Mobility in Small Towns and the “Burbs


Mobility in Small Towns and the “Burbs

Town planners and local government decision makers are racing to solve an important task. They need to find the best way to modernize their infrastructure to keep up with what metro areas around them are doing. It is important to remember that a major aspect of a smart city is the way that people move around. In order to modernize the suburbs, the mobility revolution needs to become top priority. 

Let’s examine the steps that small governments are taking to make their towns more prepared for the future.

We reached out to Stan Caldwell, executive director of the Carnegie Mellon University research institute Traffic21. Caldwell and his team design, test, deploy, and evaluate information and communications technologies to address the problems facing transportation in the Pittsburgh region and the nation. 

They kicked off their “Smart Mobility Challenge” last year, focusing on smaller municipalities around Pittsburgh. Traffic21 is conducting parking and traffic monitoring experiments with these neighborhoods in order to learn what makes a more efficient transportation system. 

Sending mass transit vehicles into low-population areas reduces their efficiency.


Statistics from The Wall Street Journal show that millennials are moving back into suburbs, but still require the same level of transportation convenience experienced in larger metropolitan areas. According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the number of people riding public transportation has increased by 30 percent since 1995. 

However, there is still room for improvement, as the APTA also revealed that 45 percent of the U.S. population doesn’t have access to any public transportation. Ride-sharing services benefit from this need in the short term, but due to advances in autonomous vehicle technology, public transportation systems are no longer exclusive to large cities. 

The new goal of city planning is to increase the access and usability of existing public transit with new technology innovations. “Public transit that relies on rails [and buses] will always have to remain high-density to high-density,” said Caldwell. 

Sending mass transit vehicles into low-population areas reduces their efficiency; however, these same lower-population areas are where the towns are planning for future tech. “It is about having more options,” he told us, such as autonomous shuttles that use 5G sensors and smart, demand-based navigation systems to bring people from low-density areas to higher-density transportation, such as a subway.

Caldwell has been working with municipalities around the Pittsburgh area to prepare them for this future. “We usually start by implementing some sort of Autonomous Vehicle Testing Task Force, like we did in Pittsburgh,” he said. “Next it’s a matter of making sure roads have properly painted lines, visible signage, and well-timed traffic signals.” 

The vehicles may also have to pay for parking at times. When asked about a Pay-By-Vehicle software — which allows autonomous cars to automatically interface with parking meter systems — he said it was a great option and yet another step to making sure that municipalities were “properly prepared” for the future. 

Autonomous vehicles owned by the city or a large retail store could be available to shuttle people to and from designated stops and their homes. Imagine summoning a van to Walmart from your house via their app on your phone. When you’re done shopping at the store, another vehicle can take you and your groceries home.

 This opens up more options for private delivery as well. The convenience of online retailers has consumers expecting next-day arrival of purchases. Self-driving vehicles will bring the instant gratification of in-store purchasing to online stores, but companies like UPS, FedEx, and DHL are not the only ones investing in autonomous delivery systems. Items taken directly from store stock and added to autonomous delivery vehicles owned by the grocery stores will replace weekend afternoons spent in long lines. 

Can every suburb in the U.S. make this transition? Caldwell and the team at Traffic21 think so. It’s merely a matter of taking small steps to make your city or town more livable and commuter-friendly. Caldwell recommends that every suburb and town take a look at their technological and physical infrastructure to make sure they will be ready for the options people will want in the coming years. 

MeterFeeder’s home city, Pittsburgh, is already on the right track thanks to the city’s partnership with autonomous vehicle manufactures and Ford’s sponsorship of the “City of Tomorrow” mobility solution challenge.

Corey McDonough is the social media coordinator for MeterFeeder. He can be reached at

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Corey McDonough
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