The Future of Mobility? The Ultimate Urban Circulator

Desiring to lead the charge for autonomous vehicles, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) is working to pilot their Ultimate Urban Circulator system in Downtown Jacksonville in the coming years. The renderings are reminiscent of Tron, but can this technology truly transform the future of mobility in a revitalizing urban core? There are plenty of elements to this project concerning the perceived failure of the previous system, the unprecedented territory that comes with autonomous vehicles, and the conditions of the city as it continues to redevelop. Check out Scott Gann's Bold Cities Project video that covers the topic, and feel free to share your thoughts!

A Skyway vehicle leaves the Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center (JTA)

Many Jaxsons see the system as a failure. Most residents have probably never ridden it if I had to guess. The ridership numbers aren’t what they could be since the downtown population is barely a fraction of the overall population of Jacksonville. There were only about 1,800 downtown residents in 2002 which has improved to over 5,000 today. That’s almost nothing compared to the total population of Duval County over 900,000 people. The city’s goal is for the downtown population to reach a critical mass of 10,000 people. Ridership would be much higher if more people lived there to use the system.

A map of Downtown Jacksonville and the eight districts within it. (Downtown Investment Authority)

Another reason why there aren’t a ton of fans might be for the perceived lack of coverage, as the Skyway runs on a fixed track, limiting its route. Any change in route would require a huge investment in infrastructure, so what’s there is what the city’s got. On the plus side, having an elevated track means the Skyway avoids traffic. And you get some cool artwork on the columns holding it up.

Still, the ridership of over a million annually (3250 daily) is significant enough for JTA to look at how they could evolve the system to adapt to the future.

A rendering of a U2C station in Brooklyn. (JTA)

The innovation of autonomous vehicles that many see coming to our highways is most likely to hit the streets of downtown first. That’s because it’d be easier and safer to implement a smaller number of vehicles on fixed routes going back and forth at lower speeds than personal vehicles at high speeds. The implementation of what JTA is calling the “Ultimate Urban Circulator” or “U2C” would involve removing the guide rail on the elevated tracks to replace it with a flat surface for the rubber wheeled vehicles to drive on. And to extend the system, they could either build more elevated roads or create ramps to put the vehicles at ground level to drive in dedicated or mixed use lanes. [not noted in the video - JTA has clarified that the extensions will not be elevated track, they will be at-grade]

A map of existing (Skyway) and proposed U2C expansion routes (JTA)

The expansion plans are highlighted by reaching out to Riverside, the UF Health complex, and the stadium. JTA is using a 25 million dollar federal grant to create the “Bay Street Innovation Corridor” to pioneer many different technologies related to being a “smart city”. [not noted in the video – the $25 million grant was divided into two halves. $12.5 mil went towards the destruction of the Hart Bridge Expressway, and $12.5 is going towards the Bay Street Innovation Corridor project for JTA]. I could dedicate a whole video just to that topic, but this project would be the pilot of the U2C, moving people along Bay Street between the stadium and the Landing… RIP. One of the intended outcomes of expanding and modernizing the system would be to promote transit-oriented development. That means that the areas around stations become more valuable since there is a consistent flow of people as a result of the transit. This could help build the momentum of the revitalization of downtown.

A conceptual rendering of the Bay Street Innovation Corridor (JTA)

Some questions to consider as this project continues to develop: How much will the system cost to build and run? Who will the system serve, and does it reach the people who could most use the service? How many people can each vehicle hold, and can more vehicles simply be added to the fleet to meet increasing demand? While Jacksonville is on the leading edge of autonomous vehicle implementation at a large scale, they aren’t the only ones exploring this technology. The city of Gainesville Florida has partnered with the University of Florida to create a shuttle running along Second Avenue in between campus and downtown.

An autonomous vehicle operating in mixed-traffic in Lake Nona just outside of Orlando. (Ennis Davis, AICP)

So what do you think? Is the venture a boondoggle, potentially too early for its time? Or is the Ultimate Urban Circulator a beacon of hope for the future of transportation and downtown Jacksonville? Let me know what you think in the comments. And please like this video and subscribe if you want to see more content like this.

Guest editorial and video by Scott Gann