“Walking the Walk” on Sustainable Urban Mobility

Learning With Lyon, France, and Boston, USA

In the City of Boston, we’re working hard to achieve safer, more reliable, and more accessible mobility options for all residents. During Mayor Walsh’s first term, we began our comprehensive transportation planning process, called Go Boston 2030. With thousands of residents’ voices included, the plan gave us a roadmap — including 58 specific projects — that would help us become a healthier, more vibrant city.

We like to be bold and inspirational here in Boston. We need to be. We face challenges in mobility as our population continues to grow; we experience (and will continue to experience) impacts from rising sea levels and climate change; and we are actively working to confront racism in our city. We know that rising to meet these challenges means not being complacent. We need to keep ourselves on our toes and see how we stack up against other thriving cities. Further, learning from our peers helps us stay inspired ourselves.

Through the International Urban Cooperation (IUC) program of the European Union, we have been able to get a healthy dose of inspiration from our colleagues in the Lyon Metropole. We are paired on two topics: the future of mobility and “smart cities.” In particular, we both have goals to reduce single occupancy vehicle trips. Here in Boston, we’re aiming to reduce driving alone rates by half, while increasing walking rates by half.

Last fall, four City of Boston staff had the opportunity to attend an IUC Learning Exchange to Lyon. Representatives from the Transportation Department and the civic innovation R&D team spent three days in active “learning and doing” mode with engaged and enthusiastic public servants from the Lyon Metropole. During our three days, we started to uncover the breadth and depth of Lyon’s thoughtful approach to improving mobility for their residents.

A few key takeaways have stuck with us, though we know there’s plenty more we can learn that will benefit Boston’s residents.

1) “Walking the walk” on pedestrian priority

We were delighted to experience Lyon’s prioritization of pedestrians. The day before we arrived, the region was running its second prototype of a car-free downtown. We have almost a decade of experience with car-free events in Boston (such as Circle the City and Open Newbury), but we haven’t yet made them frequent and sustainable.

Off the streets, Lyon is also prioritizing pedestrians from behind the scenes. Like Lyon, we have a “Traffic Management Center” (TMC) with live camera feeds and smart technology that enables real-time decision making.

We were inspired to see that within their TMC, Lyon has an entire physical area, staff, and specific technologies dedicated to responding to the pedestrian experience as it unfolds on the streets.

2) Inclusive design for equitable mobility

Perhaps familiar to anyone who has spent time waiting at an intersection in an urban streetscape is the “taka-taka-taka” sound of the streetlight indicating that it is time to walk. We had a chance to hear innovative audible pedestrian signal (APS) solutions in Lyon. We talked with the CEO of Okeenea, an accessibility solutions company based in France, who shared their next-generation, multi-language APS solution, which won a New York City Department of Transportation call for innovation. We look forward to exploring how we can continue improving the accessibility and inclusivity of our streets and sidewalks for residents who are blind or low vision, and for residents who speak languages other than English.

Additionally, we learned about Lyon’s approach to rolling out electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure (CI). We were excited to hear that they were laser-focused on their vision of an equitable rollout of this infrastructure. They are open to collaborating with private companies to provide EV CI to residents, but these companies can’t just place the infrastructure in parts of the metropole that produce profits; private providers have to equitably serve neighborhoods farther from the downtown core and areas that currently have lower EV utilization, too. This vision and ethos for electrical vehicles aligns very closely with ours: we want to ensure mobility options are equitable, accessible, and safe.

3) Enhancing mobility’s role beyond commuting

Finally, Lyon showed us how they see their mobility services supporting residents beyond work trips. On our first day in Lyon, we took a multi-modal (boat to EV car-share to bike to bus to tram to subway to autonomous vehicle shuttle, oh my!) afternoon trip throughout multiple districts. We were impressed by the ease and predictability of switching between modes, even during “off-peak” hours. It’s clear that the Lyon Metropole isn’t just prioritizing the 9–5 commuter.

Further, their extensive EV car-sharing program — in particular, its membership discount for young people as an attempt to break the expectation of private car ownership before it even forms — provided inspiration for our upcoming deployment of electric vehicle charging stations in municipal parking lots, and how we might integrate these insights into our own car-sharing program.

Finally, in a partnership with their urban lab, Erasme, and their living lab, Tuba, the metropole prototyped incorporating games into waiting at bus stops. The game crowdsourced social media images from residents, and then challenged waiting bus riders to find image matches faster at their bus stop than their partner on the other side of the street. We had a chance to play the game ourselves, and really enjoyed seeing another city’s attempt to acknowledge that playfulness in our streets is just as important a use as rush-hour commuting.

We hosted a lunch-and-learn session after we returned from Lyon. We shared insights with about 30 of our colleagues from the Environment Department, the Planning and Development Agency, other members of the Transportation Department, and Economic Development. Though it wasn’t a traditional Lyonnaise three-course lunch, the “bring your own lunch” learning session offered us a chance to inspire even more city staff to get involved — and stay energized — for the work ahead. Besides, who couldn’t love ladybugs as a traffic calming measure?

The department of New Urban Mechanics in Boston works across departments and communities to explore, experiment, and evaluate new approaches to government and civic life.

This story is part of the #USEUCities series, featuring stories written by EU and US participants in the EU’s International Urban Cooperation (IUC) City Pairings program that helps achieve local and international political objectives on sustainable urban development and climate change.

Read the press release and visit the IUC website to learn more.

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Writing from European Union staff on issues of interest to the EU in the United States, with occasional guest posts

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