Bringing transportation options to small and mid-sized cities

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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