What does “mobility on demand” success look like?

TransportationCampLargerResizedIn October, the Federal Transit Administration announced the selection of 11 projects through its Mobility on Demand Sandbox Program.

A piece of a broader move throughout the United States Department of Transportation, the $8 million funding program hopes to harness the potential of on-demand mobility options to make transportation systems more accessible and spur innovative projects in the field.

Chris Pangilinan, tech and rider engagement program director at TransitCenter, has been part of the organization’s discussion with the FTA to, as he puts it, “seed innovation in order to take advantage of emerging mobility offerings.” This would help municipal departments of transportation effectively develop their projects and the performance indicators that measure their outcomes.

While performance indicators are necessary, Pangilinan points out that “it’s important to have overarching goals to answer why we have transportation in general, in order to determine what’s best to measure.” However, “in [their] research, [TransitCenter] realized not every city has goals in mind, and are just measuring data,” lacking a vision for what they want from their transportation systems.

TransitCenter and the FTA are working to articulate these overarching intentions, and therefore the metrics that become important to measure through this lens. From there, cities can better understand the most effective way to expand their transportation connections.

The potential behind new services

As mobility on demand-type services, such as bikeshare and ride-hailing, continue to grow, the Sandbox Program will encourage cities to experiment with these options and shed light on whether or not they are effective ways to make transportation systems more accessible.

One project Pangilinan highlights is a cooperative submission from Seattle and Los Angeles in collaboration with Lyft to strengthen first- and last-mile connections to the cities’ main transportation corridors.

While both cities hope to expand the reach of their light-rail and bus systems, adding expensive services like connecting bus routes may not be the most effective solution for the communities’ needs. Instead, partnering with an on-demand service could create “efficient connections and expand ridership without spiking the cost” of serving passengers, Pangilinan notes.

Having such different cities submit similar partnership frameworks could provide important information in how specific MOD services expand transit connections.

“We don’t know what MOD brings to transit,” says Pangilinan. “So let’s work with cities to see what they can do with these partnerships.”

In his view, both cities show potential for success based on their unique characteristics. Seattle “intuitively makes sense” based on its more transit-oriented land use. On the other hand, Los Angeles’ particularly dense population on a gridded road network presents its own unique opportunity to move a lot of people along direct routes.

How each partnership develops, and whether they effectively serve their target communities, can help other cities better articulate their own transportation goals and make better-informed decisions based on their own unique contexts.

Exploring success through accessibility

Underlying the Sandbox Program’s various projects is a push to improve equity among the communities each project serves.

Stakeholder engagement is a key element in developing the projects, says Pangilinan. Community involvement in transportation experiments help them direct the conversation toward what best serves those populations, and therefore makes a successful project.

In a sense, TransitCenter and FTA are still figuring out what success means through this lens. There are two perspectives to reconcile in this sense, Pangilinan explains. First is to provide travelers the ability to “maximize every utility available” to get around quickly and affordably. Second, from a wider point of view, agencies must also determine if changes in their systems are contributing to the broader public good, be it greater access, improved public health, or reduced congestion.

“Are we providing access to institutions that are necessary for people to thrive?” he asks.

In this light, Pangilinan is excited to measure how mobility on demand affects these aspects. “Mobility on demand is an interesting tool,” he says. “But is it helping achieve our broader transport goals?”

The MOD Sandbox Program is helping to build a conversation around what successful projects look like, and how they improve access to the cities that build these services into their transportation systems.

Participants at TransportationCamp DC can contribute to this conversation this week: Pangilinan and colleagues will be leading a discussion to explore how mobility on demand contributes to transportation systems and the communities they serve.

TransitCenter is a host partner of TransportationCamp DC 2017.

Photo: Traffic in Arlington County, Va. (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com).

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