand a chance on our streets."

What cities can do:

  • Practice aggressive multi-modal street design, including the aforementioned car-free zones.
  • Enforce and ensure good collision reporting to inform better design and safety polices; because in the cheeky words of Kea Wilson of Streetsblog USA: "local crash reports are so bad that researchers have have no way of knowing whether an e-scooter rider was injured after being forced into fast-moving traffic with multi-ton steel machines or simply got a little tipsy and crashed him or herself into a tree."
  • Make sure your community has a bicycle and pedestrian plan with associated funding commitments for infrastructure.
  • Double down on those travel nudge programs and encourage zero-carbon commuting.

While these represent only a handful of trends, there are other aspects of the transportation economy that are worth dialogue and will likely pose big challenges to cities over the coming year. The question is what we do about these challenges. Onward.

Dr. William (Billy) Riggs, Ph.D., AICP, LEED AP, is a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Management, and a global thought leader in the areas of future mobility and smart transportation, housing, economics, and urban development. He is the author of the book Disruptive Transport: Driverless Cars, Transport Innovation and the Sustainable City of Tomorrow. He can be found on Twitter at @billyriggs.

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