By Curtis Wackerle | December 4, 2017 | Lifestyle
Beyond congestion and the two-car garage - mobility in a new age.
Aspen may have no choice but to buck the dominant mobility paradigm that has been shockingly unchanged since the first automobiles rolled off assembly lines a century ago.
Ownership of a personal automobile is intertwined with the national ideal of success. The family car can be great for the crosscountry road trip, but its effectiveness as a commuting tool diminishes with every rush hour that bleeds into the dinner hour.
Times are changing. The millennial generation is showing less interest in car ownership than any since World War II. Mobile technology that Uber and Lyft have ridden to great success will continue producing innovation that will bring forward new ways of getting around. And the coming age of autonomous vehicles will change what it means to be mobile.
“I’ve become enamored with the concept of mobility, not just transportation,” says John Bennett, Aspen’s mayor from 1991 to 1999, who co-chaired the Aspen Institute's Community Forum Taskforce on Transportation and Mobility, which met for 15 months to examine the future of transportation in the Roaring Fork Valley. The task force delivered a report with recommended methods to improve local mobility in September.
“There are a lot of ways to get where you need to go,” Bennett explains. “Owning a car and driving is one way… [but] a brave new world of all kinds of alternatives is opening up, enabled by new technology.”
All these trends are converging to create a possible future where relatively few people rely on driving their own cars for commuting purposes, which could be a game-changer for the Roaring Fork Valley.
A rendering of the Hyperloop.
Aspen has a progressive résumé when it comes to transportation policy. Three blocks in the heart of the downtown core were converted to parklike pedestrian malls in the mid-1970s. Public bus service began shortly after and led to the formation of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, which has grown into the nation’s largest rural public transit agency. Paid parking in Aspen and increasing bus service up and down the valley have combined to keep aggregate traffic counts at the entrance to Aspen below a cap established in 1993.
Those are all phenomenal accomplishments, but now there is a sense that, as the valley’s population and economic prosperity continue to grow, what has worked in the past will not be enough in the future. Pitkin County’s population is projected to increase 25 percent by 2035, adding to an overall Roaring Fork Valley population growth of 50 percent, according to the state demographer’s office, bringing the total number of residents to 70,000.
“Aspen is drowning in cars,” says Mayor Steve Skadron, also a participant in the Aspen Institute’s mobility task force. Anyone who has sat in the backups coming into town in the morning or heading out on Main Street in the afternoon would surely agree.
Skadron, in his final term as Aspen’s mayor, has pushed forward an initiative known as the Aspen Mobility Lab, which is expected to take place in the summer of 2018. The three-month effort will be a proving ground for emerging mobility strategies. It’s an “expensive proposition,” the mayor concedes, and will require both private and public support.
Skadron sees the effort as being about more than reducing the social and environmental ills that come with congestion. Bigger than that, it’s about embracing a legacy of innovation “and being an idea lab for what the future of transportation policy can look like—not unlike what we did with aff ordable housing.” (Aspen launched the fi rst aff ordable-housing program in ski country in the late 1970s.)
Addressing local transportation challenges will require a renewed sense of both collective action and personal responsibility for the greater good.
“I want people to take pride in the Aspen lifestyle, subscribing to a set of values that makes us extraordinary,” Skadron continues.
As more people come here to live and play, they are sharing an increasingly precious resource.
“We are like a national park here,” he says. When you approach a national park, it’s understood that you are entering a place that is cherished, that collective action has been and will continue to be required to preserve it for future generations. He hopes the mobility conversation will help instill that sense of responsibility for doing right on behalf of a special place.
A boring mechanism by the Boring Company in Hawthorne, Calif. The company is developing tunnel technology that aims to house new high-speed transportation systems. For straight-shot long distances, a depressurized tunnel could allow pods to move at speeds up to approximately 600-plus mph (aka Hyperloop).
The task force looked at a dozen potential strategies to reduce congestion and elevated five as recommendations. Most are deceptively simple. Significantly, the 31-member group did not take a position on one of the most charged political issues of the last 40 years, which is whether to build a new highway alignment entering Aspen that would bypass the S-curves with a “straight shot” through the Marolt Open Space, connecting directly with Main Street.
The group also circumvented a proposal for a light rail system, long dreamed of as the transportation solution for the valley, citing its out-of-reach estimated costs.
The task force instead focused its energies on strategies with the greatest potential to reduce traffic that are “both politically achievable and fi nancially viable,” according to the group’s final report. Mobility improvements, the report says, should be pursued “incrementally and continuously.”
The top two recommendations involve greater use of ride hailing—think an expanded presence of transportation network providers such as Uber and Lyft—and ride sharing.
Ride sharing, in particular, is expected to receive top billing during the mobility lab. The basic concept is not new and involves someone driving their personal vehicle and picking up other commuters to fill up empty seats. However, the system could be more eff ective and widespread through the use of a “peer-to-peer app,” where the driver with extra capacity posts their route information, allowing passengers heading toward the same destination to reserve a seat and be picked up.
This would require little capital investment beyond the development of the mobile app and would leverage one of the most ineffi cient aspects of the dominant mobility paradigm: unused vehicle capacity. Most cars streaming into town on a weekday morning have only one occupant. If the average passenger load could be increased to two or three people per vehicle, “there goes the traffic jam,” says Bennett.
Ride sharing also has the potential to “change the whole way we think about transportation,” Bennett posits, making it less a personal experience than a shared community utility.
Transportation companies could also be a part of the picture, with paid drivers and a government subsidy to keep the eff ort afl oat.
A greater reliance on ride hailing and sharing also has the benefit of reducing demand for parking spaces in town. That in turn opens up opportunities to rethink the urban landscape, with more emphasis on places for people to walk and congregate than a streetscape dominated by car storage.
“I think the outcome of a successful mobility lab experiment fosters a people-fi rst downtown that aligns with an environmentally sustainable, socially equitable and economically stronger community for generations to come,” Skadron says. Time will tell.