Sharing Economy – Mobility Lab https://mobilitylab.org Moving People... Instead of Just Cars Wed, 26 Apr 2017 16:01:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Will growth of shared mobility make people more willing to share their own cars? https://mobilitylab.org/2017/04/25/shared-mobility-willing-own-cars/ https://mobilitylab.org/2017/04/25/shared-mobility-willing-own-cars/#respond Tue, 25 Apr 2017 17:36:02 +0000 https://mobilitylab.org/?p=22101 As many as 95 percent of trips in big cities could be shared with no more than a 5-minute inconvenience for riders, according to a recent report co-authored by Carlo Ratti of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab. Back in 2010, the Albany Times Union did some interesting reporting to delve into why New York State residents... Read more »

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As many as 95 percent of trips in big cities could be shared with no more than a 5-minute inconvenience for riders, according to a recent report co-authored by Carlo Ratti of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab.

Back in 2010, the Albany Times Union did some interesting reporting to delve into why New York State residents seemed incapable adopting a sharing mindset when it comes to driving. (Granted, 2010 was before the Uber craze, but even that kind of ride-hailing more often has a taxi feel than a carpooling one.) The paper’s own surveying found very few people carpooling and this article gives a range of the unlimited excuses people can make for their lack of enthusiasm about sharing.

In conversations about mobility these days, sharing is understood as a necessary part of the solution for fixing overwhelming demand on transportation systems. Even (and especially) car companies are beginning to lean heavily on shared rides or shared vehicles as an important component in their future share of the transportation market.

While one kind of shared mobility question may still remain – will people eventually grow accustomed to sharing their private vehicles? – sharing a common, company-owned vehicle does seem to have a growing place.

Walter Rosenkrantz, ‎senior business-development manager at car2go, itself owned by German automaker Daimler, spoke at the Association for Commuter Transportation’s Public Policy Summit last week in Washington, D.C. (which Mobility Lab co-sponsored).

“Carsharing has exploded. It’s kind of here to stay. The more there is out there, the more personal vehicles are going to be shared. Pretty soon it’s not going to make sense to have a car. It’s just going to be easier to get around without a car, so why have one?”

The numbers indeed look impressive. Car2go’s membership surpassed 2 million in 2016. But looking more closely, those are global numbers, and people in the U.S. haven’t always behaved like those in other countries, especially when it comes to transportation. In fact, carsharing revenue in North America is expected to drop – given faster growth in international markets – to just 23 percent of the global total by 2024. And numbers for projected U.S. growth in carsharing can be difficult to come by.

Further, think anecdotally. When I have conversations with residents of the D.C. region and mention the concept of sharing – even in a place as traffic-clogged as the nation’s capital, where there are tons of alternatives to driving alone – I get blank stares. They may as well be saying to me, “I spent $30,000 for my nice car, why would I let someone else tag along on my commute?”

Surprisingly, it appears we have little understanding regarding the fundamental question of whether or not people are even willing to share their own vehicles in the first place.

And if people are willing to share, is that number going up or down? Does “shared mobility” include being in a small, non-transit vehicle with strangers? The pieces of the sharing economy and shared mobility that are working fabulously – AirBnB for home rentals, bikesharing – are not shared at the same time but rather used continuously.

“I’m not sure people think about their transportation [as shared resources]” said the Shared-Use Mobility Center’s Sharon Feigon, who also presented at ACT’s conference. “People join carsharing programs when their car is broken down, they have a major break up [in a relationship], or have just moved to a new city. They try it as temporary thing and it ends up working for them.”

She’s right: it often takes a major life change to get people to think about not just sharing, but the overall way that they move around.  A brief survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers found that, in 2015, only 44 percent of U.S. adults were familiar with the sharing economy. More specifically:

According to our data, 8 percent of all adults have participated in some form of automotive sharing. 1 percent have served as providers under this new model, chauffeuring passengers around or loaning out their car by the hour, day or week. Of all the categories we examined, this is the one in which consumers would most like to see the sharing economy succeed.

Today, many people simply don’t share their vehicles, for any number of reasons, despite the emergence of some rental-like services like GetAround. But there is hope, because even though nobody wants to share their cars, they all want other people to share their cars.

“Unless you raise parking prices or make it prohibitively difficult to drive, you can’t change the balance,” Feigon added. “[The Shared-Use Mobility Center is] not fixated on whether people do or don’t like to share. There is something healthy about it, given the rise of [sprawl- and auto-driven] loneliness, and land use that promotes pedestrian activity is inherently social and also involves physical activity. Setting up the conditions for that is really good.

“In my own experiences, taking the train, I catch up with people I know. And you don’t have to deal with anybody if you don’t want to. [Taking transit or sharing] can make you more accepting of different kinds of people,” she said.

Other than focusing on people who are making major life changes, one demographic Feigon suggested could be ripe for more sharing is women with school-age children, who drive the most of any category of people and make lots of short trips that conflict with the poor ways we’ve designed our communities.

“That was not the biggest category of drivers 50 years ago,” she laughed.

We often hear how technology alone won’t change behavior; rather, it takes true willingness of people. But with getting people to share, technology may currently be a helpful motivator.

Along with that hope, it’s a safe bet that more research about the willingness of people to share and, specifically, what could make them share seats in their own cars, is equally critical.

Photo, top: car2go cars parked outside of a light rail station in Austin, Texas (Lars Plougmann, Flickr, Creative Commons).

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Bringing transportation options to small and mid-sized cities https://mobilitylab.org/2016/10/20/bringing-transportation-options-small-mid-sized-cities/ https://mobilitylab.org/2016/10/20/bringing-transportation-options-small-mid-sized-cities/#respond Thu, 20 Oct 2016 17:00:05 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=19293 Quality transit, abundant ride-hailing apps, and quick-trip bikeshare systems are largely assumed to be the province of big cities, but small and mid-sized cities are getting in on the game too. That was the takeaway at a workshop during this week’s Shared Mobility Summit in Chicago titled, “Scaling Shared Mobility in Small to Mid-sized Cities.”... Read more »

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Quality transit, abundant ride-hailing apps, and quick-trip bikeshare systems are largely assumed to be the province of big cities, but small and mid-sized cities are getting in on the game too.

That was the takeaway at a workshop during this week’s Shared Mobility Summit in Chicago titled, “Scaling Shared Mobility in Small to Mid-sized Cities.”

“Smaller communities have the same needs as larger ones,” said Nate Taber, head of marketing for Zagster, which operates 142 bikeshare systems in the U.S. and handles items such as funding, planning, technology, and promotion for all its jurisdictions.

He listed those needs as: filling transportation gaps, reducing traffic and parking congestion, promoting sustainability, building biking and walking culture, promoting active lifestyles, and supporting local businesses.

And it’s true. The panelists agreed that smaller communities can use the same kinds of actions that big cities take to change people’s driving-alone habits into more active, sustainable traveling.

“One of most effective things done is to literally take a map and call out key points of interest [for residents]. Things like bikeshare stations, the mall, and the transit center are so many miles from your office or university dorm,” Taber added. “It really, really works – to show that it’s a 10-minute bike ride to Target shows that it’s way easier than walking. People don’t know this stuff unless they’ve gotten out of the car and explored.”

Left to right: Aarjav Trivedi, founder and CEO of RideCell; Doug Snower, president of E-Rive; Mike Scrudato, senior Vice president of strategic innovation at Munich Reinsurance America; Allen Greenberg, a transportation pricing expert at the Federal Highway Administration; and Paul Mackie of Mobility Lab.

Panel speakers, left to right: Nate Taber of Zagster, Carly Sieff of Fehr & Peers, Gregory Sheldon of Rochester, N,Y, Janet Attarian of the City of Detroit, and the panel’s two moderators.

Gregory Sheldon, of the Rochester, N.Y., mayor’s Office of Innovation, said the actual design of the bikes is something that can go a long way towards subtly helping people think about transportation alternatives. For instance, cargo bikes could go in at local markets so people don’t automatically assume that they have to take a car to do grocery shopping. “People will understand and start to get it,” Sheldon said.

“Also, there are some really nice trails along the river in Rochester that are underused. They abruptly stop and don’t provide the connectivity needed. Even a couple blocks where the trail is missing can really kill [the usefulness of the trail],” he added. “You have to have seamless connections.”

Carly Sieff, a transportation planner with Fehr & Peers, said simply going to events where large percentages of smaller communities will be and passing out flyers is a tried and true way to publicize transportation options.

“Go to where the people are instead of them coming to us,” she said, referring to work her firm is doing in the Denver suburb of Centennial, Colo. In a smaller city, this strategy puts agencies in touch with a greater percentage of the overall community than it would in more populous areas.

Sieff said car culture runs deep in Centennial, as it does in most small and mid-sized cities. “Through a Bloomberg grant, we trained seniors in the community and they went and trained their peers” on how to use the Go Denver/Go Centennial app, the Xerox-developed multimodal trip-planning tool which is arriving in more markets.

Other differences between big and smaller cities that may actually be advantageous for small cities attempting shared-mobility initiatives? “It’s easier to ‘make it happen.’ All we have is the bus, so it’s us and the regional transit authority that need to sit at the table,” said Rochester’s Sheldon.

“And if we need to get the word out about [something like] bikesharing, it’s not cost prohibitive for us to go door to door to get the word out.”

Tabor, of Zagster, said some of the other bikeshare differences for smaller communities are that there may be longer ride times, lighter weight infrastructure may be necessary, more focus on park- and trail-oriented station placement, and local sponsorship considerations of working to build a community coalition of local businesses, rather than seeking a single corporate backer. Zagster’s model is to then have centralized operations and support that works directly with all of its local systems across various geographic areas.

What may be most important of all is ensuring that smaller cities understand that multimodal transportation is often a ticket towards a prosperous future.

“[These options make it] look like the area is headed in the right direction,” Tabor said. “The city is making steps toward investing in this community. It’s a lever to help businesses put offices and people on the ground.”

Photos: The Zagster-operated mBike system in the city of College Park, Maryland (Adam Russell), and panel (Paul Mackie).

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How does actual sharing fit into the sharing economy? https://mobilitylab.org/2016/10/18/sharing-economy-business/ https://mobilitylab.org/2016/10/18/sharing-economy-business/#comments Tue, 18 Oct 2016 20:18:30 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=19261 It’s safe to say that, in 2016, the sharing economy has gone mainstream. What’s funny about this is that what most people are referring to when we talk about this segment of the economy has little to do with sharing. I was thinking about this while I rode my hotel’s “shared bicycle” ($22 for four hours)... Read more »

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shared-use-logos-bIt’s safe to say that, in 2016, the sharing economy has gone mainstream. What’s funny about this is that what most people are referring to when we talk about this segment of the economy has little to do with sharing.

I was thinking about this while I rode my hotel’s “shared bicycle” ($22 for four hours) around Chicago prior to the start of this week’s Shared Mobility Summit (of which Mobility Lab is a media sponsor).

The driving forces for the sharing economy, when it comes to transportation, should be efficiency, reliability, traffic mitigation, and the appeal of non-driving options.

But Uber and Airbnb, arguably the two biggest names in the sharing economy, are at their core peer-to-peer businesses. Sure, Uber helps people who don’t live near transit have a better option than taking their own vehicles, and Airbnb can be more convenient and less expensive than staying in a hotel. But in the end, drivers and hosts are providing a service that costs their customers money.

This is not the essence of sharing as most people think of it. Uber and Airbnb are technologies that, with the spread of internet access, have allowed average, non-corporate people to make money from their resources. But there really isn’t any bartering going on, and it’s not “sharing our stuff” in the sense of enjoying portions of our things with each other.

Most importantly, we don’t want to miss the unprecedented opportunity for people to use limited resources more efficiently. It’s not UberX, but UberPool, that should be the focus – actual shared rides. It’s not car companies trying to put more vehicles on the road. It’s Turo, formerly Relay Rides, that lets people rent out their already existing and sitting-most-of-the-time vehicles. It’s Sameride, which is focusing on building critical mass for its carpooling route.

There’s a long way to go before the average household understands all of this. In a recent study by the Insurance Research Council, 71 percent of American adults “report little familiarity” with the sharing economy, with a plurality of that group, 46 percent, saying they are “not at all familiar.”

Another major study, conducted by Pew, found that only 15 percent of Americans have used a ride-hailing app, and only 3 percent say they use them on a daily or weekly basis.

These are very intriguing, and somewhat stunning numbers to a city boy like myself, where the services are more commonly used and density creates more options. Doesn’t everyone like a deal? For instance, I stayed in an altogether-pleasant Airbnb in Pittsburgh this month for $90 during the University of Pittsburgh homecoming, when no hotel in the city core could be found for less than $350. There appears to be a lot of people overpaying to stay in hotels simply because “that’s what we’ve always done.”

It makes me wonder how old-school models like hotels, taxis, and transit are going to survive once a lot more people start realizing they have all these other options. Do they even need to survive? Have we simply been doing it all wrong all these years?

Perhaps part of the problem in reaching people might actually be technology. There are so many apps that do so many different things; maybe it’s no wonder that people default to the car over transit or the hotel over someone’s guest room. A new study from Xerox found that half of all respondents believe they will have one app for all their transportation needs by 2020. This sounds like wish fulfillment by people who want all these little players to go away or merge or something.

Maybe one app for carpooling, one app for car-sharing, and one app for ride-hailing is the model that would get more people into the sharing economy.

Finally, where does government fit into all of this? Promoting and incentivizing sharing that has a larger societal benefit seems like a good start. Since the market is so competitive, most start-ups aren’t sharing their data, another thing regulation could encourage. More open data could help planners, programmers, and others make the broader transportation network run more reliably.

Perhaps federal and state governments could usher in some incentives to get these services to open up and cooperate as part of a larger transportation system. If services are going to channel the nature of sharing, it should be to play a role in improving accessibility and equity too.

If most of the businesses and services being defaulted into the “sharing economy” category truly don’t fall into a more traditional definition of sharing, then perhaps it’s not too late to call the sector something else altogether. The Associated Press has already gotten the memo, last year instructing writers to refer to “ride-sharing” as “ride-hailing” instead.

But if these options truly begin to relieve traffic congestion, increase affordability and accessibility, and improve many of society’s other ills created by our current transportation situation, then we can truly begin to feel all warm-and-fuzzy inside the sharing economy.

Photo: A ride via Uber (Andrew Brackin, Flickr, Creative commons).

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Taking notes: Creative students, campuses thinking beyond driving https://mobilitylab.org/2016/10/03/taking-notes-students-campuses-thinking-beyond-driving/ https://mobilitylab.org/2016/10/03/taking-notes-students-campuses-thinking-beyond-driving/#comments Mon, 03 Oct 2016 18:37:08 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=19076 Alarm, shower, coffee, breakfast. Up until the moment the door slams, weekday-morning routines might be virtually standard across generations of Americans – but if that next step takes you to a sidewalk rather than a driver’s seat, chances are you’re a millennial. More than ever before, young people in the United States are choosing not... Read more »

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Alarm, shower, coffee, breakfast. Up until the moment the door slams, weekday-morning routines might be virtually standard across generations of Americans – but if that next step takes you to a sidewalk rather than a driver’s seat, chances are you’re a millennial.

More than ever before, young people in the United States are choosing not to own cars, and even if they do, they are more likely to use alternative transportation than previous generations.

This trend requires some context. Contrary to common stereotypes, millennials’ deviation from personal automobiles has more to do with rising convenience than pure environmental fervor. This rings true for several reasons:

  • While gas is still relatively cheap, owning a car can be quite expensive when costs like parking and maintenance are taken into account
  • Millennials are more likely to want to live near city centers where scarce parking and traffic often make alternatives the quicker, cheaper option, and
  • A sizable proportion of this demographic resides on college campuses, which are often well-connected by public transportation.

Yes, millennials care about climate change. They also care about not having to find parking before class.

In fact, incentives are growing for today’s university students to consider alternative transportation when traveling to and across campus. One 2008 survey of 29 higher education institutions, cited here [PDF], found that more than 50 percent provided services such as bicycle paths/lanes, shuttle services to campus, free or discounted transit passes, and emergency-ride-home service for students or employees. Many also employ additional strategies such as ridematching services for carpooling, walkable campus design, and marketing outreach. And given a demographic predisposed to other modes, conditions are right for more forward-thinking campus transportation policies.

While institutions of higher learning do tend to be more supportive of issues like reducing greenhouse gas emissions, of which transportation is now the largest contributor in the U.S., there is also a clear business incentive to put limited real estate to the most productive uses – not to parking spaces.

That may be one of the reasons why universities have invested so heavily in transportation demand management, and the results are impressive. A recent U.S. Department of Transportation analysis [PDF] of five college campuses found that all had reached the “tipping point” of mobility parity, meaning under 50 percent of students and faculty commuted using single-occupant vehicles. In several cases, the SOV rate was even lower than 20 percent. When juxtaposed with an increasing national rate of 76 percent mirrored in the surrounding metropolitan areas, that is an extraordinary accomplishment.

Despite theories about the iron-tight grip of American car culture, these TDM initiatives continue to have smooth social transitions. The trick to discouraging driving cars seems to be simply making it more appealing to avoid them – college students are excellent testaments to this phenomenon.

In one example, the University of Kentucky launched a program that paid students to bike to class. In exchange for a two-year commitment to live on campus car-free, 100 eligible UK students and faculty received a $400 voucher redeemable at participating local bicycle shops. The program received 462 applications in its first year.

Similarly, Westminster College reduced SOV rates among students and faculty by 25 percent in just four years by providing free transit passes, campus bike-loan programs, charging for parking, and reserving preferred “rock star” spaces for cars carrying multiple passengers.

mBike Bikeshare Station at UMD Sign

Where universities have lacked the funding or initiative, technological innovation has stepped up to bridge the mobility gap.

In recent years, car- and ride-sharing services like Uber, Lyft, and Zipcar have garnered immense popularity as quick, cheap alternatives to driving and car ownership, and in many cases actually reduced the need for personal vehicles. Even off-campus these initiatives have drawn widespread success. The Seattle Department of Transportation reported approximately 9,100 vehicles taken off the road as a result of the city’s car-sharing program.

Bike-sharing services have also proved effective on college campuses. Although some universities fund their own programs in partnership with the surrounding community, Zipcar recently announced its plan to streamline car- and bikesharing into a single membership on 10 college campuses by the end of this year. “Zipbike” is projected to dramatically increase university bike-sharing through a 90 percent cost reduction, typically as much as $150 monthly per bicycle.

Born from a potent brew of limited real estate, the high value of efficiency, and proximity to a demographic raised in the unquestionable reality of climate change, the transportation evolution taking place at America’s universities is a powerful example for the rest of the country.

Photo: Bike parking at the University of Kentucky (Matter Photography, Flickr, Creative Commons). Middle, mbike bikeshare program at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md. (Dan Reed, Flickr, Creative Commons).

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Finding traffic and car ownership solutions through ride- and car-sharing https://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/24/techies-traffic-solutions-sharing/ https://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/24/techies-traffic-solutions-sharing/#comments Wed, 24 Aug 2016 14:46:25 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=18854 While the D.C. region benefits from a diverse set of transportation options, there are unique situations where cars become necessary for those who don’t normally need them. With the rise of the sharing economy, there are now ways for residents to find more efficient ways to take the occasional trip by car. At the August... Read more »

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While the D.C. region benefits from a diverse set of transportation options, there are unique situations where cars become necessary for those who don’t normally need them. With the rise of the sharing economy, there are now ways for residents to find more efficient ways to take the occasional trip by car.

At the August edition of the Mobility Lab-sponsored Transportation Techies: Playing with Traffic II, in WeWork Crystal City, a group of programmers presented some of the ways people are sharing rides and cars in the D.C. region.

Sharing services: more people with fewer cars

Split’s Anna Petrone explained the D.C.-based service’s process that determines how users are grouped together in order to provide “smarter shared rides.” The algorithm handles the multiple factors at play, from the number of ride requests, how big the service area is, and how far people are traveling. Almost like an on-demand bus, the service connects riders’ requests along a common route and collects them at established points.

Throughout the day, Split adjusts these variables in order to optimize the number of vehicles on the road. They balance that efficiency with the variables they can influence, such as the number of people in the same car and how far people will have to walk to their collection points. Petrone explained that if each user makes a “small to moderate sacrifice” – walking a block to their pickup point – that creates a larger benefit by moving everyone using the service more efficiently.

Andriy Klymchuk’s app, Sameride, just went live last week, and seeks to build a carpooling community along certain driving routes. Sameride is starting with one of the same variables Split uses: limiting its operations area. By focusing outreach on one route at a time, Klymchuk hopes to make it easier for users headed in the same direction to match with each other. The first route for carpooling is between Woodbridge and Tysons Corner, Va., and more are scheduled in the future.

Jay Subramaniam presented the San Francisco-based Getaround, or an “AirBNB for cars,” as he explained it. The service connects people who only need cars occasionally with those who own them and only use them occasionally. This way, the cost of owning a car spreads to multiple users, and more people can make use of fewer vehicles. Subramaniam estimates that for every car Getaround has in its network, about 10 are never bought. There are currently about 90 vehicles registered with the service inside D.C., suggesting 900 were taken off the street. As it grows, Getaround hopes to make it easier for more residents to avoid buying a car, while giving them an affordable renting option when they need one.

Building blocks

Ride Leads is a digital platform that currently powers the DC Taxi app, but Matt Cunningham hopes it will ultimately integrate multimodality into commuters’ trips. The platform provides a “plug and play” development ability, allowing cities to bring all of their transportation resources into one app. Through that app, users can find the cheapest and most efficient connections to their destinations, such as taking a taxi to the Metro, and they can pay for the entire commute through the platform.

Ride Lead hopes to be part of the move toward creating “smart cities,” with a service that integrates data reporting and analysis. Cunningham expects integrated transit platforms to make it easier for cities to manage their many modes, and in turn lead to more cars off the road.

Prathi Vakharia and Ely Yousoufzai presented Ride Amigos, a platform that incentivizes non-driving transportation modes within large organizations. Following the psychological principle that major events create a lasting emotional impact, the platform encourages users during disruptions to try other ways to work. Once users have been exposed to these new modes, there is a chance that they will adopt them in the long-term. Yousoufazai even noted that adoption of new modes continues to happen after people win awards, because others will see the incentives and become curious.

Using the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, Canada, as a backdrop, the pair explained changes in commuter habits that lasted after the event had ended. By promoting and gamifying ridesharing and active transportation with challenges and financial rewards, Ride Amigos’ platform logged just under 200,000 alternative trips during the games. Overall, 35 percent of commuters changed their habits during the event and, importantly, 15 percent maintained their new transportation habit.

Antonio Zugaldia presented Mapbox and its Drive platform, which underlies a number of apps, including Split. With its software development kits for app creators, Mapbox provides a major building block for services that rely heavily on geography, namely ride-hailing and -sharing.

The foundation of the platform is real-time sensor data from connected devices. This helps Mapbox compute traffic patterns, fill in missing roads, provide accurate lane or street shapes, and correctly align vehicles with their surroundings. Mapbox uses Open Street Map – the Wikipedia of maps, as Zugaldia explains it – which is continually updated by volunteer users.

Filling in the network

By connecting commuter to shared rides, it is possible to expand transportation options and accessibility while cutting the number of vehicles on the road. Moving people efficiently on-demand and providing options to forego car ownership can add a greater degree of flexibility in a city’s transportation network.

Photo: Anna Petrone explains how Split’s algorithm creates its matches (M.V. Jantzen, Flickr).

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Car-centric data encourages car-centric transportation planning https://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/22/car-centric-data-begets-car-centric-planning/ https://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/22/car-centric-data-begets-car-centric-planning/#respond Mon, 22 Aug 2016 18:28:42 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=18842 We often discuss the role of data in the transportation industry, especially how advocates are using it and new technologies to improve non-drive-alone transportation options. But Joe Cortwright, over at City Observatory, recently made a key point about data: the vast majority of new technology-driven transportation data is focused on making it easier to drive. The movement towards the development... Read more »

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We often discuss the role of data in the transportation industry, especially how advocates are using it and new technologies to improve non-drive-alone transportation options. But Joe Cortwright, over at City Observatory, recently made a key point about data: the vast majority of new technology-driven transportation data is focused on making it easier to drive.

The movement towards the development of “smart cities” largely emphasizes connected solutions for traffic flow and signal prioritization, but fails to capture the kinds of solutions that would improve conditions for biking and walking. As Cortwright notes:

As the old adage goes: If you don’t count it, it doesn’t count. That premise becomes vastly more important the more we define problems in big-data terms. New technology promises to provide a firehose of data about cars, car travel, car delay, and roadways—but not nearly as much about people. This is a serious omission, and should give us pause about the application of “smart” principles to cities and transportation planning.

A prominent example is also visible in this widely-shared video from MIT, which envisions a connected transportation system in which autonomous cars can communicate turns with each other, negating the need for stoplights. Connected vehicles offers a lot in terms of minimizing congestion, but the demonstration – based on a Boston intersection with two bike lanes – notably excludes people walking, biking, or taking transit.

The issue, too, is two-fold, since much of the data that informs walking and biking behaviors is qualitative, and thus more difficult to record, analyze, and communicate. Cortwright again:

Large parts of most American cities, and especially their suburbs, constitute vast swaths of hostile territory to people traveling on foot. Either destinations are too spread out, or there just aren’t sidewalks or crosswalks to support safely walking from point to point. Moreover, walking is so uncommon that drivers have become conditioned to behave as if pedestrians don’t exist, making streets even more foreboding.

From the standpoint of the data-reliant transportation engineer, the problems encountered by Dorantes, Yearsley, and Tektel are invisible – and therefore “nonexistent.” Because we lack the conventional metrics to define and measure, for example, the hardships of walking, we don’t design and enforce solutions or adopt targeted public policies.

There’s still much to be learned about how people drive from sensors and connected vehicles. The key challenge, though, is to find ways to include and prioritize multimodal considerations as new technologies improve our ability to gather transportation data.

Read the full article on City Observatory here.

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

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Transportation planners need to use tech to catch up to public demand https://mobilitylab.org/2016/05/25/planners-need-tech-public-demand/ https://mobilitylab.org/2016/05/25/planners-need-tech-public-demand/#respond Wed, 25 May 2016 14:23:31 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=18313 Technology – from broad improvements like GPS to the autonomous cars still on the horizon – is swallowing many of the advances our engineers and planners have made since the invention of the Model T. It’s scary, and perhaps a little disheartening, for cities and their transportation agencies. But it also presents a do-or-die opportunity for... Read more »

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Technology – from broad improvements like GPS to the autonomous cars still on the horizon – is swallowing many of the advances our engineers and planners have made since the invention of the Model T.

It’s scary, and perhaps a little disheartening, for cities and their transportation agencies. But it also presents a do-or-die opportunity for them to adapt, strive to catch up, and excel.

It’s a chance like never before to reshape all the bad mistakes that have led to the poor state of America’s current transportation network and the subsequent bad transportation habits forced upon our citizens.

Mobility Lab interviewed Tyler Duvall, a principal at McKinsey & Company, for the below video. He said:

“I think the smartphone, people’s willingness to participate in things like Waze and a lot of these other technologies, these are providing information and data sets that five years ago governments would have dreamed to be able to get access to.”

Relationships between cities and Uber and Lyft have often been cantankerous. A major reason for that can be at least partly credited to city leaders’ lack of preparedness, as researchers at the National League of Cities recently found:

“Only 3 percent of transit plans are even taking into account the impact of ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft even though they already operate in 60 of the 68 largest markets in the U.S. That’s according to a content analysis of transportation planning documents from the country’s 50 most populous cities.”

That should be quite sobering.

Another one of the biggest motivators for engineers and planners to catch up should be the onset of autonomous vehicles. If we thought the animosity caused by Uber’s introduction into cities was bad,  what happens as driverless cars begin to mix into our 20th century infrastructure and policies? Now is the time to at least catch up to the trends, needs, and demands of today’s traveler.

The good news: the U.S. Department of Transportation has recently lit a fire for cities to get more competitive at transportation design. Nearly 80 cities applied to win a total of $50 million in the agency’s Smart City Challenge.

The other good news: Once the winners and losers begin to filter out of the Uber-type conflicts, new transportation companies that cities have struggled to plan for in the past could have more incentive to open their data – which they have thus far wanted to hide from competitors – in exchange for more formal agreements with cities for curb, street, and transit-hub access.

Planners and leaders need to examine today which companies, systems, and technologies fit best within their particular geographies and a whole new round of plans, policies, partners, and more will need to be developed aggressively and nimbly.

Technology ompanies working within the transportation sphere. Image from TransitScreen.

Technology companies working within the transportation sphere. Image from TransitScreen.

Older approaches centered on building our way out of problems have been yielding decreasing, and often harmful, returns. Duvall said:

“I think the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ debacle at the federal level was a real pivot moment where people finally said, ‘Maybe this isn’t the right way to make these decisions. Maybe investing several hundred million dollars in a bridge that carried 50 to 75 people was not the right way to allocate scarce resources. Maybe there are better ways. Maybe data and facts should guide that.’ That is a big departure from where we were for many, many years, when it was largely an engineering decision, people were drawing maps, and it was unrelated to demand or to planning or economics or technology.”

So how can all this data – all these facts we now have easy access to – help us make better planning decisions?

  • Get up to speed on apps. Use them. Partner with them. If you’re not incorporating fascinating new applications like RideFlag’s “carpool on demand” and Waze Rider into your workplans, then you’re not meeting people in the palms of their hands.
  • Take all that data and turn it into stories. All the big data in the world means absolutely nothing if it’s not translated into information people can use. Service updates are a minimum, but getting the public engaged, excited, and promoting your brand should be the standard. Tell transportation stories at your websites.
  • Begin to consider the head-spinning influx of battery-powered last-mile solutions. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Rob Cotter of Organic Transit in Durham, N.C., was quoted: “People talk about demand for batteries for electric cars, but about 60 percent of all battery production in China goes into e-bikes.” China is out ahead of this trend and ready for when demand spikes for last-mile solutions.
  • Government pilot projects that can often be done without a lot of money or approval, such as Santa Clara’s VTA Flex Pilot that offers microtransit public transportation to shuttle people between busy areas. This relatively inexpensive ($1.1 million) pilot will help bring in new riders from underserved areas, help unjam traffic, and offer a public model of flexible transit ridership that the private sector has been perfecting over time.
  • Information advances like TransitScreen, which is bringing real-time information to 40 cities by year’s end, and Sidewalk Lab’s “Flow” project, designed as kiosks for people without smartphones but also for governments to better understand the flows of the public’s travel behavior.

All of these exciting opportunities with data and technology won’t mean anything if cities don’t display bold leadership. Movers and shakers who want to get something done have no shortage of options.

This article is based on a presentation made to the 2016 Virginia Transit Association’s annual conference in Fredericksburg, Va.

Photo: A Metro rider checks the system map on a phone (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com).

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Is “on-demand” the missing ingredient in carpooling? https://mobilitylab.org/2016/05/11/on-demand-carpooling-rideflag/ https://mobilitylab.org/2016/05/11/on-demand-carpooling-rideflag/#respond Wed, 11 May 2016 15:24:22 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=18200 New app RideFlag seeks to make carpooling instantaneous The jury is still out on how much traffic is being alleviated by ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. But we’ve known for decades how much carpooling and vanpooling programs cut down on road congestion. About 11 percent of U.S. commuters pool on their way to work,... Read more »

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New app RideFlag seeks to make carpooling instantaneous

The jury is still out on how much traffic is being alleviated by ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.

But we’ve known for decades how much carpooling and vanpooling programs cut down on road congestion. About 11 percent of U.S. commuters pool on their way to work, helping make everyone’s driving trips a little less painful. Still, 11 percent is hardly a critical mass. So how could the needle be moved to get more people into the habit of carpooling?

Stepping up to the plate is a Canada- and Florida-based company called RideFlag, whose founders think they have the answer with a self-funded app that enables what they call “carpool on demand.”

Mike Papineau, one of the cofounders and a self-described marketer and investor, recently presented the product to Mobility Lab and a team of D.C.- and Arlington, Va.-based transportation-demand experts. He said he was inspired one day driving on Interstate 95 when he looked around and wondered why everyone in the traffic jam was driving alone.

What a great idea it would be to optimize this excess capacity by filling up the empty seats of these cars as a way to help get rid of traffic jams once and for all, he thought.

From there, he did some research and found some Metropolitan Washington Council of Government 2013 findings noting that:

  • 66 percent of D.C. commuters drive at least 16 miles alone one way to work
  • 34 percent would use instant carpooling if available, and
  • 47 percent don’t carpool because they don’t know who to carpool with or think they have different hours than others.

What separates RideFlag

Most carpooling has been something people need to plan out days or weeks ahead, in obscure databases and systems that are difficult to reference regularly. But there are many features of RideFlag that give cause for optimism:

  • Trips are on-demand, so while users can plan out commutes weeks in advance, many will likely use it for when they need a ride in that moment. Or, for that matter, when they want to give a ride immediately.
  • With one tap, users can switch between being a driver or a passenger.
  • App users can set up groups – referred to as “Circles” – of people with similar routes or, for example, teachers who live in the same neighborhoods and teach at the same schools. Trust builds as users take more and more trips and driver ratings, much like in the Uber and Lyft apps, are also compiled.
  • Drivers set their own prices, which could even be nothing. Pricing is typically set at about 40 cents per mile, and the passenger pays the driver that amount digitally through the app. But even if a rider and driver agree to a free trip, and RideFlag doesn’t get any money, the company benefits because that ride is still helping to expand its network, which is crucial in the long term.

But perhaps what’s most intriguing is RideFlag’s business model. Much like Carma, which has held a pretty legitimate claim to being the carpooling industry leader for the past several years, RideFlag knows it can’t reach critical mass by publicizing itself directly to the mass public. Papineau acknowledged its plan to work through transportation agencies and groups, like our friends at Arlington Transportation Partners, that liaison across local governments, businesses, and property managers to make sure everyone has a better understanding of their transportation options.

A list of drivers as they appear to riders. Picture by RideFlag.

A list of drivers as they appear to riders. Picture by RideFlag.

“We’re creating marketing strategies by market. To get critical mass, this is no one global strategy,” Papineau said. “This is not about putting signs on roads. It’s more about strategic partnerships and identifying [strategic] origins and destinations. The best way for us to do that is to get a story behind it, to get media coverage, and to gain social acceptability.”

He noted that companies like American Airlines, Uber, and Lyft are putting most of their money into gaining market share and saturation through incentives and free rides rather than the old model of TV advertising.

When and where to find RideFlag

Anyone can use the app anywhere, but because of the critical mass required to form the carpooling network, RideFlag is starting in very concentrated areas to build localized network volume.

“It is similar to a telephone network. If you are the only one who has it in the area, it is not a network,” Papineau said. For this reason, RideFlag is focusing on areas where many commuters have a common destination – to increase the percentage of match probabilities for overlapping routes.

RideFlag’s first beta version was released last summer in Montreal, working in consultation with the region’s transportation department. The app is currently launching in parts of southern Florida – taking advantage of HOV lanes in the region. Starting in late May, the Florida Department of Transportation is testing specific local carpooling initiatives with RideFlag by providing a $100 cash incentive for those willing to use the RideFlag app.

In the D.C. region, Papineau has been meeting with a number of regional and federal agencies to gather information on how the “on-demand carpooling” function could work with transit systems and support environmental goals.

The company is also working with the University of New South Wales in Australia, which is researching predictive analysis of carpooling, offering insight into how RideFlag can serve as an even better partner. Their study is creating heat maps showing where drivers commute and will offer predictive modeling to see how the app can change social behavior around carpooling particular with RideFlag’s “Circles” feature.

“Carpooling has got to be more dynamic and forward-thinking,” said Mark Feltham, RideFlag’s chief technology officer. “We’ve already spent several years developing this; sometimes the easiest ideas aren’t always the easiest to implement.”

Towards an easier carpooling process

It’s actually not too difficult to imagine carpooling becoming one of the simpler transportation options. Look at Uber and Lyft: they’ve made what is essentially a taxi trip feel easier and more hip. And look at Via, whose bus/Uber hybrid just received a $137 million boost from venture capitalists.

Papineau, for his part, is very enthusiastic that sustainability and affordability factors will play into a very bright future for carpooling on demand. “I wouldn’t discount how fast this can grow in the market. Also, carpooling is forgiving. If nobody else is available for the ride right then, you can always take another way to get where you’re going.”

Photo, top: A packed highway in Northern Virginia (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com).

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Where Pac-Man meets shared rides https://mobilitylab.org/2016/04/22/pac-man-meets-shared-rides/ https://mobilitylab.org/2016/04/22/pac-man-meets-shared-rides/#respond Fri, 22 Apr 2016 14:31:45 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=18062 This post originally appeared on Split’s blog here. Remember feeding quarters into the classic arcade game Pac-Man? Do you have fond memories of maneuvering a chomping yellow pie chart around two-dimensional mazes, gobbling up cherries and avoiding Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde? How about that joyous, joy-stick-filled day when you finally mastered that last level,... Read more »

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This post originally appeared on Split’s blog here.

Remember feeding quarters into the classic arcade game Pac-Man? Do you have fond memories of maneuvering a chomping yellow pie chart around two-dimensional mazes, gobbling up cherries and avoiding Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde? How about that joyous, joy-stick-filled day when you finally mastered that last level, Pac-Man ate his ultimate dot, and, at long last, Ms. Pac-Man was introduced?

The answers to these questions are likely: of course, sort of, and definitely not.

As it turns out, Pac-Man is pretty hard. In fact, mathematicians have proved that the game is not just hard, it’s “NP-hard,” meaning that winning Pac-Man is as challenging as some of the hardest problems that optimization scientists spend their careers trying to solve. More than that: Pac-Man is impossible to beat – after 255 successful rounds, a bug in the original computer code unceremoniously ends Pac-Man’s gluttony.


Split, as Pac-Man: a game constructed from a real driving route.

At Split, where I am the science team lead, we work every day to invent, refine, and deploy computer algorithms to solve the “traveling salesperson problem,” seeking the shortest path through a series of set points. Just as Pac-Man seeks the fastest, most-direct path to eat as many dots, power-ups, and 8-bit fruit as possible, Split is constantly directing its fleet of cars and vans through city streets. Routes are optimized to pick up and drop off as many riders as possible and to avoid slow-moving traffic, like Pac-Man dodges ghosts. It’s impossible to know exactly when and where the next pickup will be or next pocket of roadway congestion will emerge, so the routes are recalculated to respond in real time, similar to how you choose Pac-Man’s movements based on the random nature of cherries and Blinky.

Computers are really good at solving such hard problems. They don’t get tired or bored when they are asked to systematically search through a seemingly endless set of possibilities. IBM’s Deep Blue trumped Kasparov in chess. Google’s DeepMind recently bested the world’s top Go player, a game that is a googol (that’s 10 to the 100) times more challenging than chess. And artificial intelligence can handily win Pac-Man.

Split’s algorithm is tuned to find routes that maximize the use of vehicles’ seats and swiftly get riders where they need to go. It’s like toggling a massive matrix of joysticks, each controlling one of many Pac-Men with each moving around a maze of city streets. Each Pac-Man doesn’t simply eat cherries, but instead moves them from where they are to where they have to go. This is where Split and the real Pac-Man differ: while Pac-Man’s motivation is strictly more and more points, Split’s motive is sustainability. Split selects smart routes that reduce miles traveled, move people quickly, and use up all the seats. Winning Split means moving more people with fewer resources.

To visualize a Split car’s journey around Washington, D.C., we’ve animated a typical morning commute, Pac-Man-style (above). One Split driver scoops up riders, moves them, and drops them off, navigating a labyrinth of streets and avenues along the way. Unlike Pac-Man, this game never ends: there’s always another rider to move from point A to point B.

Photos, from top: Pac-Man street art in Bilbao, Spain (Roberto Latxaga, Flickr, Creative Commons). A Pac-Man pick-up and drop-off route (Split).

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Different needs throughout U.S. complicate Congressional transportation policy https://mobilitylab.org/2016/04/21/different-needs-congressional-transpo-policy/ https://mobilitylab.org/2016/04/21/different-needs-congressional-transpo-policy/#respond Thu, 21 Apr 2016 15:26:39 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=18047 City, suburb, and rural differences present policy dilemmas No matter how divided politicians are across the U.S., Republicans and Democrats can still agree that sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic is something worth fixing. That said, the recently passed, five-year FAST Act transportation bill does represent a slight increase in funding, but has been largely criticized by... Read more »

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City, suburb, and rural differences present policy dilemmas

No matter how divided politicians are across the U.S., Republicans and Democrats can still agree that sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic is something worth fixing.

That said, the recently passed, five-year FAST Act transportation bill does represent a slight increase in funding, but has been largely criticized by transit advocates as remaining, according to Eric Jaffe in CityLab, “centered on the sort of highway spending and road expansion that has historically worsened traffic and sprawl for U.S. metro areas.”

ACT logo

Within that context, a cross section of representatives from the House of Representatives recently spoke to members of the Association for Commuter Transportation during its 2016 Public Policy Summit in Washington, D.C., revealing the competing interests and priorities for the limited pot of funding.

And the differences between the interests of rural areas, the suburbs, and the cities could mean that the FAST Act and the typical Congressional approach is too traditional and slight to forge major changes in how the nation’s transportation system works.

A rural focus on roads

Rep. Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican representing rural and suburban sections of northern Missouri, understandably spoke of having his mind set on the $305 billion FAST Act and how that funding could make roads less congested and fix aging infrastructure.

Graves said he doesn’t like the thought of raising the gas tax or increasing tolls, but a vehicle miles traveled user fee (he was careful to note it was not a tax), like the one being piloted in Oregon, might be a mechanism to bring transportation funding up to what is needed to fix infrastructure.

“Obviously, transportation and infrastructure in this country is vital. It is the lifeblood of business and commerce,” he said.

However, Graves said congestion and transit are simply not transportation priorities for the rural areas he represents. “Traffic in my home town is two cars and a stop sign. We have more of an issue with traffic in the form of slow-moving farm equipment on the road and backing up cars and lanes not being wide enough to get around.”

To Graves, the focus in these areas needs to be on fixing crumbling bridges and roads and incentivizing more carpooling.

T commuter, akoktsidis

Commuters ride the Boston area’s commuter rail system into the city.

A suburban focus on commuters

Rep. Jim McGovern is a Massachusetts Democrat who represents the central part of the state, including its second-largest city, Worcester. He frequently rides the train 40 miles into Boston and has been a leading advocate for making the tax benefit for transit riders equal to the benefit drivers can get for parking costs.

The tax parity for transit and driving just passed in January, and Rep. McGovern told the ACT members, “In this town, easy things are difficult. It’s so unusual we can celebrate passing anything that I don’t want to leave the podium.”

Making it easier and more sensible for people to ride transit is crucial, he said, noting that, “I’ve concluded that it’s good for peace of mind. As one who has to go back and forth from Worcester to Boston all the time, if I’m in a car [on the highway], I might as well be in a parking lot. I don’t take my blood pressure, but I’m sure it’s going through the roof. By contrast, being able to ride on the train, I can do my work or talk to people or get up and walk around.”

An urban focus on new modes

Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat and the youngest member of that state’s delegation, is emerging as one of Capitol Hill’s hopes for the future of transportation.

Citing a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers survey that noted a rise in revenue for the travel and carsharing industries, Rep. Swalwell said he hopes to help government evolve along with the fast-changing and disrupted transportation industry.

Virginia’s Rep. Don Beyer, who represents Arlington County and Alexandria, also spoke positively during the conference of the potential for sharing and on-demand options. Beyer noted that the FAST Act was the first transportation funding bill to include a title on innovation, adding that our “[transportation] system will look very different five, 10 years from today.”

While Swalwell’s bi-partisan sharing economy amendment to the DRIVE Act – which would make it easier for transit agencies to work with bikesharing, carsharing and on-demand ride companies by using federal funding – failed 181-237, he is glad it set a standard for future votes on the issue.

Swalwell also worked with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) in drafting a letter for the General Services Administration to allow federal employees to be reimbursed for using services like Uber, and the GSA actually wrote back with approval.

Swalwell hopes the federal government can play a role in:

  • piloting programs to discount the use of sharing-economy options
  • establishing first- and last-mile solutions from existing transit hubs, and
  • ushering in autonomous vehicles, about which he joked that he is so far the lone – or “autonomous” – member of Congress’s autonomous-vehicle caucus. “I have a three-year-old nephew, and my prediction to my family over Easter was that he will never have to learn how to drive a car. I really believe that,” he said.

But even with these exciting potential plans, Swalwell admits that the government may mostly be playing catch-up on transportation issues. “We can’t forget our role in the federal government to fund transportation projects and to start thinking big again.”

Photos, from top: A view of the U.S. Capitol from busy North Capitol Street in Washington, D.C. (Mike Maguire, Flickr, Creative Commons). Boston commuters boarding a train in Norwood, Mass. (akoktsidis, Flickr, Creative Commons)/

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