How Connected is Your City?

A new Populous research initiative looks at the future of urban transit infrastructure

by Derrick Choi and Eric Williams


Image courtesy of Adnan Islam

“If you build it,” the saying goes, “they will come.”  But in truth, this represents only half the battle.

As designers of some of the world’s most cherished gathering places, Populous understands well the challenges of drawing people together on a grand scale. It takes a special acumen for urban design.

Most of us instinctively get why people want to be together. Shared experience can be a powerful motivator. How people come together en masse, on the other hand, isn’t as obvious. Our job as designers is to tie multiple buildings into their surrounding infrastructure.

Populous projects like transit-oriented Target Field in Minneapolis provide once-in-a-generation opportunities to reimagine this relationship between remarkable city spaces, the communities filling them and the transit infrastructure bringing everyone together.

To help prepare our clients for a future in which 70 percent of the global population will be centered in cities, we embarked on a thorough investigation of what’s next in the world of transportation. Send us a note to request the full projectMOVE research material, the first portion of which we’ll preview below.

› Module 1: the future of urban mobility solutions ‹

Module 2: innovative public-private partnerships in infrastructure development

Module 3: the impact of e-Commerce on logistics and global infrastructure

The ‘first’ and ‘last’ mile puzzle

Bryant Nguyen and Cory Berg loaded up their backpacks, laced up their shoes and hit the Boston pavement each morning this past summer. They weren’t canvassing neighborhoods for a political candidate or training for a marathon. They were simply headed to work. To be more specific, they were headed to Populous’ Downtown Boston office as summer research interns.

Their story echoes the daily urban commutes of millions in the Northeastern portion of the United States. Mass transit in the region is among the most sophisticated in the country, yet the dream of an affordable door-to-door public transportation solution still feels out of reach for most New England commuters.

Factor in accessibility and affordability challenges for those like single parents with children in tow and the challenge can be daunting for the region as a whole. Our research identified six typical commuter types (see below example), all of which lack reliable transit options for the opening and closing legs of their daily journeys.

daily commuter pain points

Non-stop options are few and far between even for Boston’s solo commuters.

However, talk with any urban planner or transportation engineer and you just might catch a glimmer of hope in their eyes thanks to solutions literally rolling out onto our connected city streets. Autonomous vehicles are the future – and, in some cases, the present – but we don’t need them to become mainstream before we start to feel the impact of this kind of innovation.

Companies rooted in technology and employing new business models have seized the opportunity as American roadways and legacy public transit systems struggle to keep pace with swelling populations and dwindling budgets.

BRIDJ-ing the gaps  

Transportation officials have long acknowledged the challenge of getting commuters from their front doors to bus stops, train stations, etc. – and vice-versa. How do municipalities fill in the gap when neither travel by foot nor bike is an option?

Enter micro-transit, an up-and-coming form of transportation providing on-demand service to small groups of riders thanks to real-time data and flexible routes. While UBER generates the most headlines for its personal car service, startup BRIDJ is taking a similar approach with the humble shuttle and providing rides at price points similar to public transit.

Populous Boston Interns

Populous’ Bryant Nguyen (left) and Cory Berg try out BRIDJ in Boston

BRIDJ’s two test markets – Boston and Kansas City – just so happen to be home to Populous offices. Here in Beantown, we’ve had a front-row seat (sometimes literally, as shown in the photo above) to the service’s growth. It’s one in a mix of privately-operated last-mile solutions the city is tapping to cut down on transit deserts. In KC, BRIDJ is collaborating with the city’s transportation authority to provide a similar app-based service.

Populous designers are in the thick of it ourselves, working with airports and transit authorities to help redefine the modern transit experience with concepts like the award-winning CurbShare platform. We’re both learning this new reality while shaping it at the same time.

Blazing a new money trail

Micro-transit, autonomous vehicles and other new technologies represent the growth of private sector forces in areas historically the realm of public agencies. Whether it’s business or the government driving the bus, most operators agree improved mobility for all is hardly a zero-sum equation.

Some have also suggested the public-private partnership (P3) is a necessary part of the city planner’s toolbox. Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter notes in her book, “Move: How to Rebuild and Reinvent America’s Infrastructure,” P3s can “deliver much-needed public goods at low cost while providing attractive opportunities for private investment.”

Wherever the money comes from, the commute of the future in America will be the byproduct of intense collaboration. As our 21st-century challenges take shape, we’ll need to think smarter, faster and more resiliently when connecting our city centers, airports and entertainment venues.

Stay tuned for our next post exploring public-private partnerships in infrastructure development.


Choi_DerrickDerrick Choi leads Populous Americas’ aviation efforts with 15 years of experience in complex public infrastructure and transport planning.


williams_eric_webEric Williams collaborates on research and design issues pertaining to the civic realm.


  1. Derrick and Eric:

    Great article. But, Derrick, how about an integrated bag drop/delivery solution for airports? Why are we still schlepping our bags all the way to the airport?

    Jim Robinson
    March 1, 2017
  2. Derrick and Eric,
    Enjoyed this post a lot and looking forward to the next two modules.

    March 16, 2017

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