The Future City: Takeaways from the Urbanism Next conference

Planners, civic and business leaders discuss the city of the future at the Urbanism Next conference.

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The city of the future will feature less parking and more autonomous vehicles. Deliveries will arrive by drone and robot. Car-sharing and bike-sharing will become ubiquitous and more convenient than the private automobile.

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Those are a few of the trends policymakers and business leaders from around the country discussed this week in Portland at the annual Urbanism Next conference. Here are our key takeaways.

We have too much retail space

As e-commerce and last-mile delivery solutions (think Uber Eats) chip away at brick and mortar retail, American cities will need to repurpose overbuilt retail spaces.

“The ingredients are in place for a major disruption in retail,” said Rick Stein, owner of the Urban Decision Group.

Related story: Cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson predicted the future of retail

The recipe for disruption includes unused retail space, hyperconsolidation and automation. Cities have overbuilt retail, Stein said, so “every one of you has 24 feet of space allocated just for you.”

Even without disruptive technology, there are far more stores than what’s needed.

On top of that, brick-and-mortar are up against tech companies that are buying up smaller retailers and automating the delivery process.

Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods might be “Amazon’s last-mile,” Stein said. Combining predictive analytics and bike, drone or robot delivery, retailers can deliver products in a matter of hours. Amazon already offers  two hour delivery, and that time will likely shrink in the coming years.

That doesn’t bode well for local retailers. Yet some will weather the changes, especially those that cater to people seeking tangible experiences. Powell’s should be just fine. “What’s left?” Stein said. “It’s the bookstore.”

Portland might fare better than other cities. On account of the urban growth boundary, Stein said, the city has much less unused retail space than other cities nationwide.  

And too many parking spaces

Panelists were largely united in condemning parking. Parked cars eat up $15-$25,000 per space, and both vehicles and spaces sit empty most of the time. Plus, with the rise of autonomous vehicles and car sharing we won’t need as much parking, as vehicles will circulate constantly.

Unused parking spaces, architects and planners said, could be converted into parks or pedestrian thoroughfares. “Don’t build any parking you cannot adapt,” cautioned Jason Sudy, principal at OHM Advisors, a Michigan-based architecture and planning firm.

With less parking, cities need to pay attention to the curb

Not always regarded as prime real-estate, the curb — otherwise known as the parking lane — is now drawing everyone’s attention. Cities must make strategic decisions about how to allocate the curb. Bikeshare docks or private parking? Freight or ridesharing? As autonomous vehicles and the sharing economy erode the need for long-term parking, these user groups will wage an intensifying war for curb space.

Last-mile freight delivery is on the verge of major disruption

Drones, bike delivery services and robots can access urban centers more efficiently and cheaply than trucks. Regulators are catching up with these tech solutions to freight’s last-mile problem.

“We’re trying to think about how robots and drones will interface with our streets and sidewalks,” said Kelly Rula, an Amazon veteran who nows works as a new mobility strategist for the Seattle department transportation.

Robotic disruption was on display at the conference — in the form of a delivery robot roaming around the Oregon Convention Center lobby. Designed by London-headquartered Starship Technologies, the robot, is the same width as an average person, can make deliveries over a 2-mile radius and respond to an app.

Portland’s bikeshare is good, but Seattle’s is better

Surveys show some Portlanders are choosing Biketown over their cars, but once again, Seattle has beat us to a policy innovation: in this case, dockless bikeshare.

Auto trips are down 26% because of bikesharing, said Steve Hoyt-McBeth, a project manager in PBOT’s active transportation division, but Seattleites took the same number of bike trips in six months as Portlanders did in a year.

IMG 1096Gabriel Scheer, LimeBike’s director of Strategic Development, promotes dockless bikeshare

That’s because in Seattle, you can ride one of some 10,000 dockless bikes in circulation, managed by LimeBike, Spin and Ofo, park it anywhere (legally) and leave. LimeBike director of Strategic Development Gabriel Scheer said doing away with docks expanded access for low-income communities with low rates of bicycle use. Another promising, but untapped application could be hilly suburbs.

Portland planners seem open to a dockless system, but not any time soon. Scheer told us PBOT politely declined his inquires about expanding into Portland, although Hoyt-Mcbeth said “there’s probably opportunity for both.”

Caution could be warranted, as dockless bikeshare still has some notable flaws.  In what appears to be a classic example of the “tragedy of the commons”  —  in which people abuse goods they don’t have to pay for — riders have flung the bikes off bridges, dangled them from trees and set them atop the Fremont Troll statue. The bikes also tend to cluster in high-use areas, making equitable access difficult for those who live in other neighborhoods.