SEPT 2019

Report to the Community on the NACTO Conference

Earlier this week I was in Toronto for the NACTO Annual Conference, the National Association of City Transportation Officials. This is mostly an association of American cities, and it was the first time the conference was held outside the USA.

I was invited by Toronto Mayor John Tory to join a round table of Mayors and senior transportation staff from cities around the country to discuss some key transportation issues we are facing—from modernizing transit to building safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists, and from the ‘disruptive technologies’ of electric scooters to ridesharing and autonomous vehicles. 

We joined with former New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and she shared her lessons learned from transforming the streets of New York using data-driven decision making, nimble experimentation, and working with the community to find solutions. 

I also attended a number of sessions that centred on how cities are working to uphold the public good and collaborating with the private sector on new innovations and options to move people around cities.  I had a chance to talk to leaders from Minneapolis, Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta, Detroit in the US as well as Calgary, Montreal, Markham, and the York Region in Canada.

It was a dynamic and energizing conference with many different takeaways for our city. Cities much larger than us are having to manage outdated systems and infrastructure, before we get to the stage they are now at, we have the chance to make improvements now and in the future.

Four key lessons are:

  1. Changes to transportation are moving fast. Cities have to figure out how to harness them.

For example, in just a couple of years, shared scooter systems have become pretty big players in many cities, and figuring out how to manage them properly is creating some real headaches. This is along with innovations in ridesharing, intelligent transportation systems, autonomous vehicles, and ‘micro-transit’ that are changing the face of urban transportation. 

  1. If we are nimble and smart, we can experiment to make our transportation system better.

Saskatoon has a history of innovation. We have tech companies growing in our city, a great relationship with the university, and we can learn from the successes and failures of other cities.  There is no reason we can’t provide leadership in building a great community. Emerging technologies can reduce commute times, provide more choices for people, increase road safety, and help us maximize the use of our existing infrastructure.

One way of doing this is through low-budget and rapid experimentation to help drive innovation. Janette Sadik-Khan shared many great stories of how they used paint, planters, lawn chairs, and folding tables to transform Manhattan. Some of you have probably been to NYC to see how they transformed Times Square and many of the adjacent streets. These changes were made by experimenting on a weekend or over a week without a complex planning and implementation process, and then they would see how things worked and make adjustments and improvements as necessary. This is something that we can definitely use with our traffic calming and place-making efforts. 

  1. The challenge for cities is to ensure that changes bring about the greatest good for the most people.

Emerging technologies can provide many benefits: reducing commute times, increasing road safety, and helping cities make more informed decisions about spending money. A lot of the conversation at the conference was about the public good. Ensuring that as these technologies change how people move around, that services like transit are not eroded, that public infrastructure is maintained for all, that privacy is respected, and that costs are shared and affordability is maintained. 

  1. Data is key—but how you work with it matters. Partnerships are key.

The world is awash in data, but cities are struggling with how to organize it into understandable and useful information. You can now gather information from cars about how their speed changes, when they brake, about how people move through intersections, and when there are close misses or collisions. Now we need to build the systems to best analyze this information to help make more informed decisions.

At the conference, Ford Mobility showed off an incredible 3D tabletop model of Ann Arbor, Michigan that they had developed with the University of Michigan that gives a revealing picture of collision hotspots, parking utilization, and how electric scooters and cyclists move through the city. Making it happen required an innovative partnership between the university, city, and private sector.

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