Planners Adapt as Infrastructure Gets Smarter

Technology is evolving the ways we commute and communicate. How is the evolution of new infrastructure influencing the physical shared space around us, and the way it is managed? This increasingly urgent question is one that planners are seeking to examine through public right-of-way management.

At the 2019 National Planning Conference, the session “Right-of-way Management: Small Cells to Scooters” examined how right-of-way management is changing in the face of evolving technology like small cell infrastructure and electronic scooters.

Technology will never stop evolving, so it is critical to adjust the ways in which we respond and what this means for the space we share in a community.

Small Cell Infrastructure

When it comes to right-of-way management and small cell infrastructure, one of the biggest challenges facing localities is navigating the involvement of the state and federal government.

At least 21 legislatures have enacted small cell laws that relate to streamlining applications and timelines or placing further caps on costs and fees. This is a rising trend, particularly following the order issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in fall 2018. The FCC’s order seeks to accomplish this same streamlining goal, drawing concern from localities over their ability to maintain local control of right-of-way.

In an effort to support cities’ endeavors to plan for this technology, the National League of Cities released a guide with model code in August 2018 on how to plan for small cell wireless infrastructure. Shorter shot clocks and regulations on aesthetics are now in effect, but the FCC’s orders are under appeal as the order is being commonly considered as an overreach.

Another important point to remember is that small cells are mostly being installed to increase capacity, not coverage. This is particularly relevant when comparing streamlining the deployment of small cells to an increase in rural broadband. It is important to recognize that streamlining such processes does not necessarily mean that there will be an increase in coverage, particularly in rural areas.

Electronic Bikes and Scooters

Electronic scooters and bikes are another sector of evolving technology leading local communities to examine public right-of-way management and what it means for infrastructure.

Recognizing that the approach to electronic bikes and scooters are different, some common challenges exist as well. As deployment continues, localities are trying to manage their existence, while states are working to determine their role and define scooters in statute.

In the NPC19 session, panelists shared an example from Dallas, where dockless bikes were launched in the city overnight. What the company failed to consider was the context of the local space, specifically the current status of bike infrastructure and whether bike culture existed. In the case of Dallas, neither of those pieces were particularly prominent, so the bikes remained largely unused until they had to be disposed of, ultimately creating more waste.

Shared mobility is attractive because of sustainability, but it is important to consider the context of local infrastructure and how the two can work to evolve together successfully.

Connection to Common Space

The public right-of-way belongs to everyone. Small cell and electronic scooters and bikes are just a few examples of how technology is changing how the public right-of-way is managed, and what it means to have technology deployed at fast rates in this space.

In both of these examples, the goal of local communities is not to stifle technological advances, but rather ensure they are deployed or implemented in a way that best suits their context. Cities remain faced with the question of how to ensure that deployment of technology is managed in a way that advances communities.

By minimizing localities’ control, the challenge of managing local public right-of-way becomes even greater.

Top image: Bike share and scooter share riders in a protected bike lane in Minneapolis. Photo by Flickr user Minneapolis Public Works TPP (CC BY 2.0).


About the Author
Catherine Hinshaw is APA's state government affairs associate.

May 13, 2019

By Catherine Hinshaw