The Alternative Transportation District
Short video clip about the opportunities associated with creating an alternative transportation district. Recorded at the Plan Fort Collins event on March 3, 2010
Over the past few years I have been carefully watching what has turned into an explosion of alternative transportation vehicles being developed all over the world. These vehicles include everything from electric and fuel cell scooters, to hybrid motorcycles, to electric skateboards, to turbo-wheelchairs, to dog-powered bikes, to Segways and Segway knockoffs.
Nearly every one of these vehicles is different. They differ in size and shape, height and weight, fuel source, speed, and maneuverability.
Perhaps the only thing they have in common is that there are virtually no roads to drive them on, and that’s where we find a tremendous opportunity.
If we do not encourage the use of alternative transportation, we are by default encouraging more car usage. This single-minded approach is limiting not only our mobility, but also our ability to innovate.
Innovation comes in many shapes and forms, but in the area of transportation, it has to come in the shape or form of a vehicle that is compatible with our current highway and street systems.
Because of the thousands of alternative transportation vehicles coming out of the woodwork, most cities have chosen to ban them from the streets.
To be clear, most haven’t bothered to legislate a ban on the vehicles. Instead, responsibility for dealing with them is handed off to the police departments and for them, the easiest solution is simply to not allow them on the streets. And they are also not allowed on the bike paths, sidewalks, or any other existing trails.
In my home state of Colorado, people take great pride in the elaborate networks of trails that have been created in many of the cities and small towns.
The trails, however, are the exclusive domain of pedestrians and bicyclists, even though the two often have their own set of compatibility issues.
Some communities have invested heavily in the creation of these trails, but few, if any, have invested in the signage, maps, and traffic management systems necessary to turn them into functional transportation routes. Very few first-timers have a clue where they will end up on these trails.
Trail systems still tend to play the role of the ugly step child when compared to roads and highways. Hardly any have lane dividers. Many are not plowed when it snows. Few have names or signage to give any indication where you are in relationship to the rest of the community. If an accident occurs, emergency vehicles are forced to hunt down the location.
Additionally, few trail systems come with any form of support services. In most cases, restrooms are few and far between. It’s hard to find water, food, or shelter in case of rain or hail.
As a result, our current trail systems have become the domain of those who are looking for recreation and exercise, not for people looking to go from point A to point B.
No Current Classification System
When it comes to alternative transportation vehicles, there are very few rules… well, other than you can’t drive them anywhere.
What I mean is that there are no classification systems regarding such things as size, weight, noise, and speed.
If, for example, there was a classification system for electric scooters (We’ll call it the ES-12 Classification) where all vehicles were “silent” electric powered scooters, weighing under 500 pounds, under 4’ in width, with 3 wheels or less, traveling at speeds not to exceed 20 mph, the vehicles become a known commodity and cities could decide whether to allow ES-12 scooters on the streets or trails.
Similarly, if there was a classification system for hybrid off-road wheelchairs (We’ll call it the HW-14 Classification) where all of the wheelchairs are one-passenger vehicles, wheels that are between 12-20” in diameter, less than 3’ wide, traveling at speeds of under 12 mph, a different set of decisions could be used to determine the proper usage of HW-14 wheelchairs.
Once the classification systems are in place, and cities start paying attention to them, the alternative transportation industry will begin designing vehicles to match the various user groups that develop around each category.
The real opportunity lies in the ability of some bold community to step forward and develop the first alternative transportation district. This district will become the trailblazing authority upon which this growing new industry will turn for answers.
As a first step, the city needs to convene a meeting that involves representatives from many of the major players in the transportation industry – Honda, Audi, Daimler, Ford, GM, Suzuki, Yamaha, and many more. The intent of this meeting will be to set the stage for defining the presently undefined alternative transportation industry: vehicle classifications, industry standards, usage requirements, safety issues, and more.
In tandem with hosting the meeting, the host city will need to take an active role in forming a leadership team complete with industry and community experts to serve both as the ongoing decision-making body and the driving force of action and initiatives.
The community will need to understand both the risks and opportunities associated with this type of venture. Not everyone will be in favor of it, and serious opposition may develop along the way.
At the same time, this is an industry looking for a home. Along with becoming the first alternative transportation-friendly city will come an economic development play that can be used to entice many early stage players to pull up stakes and move into town. Many others will establish regional offices as a way to stay in touch with each new development.
The city will be committing to the development of a trail/road system that operates outside of the bounds of current highways, railroads, trails and bike paths. Since many cities already have pieces of this infrastructure already in place, the commitment will be to improve and redevelop it into a workable phase-one alternative transportation system.
To be sure, this will not be an easy undertaking, but nothing worthwhile ever is.
The future of transportation will not be defined by bigger, faster, sportier-looking cars. Rather, it will be defined by matching every individual’s unique mobility needs with the most appropriate vehicle for satisfying those needs.