New services are moving fast, and cities are looking to update procurement processes to keep up

Notoriously lumbering municipal procurement processes can be an especially bad fit with the way newer transportation options need to be implemented.

How are local agencies supposed to form “first-mile, last-mile” partnerships with flexible technology services like Lyft, Via, and Bridj when the official steps to solidify those partnerships impede the process?

“A transit agency can really facilitate partnerships for the city,” said Jameson Auten, chief of the Regional Service Delivery and Innovation Division at the ‎Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. “We can’t take 10 months while Uber or another [vendor] is waiting. That just doesn’t work in this environment. We always include someone from procurement and finance when we’re telling companies our pilot program businesses are open. But we’re cutting some of the layers out for our experimental service.”

KCATA’s updated mindset has allowed it to move more quickly than many other transit agencies. Auten spoke at a panel called “Innovative Partnerships: Enhancing Service While Addressing Procurement Obstacles” at the 2017 Capital Convergence conference hosted by the Eno Center for Transportation.

A wealth of data suggests the process by which governments contract with technology services are too complex and outdated, often discouraging smaller companies who lack the time and resources to invest in bids. Further, the growth of transportation sharing and hailing services – which typically move at a rapid clip – is only now serving to magnify the problem.

“I used to work for DDOT, and it took 20 months to get Car2Go [up and running, and DDOT has] some progressive thinkers,” said Josh Moskowitz, now Car2Go’s eastern regional director, at a separate-but-related MobilityTalks International session. “But they’re trained to focus most of their attention on these legacy systems like WMATA.”

In the same session, Justin Holmes, Zipcar’s director of corporate communications and public policy, added, “I was a chief innovation officer of Boston. We would begin the procurement process for social-media properties and six months later it would be moot.”

And the struggle flows in both directions. At MobilityTalks, Greenberg Traurig consultant David Catania said, “It’s my experience that tech companies don’t really know how to approach cities.” He added they often show up lacking of focus or an understanding about what their potential partners need.

While smaller companies and startups may have a hard time procuring contracts with cities, the current industry leaders have apparently had it easier. Paige Tsai, who focuses on policy and research at Uber, said the company hasn’t necessarily had to develop a set strategy for how it works with governments “because they’re all so different. Now we’re encouraging people to reach out to us.”

Out of both a need to look forward and actually move people, agencies all over the U.S. are seeking to work at the same speed as technology companies.

For KCATA, Auten said, “We have an agreement in which Bridj handles the marketing, but have to have a handle on what that means. They did [media relations] but when you take it down to the service level, you have to make sure people know what’s going on. They say ‘is that vehicle for me or for someone else?’ We have to understand our market. The two approaches weren’t fully aligned. Bridj’s focus was national and ours was the Kansas City region.”

Zipcar’s Holmes said a far more exciting paradigm than procurement is the idea of “cities seeing themselves as digital platforms. Cities have access as brokers of mobility information and catalysts of data to promote a more sustainable transportation system, beyond the procurement situation.”

And in the end, cities need to dig into these issues quickly because newer transportation options, not to mention the approach of autonomous vehicles, could challenge long-held assumptions about their transportation networks.

“There will be a rendezvous with revenue,” Catania said. “In D.C., nine figures come from traffic tickets ever year, the DMV, parking … think of taking all that revenue out. Understanding and engaging cities about what will happen with AVs. … A lot of things could change that will undermine the revenue of the cities.”

By re-addressing those assumptions and putting the proper procurement practices in place, cities can better prepare themselves for flexible, new additions to their transportation networks and adapt to potential impacts.

Photo: A Zipcar parking spot in Arlington County, Va. (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com).

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