A past MIT rendering on the future of American suburbs.
Courtesy of MIT A past MIT rendering on the future of American suburbs.

At Zonda’s upcoming Future Place event in October, Thad Rutherford, CEO and president of SouthStar Communities, and Jonah Susskind, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and research associate of MIT’s Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism, will present how their teams have been working alongside the Toyota Mobility Foundation (TMF) for nearly two years to create more pedestrian-friendly and autonomous-vehicle-friendly neighborhoods.

Using the Next Optimized Generation Autonomous Suburbs (NOGAS) Modeling Tool, two Texas SouthStar communities, VIDA in San Antonio and Mayfair in New Braunfels, have served as case studies in an effort to understand how to shift from lower-density, car-centric development patterns to more efficient ones that are easier on the environment.

To find out more about NOGAS and these innovative neighborhoods, BUILDER asked Rutherford and Susskind to share more details.

BUILDER: How is SouthStar aiming to develop smarter, more efficient neighborhoods?

Rutherford: We are studying better ways to lay out our communities that achieve better outcomes and connectivity but also future-proof for things not yet implemented.

BUILDER: How did the partnership with MIT and TMF come about?

Susskind: The relationship started through Texas A&M University-San Antonio. Through other work, we were introduced to VIDA, and Thad was brought in. From there was a recognition of the opportunity to collaborate connecting mobility and transportation with VIDA and adjacent areas.

Jonah Susskind
MIT Jonah Susskind
Thad Rutherford
SouthStar Communities Thad Rutherford

BUILDER: What is everyone’s role in the partnership?

Rutherford: TMF has served as a convener- collaborator with a particular focus on providing know-how and expertise on mobility and transportation technology, especially for barrier-free universal design along with some financial support.

BUILDER: At what stage of development are the case studies in San Antonio and New Braunfels?

Rutherford: Both communities are only about two years old, so much of the on-site implementation is still in the planning stages.

BUILDER: What sets these communities apart from traditional master plans?

Rutherford: They both provide a deeper look into different land planning uses in a way that better connects residents and allows for a better experience. (I can talk so much more about this!)

BUILDER: Can you share details on how these two developments are being analyzed/researched?

Rutherford: Jonah and the team at MIT continue to analyze different aspects of both projects and their land plans to create optimal scenarios for future development. At VIDA, we studied creating layouts to accommodate future autonomous vehicles within residential areas, and, at Mayfair, we are trying to determine the best way to create a land use pattern for mobility for all ages and levels.

BUILDER: What are Next Optimized Generation Autonomous Suburbs?

Susskind: Today, suburban areas are home to an ever-increasing majority of the global population. Trends indicate that growth within greater metropolitan areas now outpaces that in urban cores and will continue to do so into the future. As areas of suburban density become the dominant living condition for most North Americans, the challenges associated with their lower-density, car-centric development pattern prove more problematic.

The Next Optimized Generation of Autonomous Suburbs (NOGAS) is a scenario-based parametric modeling toolkit designed for spatial planners, urban designers, land developers, and municipalities to integrate emerging mobility technologies into new urban forms, and plan and build for the future.

BUILDER: What are some of the benefits of pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods that people may not think of?

Susskind: When neighborhoods are designed to prioritize the experience of pedestrians, issues like safety, comfort, and accessibility come to the forefront. When these issues are addressed through solutions like widening trails, planting more trees, and reducing barriers to circulation, they typically come with an array of environmental co-benefits including stormwater capture, carbon sequestration, and extreme heat mitigation to name a few.

The NOGAS toolkit allows users to optimize future design solutions for less pavement redundancies and more landscape space, which brings with it these additional environmental and social benefits while maintaining or even increasing density.

BUILDER: What’s considered micro-mobility in a suburban built environment?

Susskind: Suburban mobility presents many new and exciting challenges. Unlike urban cores, suburban areas are often characterized by lower population density, longer distances between destinations, and less developed infrastructure for alternative modes of transportation. However, e-bikes, e-scooters, and other smaller electric vehicles are providing new affordable options for commuters.

According to the latest National Household Travel Survey, around 60% of domestic light-duty vehicle trips are shorter than 6 miles. These short trips represent a huge potential for reducing vehicular dependence in suburban areas by implementing more micro-mobility options.

BUILDER: Are there any common misunderstandings surrounding autonomous vehicles and/or pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods?

Susskind: Yes! (Probably too many to name here.) In terms of autonomous vehicles, the technology is arriving at our doorsteps, but it is still unclear how that technology will be adopted and integrated into our daily lives. This leaves lots of room for speculation and misconceptions. While the industry has made claims about autonomous vehicles replacing privately owned cars, eliminating congestion, reducing environmental impact, and increasing overall safety, we should probably remain cautiously optimistic until there is more adoption.

Hear more from Rutherford and Susskind at Future Place, Oct. 9 to 11, in Tampa, Florida.