Ten Active Transportation Trends to Watch in 2024: Lessons from Mpact

Like many folks in the Streets.mn community, I have been increasingly volunteering my time around transportation and housing advocacy. But it has been a while since my professional work had much to do with my advocacy work. I took a cue from a friend at Mpact (formerly Rail~Volution) and applied to present a workshop at their new pre-conference last November, the Mpact Masterclass.

One session they invited me to host was an EcoCycle workshop, in which participants share their wisdom and construct the lifecycle of something they care about. Our culture tends to employ a linear, “forever growth” model on what we do, but living things — and everything we create — will always be governed by this lifecycle. I chose “trends in active transportation” as the subject of the workshop, which hosted around 14 activists, planners, civic workers and equity practitioners from around the nation. First, they defined active transportation: “Ways of getting around that involve using your body, without a car.” Then, the group identified several trends.

I had used this sustainability-inspired model for years, but I underestimated its usefulness. The EcoCycle model helps us let go of what is no longer serving us, mourn what we have lost, and attend to the births and rebirths that require our energy. Moreover, at a national conference, it enabled us to talk about regional differences and share lessons learned. The workshop results inspired me to deeper conversations at the conference and research afterward.

Here are 10 things the EcoCycle Workshop and the Mpact conference taught me about what to expect in the coming year and beyond.

A diagram of the Mpact Masterclass results from the EcoCycle workshop.
	AVs, i.e., Autonomous Vehicles
	Gen Z not wanting cars
	Transit as amenity
	Using art and architecture in planning, i.e., form-based zoning
	Centering community voice in planning and community development
	15-minute communities 
	New funding
	BRT bus lines
	Reforming how engagement has been done
	Transportation justice
	Inter-city rail
	Reconnecting communities
	Trails—bike, walk, roll
	Walkable urban neighborhoods and mixed use
	Federal transit funding guidelines vs highways
	Traditional transit service delivery
	Non-equity centered processes 
	Traditional commuting
	Park and rides
	Ped safety
	Traffic calming challenge (with increased economic development)
	Autonomous shared use vehicles
	New operational funding
	Ridership is king
	Commute patterns
The results of the Mpact Masterclass EcoCycle workshop. It asked participants to name where elements in active transportation are being born, on the rise, in decline or in rebirth.

1. The Federal Infrastructure Bill Has Changed the Face of Active Transportation

New federal funding streams are enabling us to rethink transportation safety, repair and modernize transit, and promote electric bikes. After decades of prioritizing auto safety — at times even ignoring other modes — the Safe Streets and Roads for All grant program specifically focuses on “vulnerable road users” in its efforts to reduce crashes and fatalities.

The bill’s provisions for upgrading transit systems will see a rise in low- and zero-emissions buses, with grant programs for projects small and large in scope. As commute patterns change, we are likely to see fewer Light Rail Transit (LRT) projects and more Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridors with modern amenities. The next two to three years will make it an exciting time to get a bus pass.

Meanwhile, inter-city rail is gaining momentum. According to a fact sheet from whitehouse.gov, the infrastructure bill provides “funding to modernize the Northeast Corridor, and bring world-class rail service to areas outside the northeast and mid-Atlantic; refurbish Amtrak’s fleet and facilities; and upgrade freight rail service in rural communities and on shared freight-passenger routes.” That means Twin Citians will have another train departure to Chicago soon.

Additionally, communities divided by midcentury interstate construction are getting the attention they’ve been due, with communities like St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood considering highway caps; others, highway removal. Watch for these discussions to deepen and continue as nonprofits and civic entities release more studies on these options in 2024.

A white flipchart labeled "GROWTH" with green half sheets labeled, "Transportation justice," "BRT bus lines," "reconnecting communities," "e-bikes," "inter-city rail," "new funding" and "Reforming how engagement has been done."
Active transportation elements that are growing, according to Mpact Masterclass participants. The stages were arranged on the wall of the workshop room, where participants added ideas for discussion. Photo by Sherry Johnson.

2. Federal Transportation Funding Practices Still Need to Change

Most folks involved in climate activism and sustainable transportation found the 2021 “Build Back Better” federal infrastructure bill to be a mixed bag. On the one hand were the wins mentioned above. On the other hand, the bill still overemphasized highway spending in a time when we need to radically reduce single-occupancy travel via gas-powered vehicles. According to the think tank Transportation for America, “Two-thirds [$432 billion] of that $643 billion is flowing to conventional highway programs.” We Americans are trying desperately to hold onto a system that served the needs of our car-obsessed, mid-20th century mindset.

Thankfully, President Biden’s plan ultimately prioritized highway maintenance over expansion, but even a glance at a 2011 Congressional Budget Office report lays out the flaws in a system that’s warming our planet and emptying our coffers. “Federal spending on highways is funded primarily by taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel,” the report said, “but those and other taxes paid by highway users do not yield enough revenue to support either current federal spending on highways or the higher levels of spending that have been proposed by some observers.”

Watch for the red/blue state and urban/rural divides to increase the heat in our dialogue around these forces as the planet warms.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, in a suit and tie speaking into a microphone.
Under Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s leadership, active transportation has gotten a lift, but the Federal Infrastructure bill continued to emphasize highway funding. Photo by Gage Skidmore (Creative Commons License).

3. Traditional Transit Service Delivery Needs to Change

The way we fund and use transit needs to change, too. For decades, we have fallen into a doomed pattern: First, we wait for massive federal-funding mechanisms to build new transit operations. Then, we scramble through difficult public processes to build those systems. Finally, we cross our fingers in hope that we can find state-level funds to operate and maintain them, as federal funds largely do not. And despite recent state-level wins for transit funding, much of our political will is in building new stuff — not taking care of stuff we have.

Now, thanks to a strong advocacy community, we’ve lucked out in Minnesota. Our new regional transportation sales and use tax could birth a renaissance in active transportation. Nationwide, though, transit systems still face what’s called a “fiscal cliff.” While federal funds have generated the infrastructure, operational funding is still elusive for many of the nation’s biggest metropolitan transit systems.

Phoenix is feeling the pinch, and its Valley Metro system will be one for transit advocates to watch in coming years. Its vibrant and growing transit options are governed by decidedly conservative state funding mechanisms. Despite a pandemic ridership crash, ridership is growing, but perhaps too slowly for comfort. Their Proposition 400 ballot measure leaves their operational funding up to voters. It will certainly have me on edge this November!

A close-up of a hand pressing a transit card on an RFID reading farebox.
Some emphasize the need to enforce fare payment to fund operations; others are pushing for more robust civic funding to support easier payment and lower fares, with some advocating for free fares. Photo from Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

4. Transit Is Starting to Be Seen as a Basic Amenity

At the keynote address of the conference, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, a Democrat, related a personal story about her journey to embrace public transportation. After her election in 2013, she had a seizure that left her without a driver’s license. “You never know when you might be dependent on transit,” she said. Guided by this life-changing experience, she has been a champion of public transit for its own sake — whether ridership is up or down.

But there is a tension there: Any shared public amenity must include everyone. Mayor Gallego may feel comfortable using transit, but stories abound of those who do not, or who cannot afford to live near good routes that service all their destinations. 

On the usability side, we have forced people to worry about access to change machines and tricky-to-refill Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) cards just to board a bus. According to Pew Research, even the poorest Americans are increasingly likely to have a cell phone with app-based fare capability. In an age of app-based everything, it really should not be this hard.

And then there is the justice aspect. During a traveling session at the conference, I was chatting with a newly elected Twin Cities suburban elected official on the LRT. A financially struggling rider interrupted us, saying the Mpact conference was “an illusion.” He chided us for planning conversations that fail the most vulnerable. “I shouldn’t have to pay for this train,” he said. Indeed, justice advocates are pushing for free and reduced fares for folks who need it most. But many systems, ours included, have doubled down on farebox enforcement as a key way to fund transit operations.

A group of people sitting around tables waiting for the opening plenary session in a hotel ballroom.
The Mpact opening plenary emphasized the need for “Health in All Places” and stressed the role of walkable, transit-oriented communities. Photo by Sherry Johnson.

5. Safety Is So Much Bigger Than Enforcement

Unfortunately, when you scratch the surface, any conversation about farebox enforcement quickly moves from the topic of revenue to community safety, public drug use, vagrancy — and corollary fears around losing ridership. Max Singer begins to address this tension in a recent and controversial Streets.mn piece, but lots of equity-minded advocates struggle to distinguish the thin lines between actual safety, perceived safety and mere comfort.

Thankfully, local organizations like Move Minnesota have lobbied to make fare-enforcement fines administrative, rather than criminal. They have also advocated for enforcement agents to be community service officers (CSOs), or “transit ambassadors.” But nothing prohibits transit police from leveraging farebox enforcement to manage or prevent what they see as criminal behavior. The average rider might feel safer with farebox enforcement and heightened security, but at what cost? 

The transit-safety dynamic has a corollary in pedestrian safety. At the conference, the trend of rising pedestrian deaths was on everyone’s lips. A rising trend since the COVID-19 pandemic, some blame riskier drivers, while others condemn poor auto and road design. If you buy into the former view, you want steeper enforcement. If you — like most active transportation experts and advocates — believe the latter, you want redesigned cars and roads. Traffic calming is the principle you embrace.

Traffic calming efforts feel good to active transportation advocates, but others can perceive them as a tradeoff with economic development. The question always comes up: Whom does traffic-calming serve, and how does slowing car traffic (and often, decreased parking) impact business owners who desire both foot traffic and far-flung, car-dependent visitors? There’s a growing body of research that traffic calming does not harm businesses and often helps them. 

Two factors will be key to increasing actual safety in coming years. One is changing the narrative around traffic calming with small-business advocates. We also need to enable complex conversations about safety and comfort tradeoffs for all transit users.

A blue bus on a four-lane stroad at a bus shelter, with a transit user attempting to cross midblock after dropoff.
Pedestrian deaths are rising even as transportation and economic development infrastructure projects blossom, according to Mpact Masterclass participants. Even with Tempe’s thriving transit hubs, pedestrians must cross dangerous stroads. Photo by Sherry Johnson.

6. Transportation Justice Is Growing

The phrase “transportation justice” was new to me, but I heard it in every corner of the conference. The opening plenary, Health in All Places, had this tagline: “Walkable, transit-oriented communities are healthier. How can we make these communities a reality for everyone?”

The concept has its roots in “environmental justice,” enshrined in a 1994 executive order by President Bill Clinton. It directed federal agencies to assess all its projects in their impacts on minority and low-income populations. After being constrained under President Trump, the thinking has been expanded under the Biden administration’s Justice 40 Initiative, established “to confront and address decades of underinvestment in disadvantaged communities,” as described on its DoT webpage.

In a closing conversation, I spoke with a friend at Mpact, Sarah Rudolf. She facilitates its MOVE Roundtable program, described as “collaborative problem-solving with place-based, cross-sector, interdisciplinary stakeholder groups.” We talked about how transportation justice relates to her work. As a witness to so many projects nationwide, Rudolf has been tending an emerging notion of “mobility redlining.” That is, for low-income people, “the status quo is being left out, built out, displaced” in transit-oriented development projects. 

Even when collaborative and enlightened work such as MOVE Roundtables do take place, rising land values around shiny, new transit nodes make it difficult to prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable. 

Watch for opportunities to explore mobility redlining pressures in the coming year by seeking out writing, podcasting and trainings hosted by advocacy groups.

A "SIDEWALK CLOSED" sign blocks a bus stop a few yards away, without ramps or accommodations to reach the bus stop in view.
The sign that blocked me from my bus stop with heavy luggage when I got back home made me think a lot about transportation justice. Photo by Sherry Johnson.

7. Walkable, Bikeable and Dense Neighborhoods Are the New Standard

After a handful of years arguing — often unsuccessfully — for walkable urban design and denser, mixed-use zoning efforts, I was surprised how established these assumptions are across the country. Despite some high-profile fights against them, off-street trails for walking, biking and rolling are playing a vital role in spurring active transportation. These trends aren’t likely to fade quickly; the rising popularity of 15-minute cities worldwide is merely in its infancy in America.

In a conference session called Form or Finance: Making the Missing Middle Work, panelists — two developers, an architect/urban designer and an affordable housing specialist — agreed that density is necessary to support walkable, thriving and energized neighborhoods. Moreover, they stressed that a diverse housing mix is key to achieving the kind of density that supports walkability and thriving small businesses. To this end, panelists advocated for policy change that supports missing middle design, inclusionary zoning and adoption of form-based codes.

Luckily, the Twin Cities seem to be moving in the right direction on all these fronts. Land-use advocates are actively lobbying the state to change building codes that would allow developers to build more “missing middle” structures using single-stair access. Minneapolis has a new inclusionary zoning law. St. Paul has signaled a move toward form-based zoning in its recommendations for changes to the East Grand Avenue Overlay District (EGAOD). (Watch for more on Streets.mn in the coming weeks about EGAOD, after it goes before the St. Paul Planning Commission on January 19.) Meanwhile, we’re all waiting on the results of Minneapolis’ appeal of a district court ruling in September 2023 against implementing its density-friendly 2040 Plan.

Four panelists sitting in chairs at the front of a hotel conference room.
Four experts discuss an important land use issue at their breakout session, Form or Finance: Making the Missing Middle Work. From left to right, Cameran Bailey of NEOO Partners, Karen Parolek of Opticos Design, Danielle Arigoni of the National Housing Trust, and Ryan Spak of Spak Group. Photo by Sherry Johnson.

8. Equitable Engagement is Growing

Transit projects large and small have a history of ignoring, silencing and even decimating historically marginalized communities like St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood. But two equitable engagement models have gained prominence in recent years: the IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum and Facilitating Power’s iteration called The Spectrum of Community Engagement to Ownership. Both have deep roots in the 1960s Black Power movement and activist works like Paulo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

What was once radical has now become mainstream. In a recent job with Ramsey County, my client handed me the Facilitating Power spectrum and insisted I use it. This thinking was everywhere at the Mpact Conference. The message to communities from civic entities is no longer “We will keep you informed.” It is “You are making us think, (and therefore act) differently about the issue.” If you are lucky, the message goes even further: “Your leadership and expertise are critical to how we address the issue.”

I spoke with Sarah Brown, business assistance coordinator and transit-oriented development (TOD) grant manager from the City of Phoenix Public Transit Department. In her work with their LRT division, she said: “No amount of planning can replace the input of a community.” There are “things you won’t learn unless you build trust — which only happens when you speak with them on multiple occasions and in different ways.” Brown also stressed the importance of moving into communities long before planning takes place. “A successful TOD project must involve the community every step of the way, not only listening to their feedback, but incorporating it into a shared vision for what is possible.”

Two handouts depicting infographics about two equitable engagement frameworks: "The Spectrum of Community Engagement to Ownership," and "IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation."
Two popular frameworks for equitable engagement: The IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum and Facilitating Power’s Spectrum of Community Engagement to Ownership. Photo by Sherry Johnson.

9. Driverless Tech Is Not Going Anywhere

Autonomous shared-use vehicles were the talk of the Mpact Conference. Lots of people were in love with their promise, and others were doubtful and concerned about their reliability and safety.

My workshop group could not come to consensus about where to place them in the EcoCycle, either. While they put autonomous vehicles in the “Birth” category, they put autonomous shared-use vehicles in “Decline.” The tension arises from two sources: 1) the reputation of driverless tech; and 2) the difference between Automated Vehicle (AV) technologies and efforts to create autonomous, cooperative automated vehicles (CAVs).

First, their reputation. Taxi-style autonomous rideshare programs like Waymo and Cruise are flourishing in Phoenix, but other cities have mixed to harmful experiences. I kept hearing stories of folks at the conference who had just tried them, and everyone was downloading the app to check it out. When I asked around, I got two competing responses. My Mpact friend Sarah summed up the first with, “Do you really trust humans more than the tech?”

On the other hand, there was my very human taxi driver on the way to the airport: “Oh, no. Those things are bad news. I have seen people have to chase them down. Do you really trust those things over a person?”

This year will be important in determining which stance active transportation advocates will take regarding this technology.

A white Waymo autonomous car waits at a stoplight in Phoenix. Cameras are mounted on its roof, hood, and bumper. No one is inside.
Waymo vehicles were everywhere on Phoenix Metro streets, making them the talk of the Mpact Conference. These taxi-style autonomous rideshare vehicles polarized attendees, leaving some excited and others trepidatious. Photo by Sherry Johnson.

10. The Private Sector Is Poised to Control the Growing Autonomous Shared-Use Vehicle Market

Then there is the tension between individual versus cooperative models. Active transportation might increase if CAVs were added to the modal mix. Locally, the Bear Tracks Shuttle demonstration project in White Bear Lake enjoyed brief success starting in 2022. Using driverless tech with a human greeter, the route took passengers between the YMCA and PAI, a social service organization. According to the project website, “Operations of the shuttle concluded because the shuttle manufacturer was purchased by another company and restructured,” resulting in “a lack of technical support needed to operate.”

Bear Tracks may have died, but other CAV efforts are in a fragile, quiet birth phase. The U.S. Department of Transportation releases a regular report on AV technology and gave out $60 million in Automated Driving System Demonstration Grants in 2019 to educational institutions and government entities.

As we speak, the public sector is testing CAV tech quietly around the country while the private sector and its slick CEOs embrace Silicon Valley’s “fail fast” strategy on individual AV tech. If private ventures continue to sacrifice safety, they could ruin all those public efforts. Meanwhile, venture capital is poised to gobble up the intellectual property and human talent that might have benefitted small CAV ventures, as in the case of our ill-fated Bear Tracks. 

Only time will tell if affordable, publicly held, shared-use AVs will survive.

A rainbow-hued Bear Tracks shuttle parked with its double-doors open and a wheelchair ramp descending from its accessible interior.
Active transportation could grow if autonomous shared use vehicles can be added to the mix, like this ill-fated Bear Tracks Shuttle in White Bear Lake. While taxi-style autonomous rideshare programs are flourishing in big cities, small pilot programs like this one may have surpassed their peak. Photo from MNDoT’s CAV Challenge webpage.

Moving Forward

The EcoCycle model and spending time in conversations at the Mpact Conference helped me find common threads for what to watch in 2024. I got to reflect, research and write about all these trends, though I could not cover them all. In future years, I’ll be watching for the rise of health impact studies in building or reinvigorating transit, as well as the struggle of successive generations of Americans against their forced dependence on car culture.

Spending just a couple of days, I got to meet and chat with officials, organizers and planners from all over the nation. At every table or standing circle, the conversation was substantial and invigorating; I had more than one conversation with fellow transportation and land use nerds about how we felt so grateful to start at that depth level without having to attenuate our passion.

On a personal note, what began as an exercise in uniting my personal and professional interests became a chance to see that I had a place in our collective efforts to foster active transportation. It is going to take all of us to mitigate climate impacts, build more equitable housing and increase access to vibrant transportation systems.

A Dotmocracy board in the hallway of the Mpact Conference, already filling up on its first day. It asked people to vote on or nominate the top three challenges attendees faced in their transportation and land use work. Photo by Sherry Johnson.

About Sherry Johnson

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Sherry Johnson gets feisty about sustainability and localism. A complexity coach, adaptive strategist, and amplifier of counter-narratives, Sherry supports civic and nonprofit leaders as Principal Guide at Cultivate Strategy.