Want to Revolutionize City Traffic? Open a Cafe In Your Neighborhood

High-speed buses, Electric cars, smart parking, taxi sharing – there are lots of innovative ideas being dreamed up and put into action to reinvent city traffic and turn it into something manageable and sustainable. A full 177 approaches as of latest count, according to a site called Newmobility.

But as John Thackra notes in his excellent new piece, “The Gram Junkies“, any solution that assumes current transportation levels will remain constant or grow turns out not to be viable. Every such improvement to the system gets offset by some unintended consequence of the improvement, which leaves us back where we were before, or worse.

But there is a way to really impact traffic. Not improve it incrementally, but disrupt the system entirely: get people to stay where they are, and not become part of the traffic problem in the first place.

How do you do that? You do it by creating viable local alternatives to the things people are driving to get to. Give them those things within easy walking distance, so they don’t need to drive or take public transportation at all.

In the case of the cafe in your neighborhood, what you’re giving them is a place to work (and coffee, of course). And if their co-workers/bosses are reasonable, they will let them work there part of their week instead of commuting in to work every day.

So by opening a cafe, equipping it with good wifi, and nice spaces for people to work, you can take a couple dozen people out of the commute every day.

You’re not just putting them into a smart carpool, or putting them on a smart bus, you’re canceling their ride entirely. That’s sustainable, no?

My own local cafe, Building on Bond, does this, and every single day there are around ten people working there instead of commuting to an office somewhere farther away.

We don’t think of cafes as answers to the traffic problem, but they are. (Maybe those cafes should be eligible for tax breaks from the city for relieving the strain on transit systems? That’s not really my domain, but feel free to take that and run with it if it’s yours.)

When you look at the problem of traffic, there are two ways to look at it. One is “how can we move more people, more efficiently, using less energy and creating less waste than we do currently?” The other is “how can we eliminate the need for people to move outside of their immediate area altogether, in situations where it might not really be necessary?”

The first way is how most people looking at the problem are approaching it. And that gets you part way there. But the second way is how we need to think as well in order to fully solve the problem.

The first way is incremental change, improvement within the existing system. The second way is a change of the system itself. That’s what’s needed here, in anything other than the immediate short-term.

Of course if you’re really talking about disrupting the system, you need to do more than just open a cafe. You need to do something system-wide. But the cafe is an interesting place to start – it’s a model that gets you thinking about how you could get to that system-wide thing.

I can think of a business idea off the top of my head that could be a great, profitable way to put this kind of change into action system-wide. It’s a bit outside of my own scope for starting businesses, but the right team, with the right backing, could get it started fairly easily. (As with anything I say on this blog, if anyone wants to discuss further, write me – I’m always happy to talk).

If you’re an innovator/entrepreneur who wants to really impact traffic levels and carbon footprints, it might be interesting to think less about “smart solutions” to traffic and think more about local solutions. Getting people to stay where they are rather than being more efficient at moving them around needlessly.

Innovations that improve transportation efficiency will of course be a huge part of the traffic solution. We’re not going to stop moving entirely, are we? But if you’re only looking at increasing efficiency in the current system by bits and pieces, you’re never going to arrive at the new system that needs to come into being, you’re just going to have a better version of the current system. Which isn’t really a solution in this case, is it?

[Note: if you like thinking about things like this, you should come to TransportationCamp, being held this March in NYC and in SF. I'm an advisor. It's going to be fun.]

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4 Responses to Want to Revolutionize City Traffic? Open a Cafe In Your Neighborhood

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  2. Ethan Kent says:

    Something I have written but never published on this topic:

    From Place to Place: Reinventing Transportation Planning with Placemaking

    Progressive transportation planning is in the midst of a boom, but is it on the right track to create the shift that the movement is looking for and does it even have the right vision of what that is? How can we capture this momentum to create a true structural shift in how we do transportation planning?

    Advocates are finally getting attention for issues like the impact and efficiency of the various modes of transport, the fair allocation of road space and spending and the opportunities to create more interconnected transportation systems. These advances all need to happen, but if advocated for and implemented alone may actually end up perpetuating the existing paradigm. Moving beyond the technical mobility solutions may be the best way to make these solutions feasible.

    The goal of transportation planning would seem to be to facilitate getting people places – connecting people with destinations. Unfortunately most transportation planning has not only forgotten to create and support the places they are meant to bring people to, but have degraded the very destinations they are meant to connect. The people in charge of creating destinations have likewise planned in isolation, for isolation. Everyone is blaming the need for mobility.

    In the misdirected effort to make people as mobile as possible, many of our transportation networks are accomplishing a great deal less with a great deal more costs. The results of this focus on mobility rather than accessibility and Placemaking include more congestion, reduced human contact, isolated land uses, car-oriented design of buildings, short-sighted development, more dangerous roads, decreased walkability, longer travel distances, and more stress, just to name a few – and these are all the things that transportation planners have supposedly been trained to address positively.

    The focus on mobility, throughput, and even traffic as growth indicator, has taken the political and community conversation a long ways from even talking about what kind of cities, communities, streets we actually want to have. This mentality has effectively turned all civic engagement along these lines where many community activists are now the fiercest defenders of mobility. Even “alternative modes” advocacy (transit, bicycles, pedestrians) focuses are still often focused on mobility and on pushing solutions within this paradigm. Only in small nibbles, are advocacy efforts starting to frame their approach around accessibility or Placemaking.

    Putting the debate as merely a spending or mode shift debate will only get us so far and limit the partners and vision that can be brought together. Looking at creating great cities, great streets and great destinations, big and small, and addressing economic, health, and safety issues will more effectively create a political climate, and public realm, that is more compatible with alternate modes while also reducing the need for travel and creating places where people actually want to be. If it is allowed to, transportation planning can shift from being the primary engine of community degradation, to the center of our countries community development strategy.

    If the point of transportation planning is to get people places, then all transportation planning should really start with placemaking. If our planning efforts actually focused on creating places, we could meet the goals of getting people places much faster. Great places are in fact defined by the ability to accomplish many things at once, often accomplishing many spontaneous, “unplanned” goals in the process.

    Congestion relief efforts have likewise focused on the wrong problem. Congestion effectively prevents people from getting places, but the real problem is that current mobility focused transportation planning causes congestion because it is causing fewer places to go and degrading reasons to be in any one place. The clogging effectively occurs because it is increasingly hard to get to places we want to be. In this regard, the way to reduce congestion or parking “problems” is actually to create destinations that are even more attractive for people to come to.

    Imagine for instance the efficiency of what gets accomplished in some of the best public markets or civic squares in the world where mobility is at its lowest. By focusing narrowly on mobility we have been moving people around more and more and accomplishing less and less. The American main street also is an example of an efficient transportation system. It usually failed because the transportation systems around were not supportive and new systems were developed around those systems that could out compete.

    The best way to create the true paradigm shift away from our oil dependence is to create places that people want to be, places that support vital local economies, healthy, safe, active lifestyles and strong communities.

    Current growth strategies have been based on increasing movement of people and goods. The future of transportation planning needs to start with creating comfortable settings for all kinds of exchange between people. It is through re-envisioning our cities, transportation systems and economies around these transportation destinations that we will be able to truly make our world compatible with strong communities, economies and natural ecosystems as well as make feasible the more environmental mobility modes of mass transit, walking and bicycling.

  3. johngeraci says:

    Great post (or rather essay) Ethan. Glad to see other people have been thinking along these lines too…

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