Transportation redefined: Cities must work with shared mobility options

It’s no secret: transit agencies have been slow to adapt to the rapid changes in the ways people are moving around in cities.

Think Uber. Fights between public agencies and newer companies have dominated headlines, compared to the trickle of news about partnerships that should be forming – all set to the backdrop of age-old procurement strategies.

That all seems to be about to change.

“Where we’re not seeing a lot of change is on the public-sector side, and I think that now is the time that people are thinking about this,” said Paul Lewis, vice president of policy and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation, which hosted a day-long event, Convergence, on Thursday in Washington, D.C.

City leaders adapting to changes

Tim Papandreou, chief innovation officer at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, has been at the forefront of the public side in forging this new path. He noted that it’s not as easy as it sounds to integrate services from companies like Uber, Lyft, Via, Bridj, Split, and others into the fabric of city transit networks.

“Right now, many companies can not share data because [the market’s] very competitive. Soon we’ll pass the point in which [city officials will] need to certify these companies to be part of the system,” Papandreou said.

Tim Papandreou

Tim Papandreou of SFMTA.

“They need access to our streets and curbs. Those are the two regulatory levers we have as cities. If they meet our criteria on things like accessibility and sustainability, should we start looking at access to prioritized lanes for them? Also, if they are bringing four people per passenger into vehicles, should we give them priority access at our transit locations?”

For decades, when it came to transit, local transportation agencies have focused almost entirely on buses and rail. Now they are faced with creating a more open, free-flowing landscape of options that includes bicycles, bikeshare, ridesharing/ride-hailing, walking, and carsharing  – all of which must coexist and complement each other.

Evolution of mainstream behavior

“We’re a pioneer of the sharing economy and, in the old days, people just called it crazy,” said Justin Holmes, director of corporate communications and public policy at Zipcar. Carsharing can clearly no longer be considered insane, based on Zipcar’s operation in more than 500 cities in eight countries.

Fruitvale carshare

Carshare parking in Fruitvale, Oakland, near BART.

“We’re really proud that every [Zipcar] takes up to 13 vehicles off the road. And we truly see cities as some of our most important partners to nudge people out of personal car ownership.”

Zipcar focuses much of its city partnerships on helping officials understand that parking typically incentivizes personal car ownership. While Americans have largely resigned themselves to the idea that they must own cars, Zipcar is combatting that unfair and costly proposition by working with cities to help people realize that the less they have to worry about parking, the better their lives will be.

Already in Boston and Los Angeles – and with other cities no doubt jumping in soon – a Zipcar member can pick up a vehicle in one place and leave it in another, rather than following the company’s older model of returning the car to its origin.

“Consumers increasingly are paying for the trip and not the car,” Holmes said, noting how carsharing is moving away from the rental model to one that more accurately matches transit-like trips.

Developing forward-thinking frameworks and policies

“How do we move from a transit system to a transit organism? How do we scale bikesharing and carsharing? Uber and Lyft are not allowed on one app at the same time; that’s not a technology issue, that’s a policy issue,” Papandreou said, listing some of the key issues facing cities.

For the first time, cities are moving closer to establishing the kinds of full mobility plans that have been incentivized in the ongoing U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart Cities Challenge. As recently as a few months ago, the National League of Cities’ City of the Future report [PDF] found that only 3 percent of city transportation plans consider the effects of Uber- and Lyft-like integration, even though these companies operate in 60 of the 68 markets studied.

Some of the key ideas noted by speakers at the Eno event that are needed for city planning and policies included:

  • Carpooling should receive a closer look, according to Jenny O’Brien, founder of Hopista. “Carpooling is the second-largest modeshare for travelers. But for the future, we need to make some modern innovations because we’re still using the tools created 40 years ago. We need to make targeted simple smartphone apps that make it very simple for specific parts of carpooling trips.” She said research shows that average hitchhiking wait times on roads are seven minutes. “Drivers are extremely willing to pick up even a random stranger from the side of the road as long as it is safe and convenient for them to do so.”
  • Land-use policy can be improved in many ways: lowering parking requirements and mandating space for shared mobility options (like carsharing and bikesharing) would help; more regionally, planning job centers and mixed uses outside of downtowns could alleviate traffic bottlenecks.
  • Accessibility and equity for people in more low-income areas and the suburbs are issues that absolutely fall within governments’ responsibilities. Emily Castor, Lyft’s director of transportation policy, said, “Transit agencies are starting to approach us about how we can bring mobility access and affordability into areas that have been traditionally difficult to serve.” Marcel Porras, chief sustainability officer for the Los Angeles DOT, said the city will soon introduce an electric-vehicle carsharing program in low-income communities.
  • Bicycling and walking promotion is one of the most cost-effective ways for cities to become more livable and create a more robust, flexible network of options. Lee Jones, director of sales at B-cycle, said, “Six years ago, bikeshare didn’t exist. Now pretty much every major geographical area has been covered by bikeshare systems. It’s been like a gold rush.” He added that the next generation – along with the obvious need for improved infrastructure – is to introduce electric bikeshare bikes to make the option attractive to more potential users.
  • Public education about transit, which O’Brien of Hopista said needs to be ingrained in public agencies to help people, from a young age, understand that these options exist and are beneficial.
  • Research is crucial at this point, according to Susan Shaheen, adjunct professor at the University of California-Berkeley. Later this year, she said, “we’re going to have some answers for cities” on topics like how one-way trips are working, the effectiveness of various transportation apps, the latest on peer-to-peer carsharing, and the impacts of shared-use modes on the environment.
  • App integration of all modes must be encouraged by government agencies – like what RideScout and its soon-to-launch RideTap offer for real-time trip planning– along with mobile transit payments through tech products offered by the likes of GlobeSherpa.
  • Leadership and the ability to experiment and pilot projects may be the most important element. Zack Wasserman of Via said, “Some cities like L.A. and San Francisco have started offices of innovation. We need groups created to inform leaders on this area of expertise.” This would make the job of selecting and working with all the various transportation providers much easier. Papandreou noted a San Francisco program that brings in start-ups for a few months to solve specific problems. He added, “We’re engaged and we’re learning really fast. How are we going to move forward in ways that meet the public good?” And Jones of B-cycle remarked, “The cities that have had the leadership at city hall, they all have bikeshare today.”

Photos: Top, Metro runs alongside a highway in Northern Virginia (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com). Papandreou photo courtesy of Ann Henebery at the Eno Center for Transportation. Middle, carsharing in the Bay Area (Abby Thorne-Lyman, Flickr, Creative Commons).

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Sheryl Gross-Glaser

Wonderful piece. Cities and other types of communities are finding that to remain as is means falling behind. I applaud Tim Papandreou and Jenny O’Brien for their innovative approaches and I am thankful that they are sharing their thoughts with us via Mobility Lab.

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