Diane E. Davis and Lily Song talk urban mobility and inequality in Politico magazine

For its July/August 2017 “The Cities Issue,” Politico magazine asked a series of urbanists, city mayors, and other urban issues-minded thinkers a broad but urgent question: What’s the greatest risk cities face today? Each contributor identified and elaborated upon a single issue, among them pension crises, declining suburbs, and state or federal meddling.

For the feature, Harvard University Graduate School of Design’s Diane E. Davis, the Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism and Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design, and Lily Song, Design Critic in Urban Planning and Design, named unequal mobility as cause for concern. Pointing to recent research they have undertaken at the GSD, Davis and Song explain that urban-transport policies and programs trying to improve mobility can inadvertently worsen segregation and inequality.

Davis and Song note that bike- and ride-sharing programs, for instance, have addressed public demand for alternative forms of transportation, but, they write, “often at the cost of neglecting high-need areas and socioeconomically vulnerable populations.” Ideally, they continue, innovative, new transport programs will harmonize transit goals with alternative urban land uses geared toward the public good.

“Our future cities must be greater than the sum of recent individual technological and program innovations, however appealing these may at first appear,” Davis and Song write. “We must reverse the order of change, first articulating our visions for a more socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable city and then pursuing the complementary mix of urban policies and technological innovations that achieve these aims.

“Without such a framework, innovations that hover on the horizon, including autonomous vehicles, will likely do little to address the bigger picture of growing socio-spatial inequality.”

The Politico piece also features a contribution from Greta Byrum, a recent Loeb Fellow at the GSD and director of the Resilient Communities program at New America. Byrum pointed to the issue of so-called “broadband deserts,” or areas where reliable broadband and telecommunications services are lacking.

“Even in a booming market and in everyday conditions,” Byrum explains, “the telecommunications market, long captured by industry giants, builds infrastructure only where it knows it will make a good return on investment: wealthy neighborhoods that can afford high rates for premium services like Verizon’s Fios. The outcome is dramatically inequitable access to the infrastructure that undergirds basic economic, educational and civic participation.”

Read the complete thoughts from Davis, Song, Byrum, and others in Politico‘s online feature.