Breaking the mold in the quest for the ultimate connected city

Posted on March 16, 2017 by Paul Mackie - Also by this author

This is part 2 of a two-part series on how advocates can create connected cities, which was originally posted by Mobility Lab. Part 1 examined public agencies reshaping their transportation priorities.

Pinellas County, Fla., just west of Tampa Bay, is one of several local governments in the nation to essentially embed Uber and Lyft into the local transit system. Transit riders can get $5 back if they use those ride-hailing companies to connect to a bus stop.

Photo: Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab
Photo: Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab

Such a program from the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority encourages a healthy public-private relationship and, more importantly, should make it easier for more people to not rely on private car ownership or be left in isolation because of their distance from transit.

Transportation should be viewed like a smartphone. It should allow everyone to be connected to opportunities throughout the rest of society, at reasonable and low cost. And this ride-hailing partnership with transit is a crucial example of how local governments can catch up and be responsive in a fast-moving world of technology-driven transportation options.

No longer should agencies partition buses and rail from all the newer private solutions. Simply put, shared services can be complements to transit. But this is just one way that cities can look beyond traditional thinking in their mission to better connect their transportation systems.
Public agencies must engage with private service providers

Like the auto companies that have begun aggressively investing in ride-hailing efforts, many transit agencies are ramping up efforts to form partnerships with providers like Uber and Lyft. Paratransit is one area ripe for cost savings and real-time service (rather than having to book rides days in advance) through transit agency use of private services like Lyft.

The major caveat here to work out is whether ride-hailing vehicles – with drivers who can spend lots of time driving in between fares – are actually making traffic in cities worse. The only place this has been measured, New York City – which has a unique, data-sharing contract with providers – shows that Uber and Lyft are worsening congestion. The research from the American Public Transportation Association, the University of California-Berkeley, and others have said the jury may still be out on the traffic impacts, but this is an area for local governments to concern themselves. Uber at least has taken steps to help the greater cause, having entered an agreement with Washington, D.C., and several other cities to share data with transportation planners in an effort to better manage traffic flows.

Once ride-hailing arrangements are smoothed out, the next great frontier is autonomous vehicles. In 2016, the U.S. government announced a $4 billion program for self-driving cars, and Pittsburgh took steps so Uber could use the city as an AV testing ground. How can other local governments feel comfortable and confident when considering to do what Pittsburgh has done? Or what Local Motors with its mini-bus Olli – formerly operating outside Washington, D.C. – is doing? For starters, cities need to map out all the pluses and minuses (especially financially) that AVs will bring. From there, they can implement regulations, policies, and plans to safely integrate in this mode of the future.

Don’t forget about transit
“The first thing we need to do is talk with our public institutions to try and make more partnerships, more connectivity, between the different modes, new and old,” said Paul Lewis, vice president of policy and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation, at a panel I moderated at this year’s TransportationCamp DC. “It’s not an easy task. Transit is one of the biggest areas we can do this.”

Indeed, the cities that create connections best will do so basing it off the existing core infrastructure of roads and mass transit. But we also can’t forget that to truly make this ultimate city work, people need to buy in to the concept of multimodalism. To help get there, companies like Ford  are leading the way toward one interactive pass or app that allows people to book, pay, and communicate with all travel options from anywhere. This seamlessness is key for the commute of the future.

Broadening the possibilities of the transit ride is also key. Where partnerships for transit might make the most sense is to have private companies “get people to transit from in-demand areas during off-peak hours,” according to Mobility Lab Director Howard Jennings, quoted in APTA’s Passenger Transport. This can reduce costs to transit agencies for pricey, low-ridership routes and bring in a wider customer base – a prospect that should be a more aggressive part of the mission for transit agencies. So-called “first-mile, last-mile” options are an area ripe for transit agencies to get involved, and some places are even going so far as to subsidize rides to and from transit. Orlando suburb Altamonte Springs, Fla., became the first city, about a year ago, to subsidize Uber rides to transit.

Another APTA report finds convincing evidence that on-demand modes, in many cases, complement – not replace – public transit. Transit consultant Jarrett Walker notes, “Many people who work inside of big companies [like Uber and Lyft] understand perfectly well how the profit motive conflicts with what you’d do if you were just trying to foster a better city, and many welcome regulation precisely to plug that gap.” As evidence appears that Uber may not be the answer to traffic dilemmas, the necessity for companies like it to work within a congestion-reducing framework grows even stronger.

And pricing itself will need to be worked out between all travel modes, which means car travel and parking prices need to reflect their true costs. When it’s cheaper to drive and park downtown than it is to take the bus or train or Uber, the multimodal, connected city goal will remain a fantasy. But there are signs of creativity to balance incentives: some European cities are paying residents to bike to work rather than drive.

Ideas for breaking molds
There are many directions cities could go to become “connected.” And while it could take larger cities with more staffing power to be able to do everything well, smaller cities could at least focus on a handful of these ideas, and do them well.

And as ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft get even more attractive as alternatives to transit, with dynamic in-ride app entertainment and cheaper casual-carpooling options, more and more transit agencies are examining how to use software like TransLoc that can make it easier to take services like Uber and Lyft to and from transit stations. Journalist Esther Dyson, who also spoke on my recent TransportationCamp panel, thinks this general idea can succeed far beyond city centers. “[Uber and Lyft] would have a real opportunity in small, less dense communities where there are people without jobs but with cars. They can dynamically schedule themselves,” she said, adding that hubs like hospitals and campuses could be ride-hailing hubs.

Parking is a ripe place for innovation, as it is generally overbuilt and underpriced. Santander, Spain, has become “the most connected city in Europe” because it’s focused on installing “smart” infrastructure such as sensors that monitor parking spaces. Sensor infrastructure can improve information about parking, and help people choose whether to drive or take other options.

Autonomous vehicles seem to be the elephant in the room. Cities want to prepare for them, but they don’t know how. Federal regulations and standards would certainly be a help in order to even the playing field, but there will likely be large shifts – more people might drive, parking and signage will need major reconfigurations, housing patterns will need to change – involved for the least-prepared places. A draft manifesto from several Cal Poly professors examines how AVs interact with pedestrians and people on bikes, but what about how AVs work with and complement mass transit? I’ve asked before: When cars can be summoned with a button and don’t require attention from humans, will it become even more difficult for transit to compete with the experience of autonomous vehicles? Grush Niles Associates have noted that planners should start mapping out various scenarios in which AVs could be linked into the existing transit foundations, including loops, small areas, large areas, cities, megaregions and routes where buses negate the need for AVs.

Biking, bikeshare (which increasingly see slight increases in travel share thanks to better bike parking and street infrastructure) and walking may soon have some company from electric additions: battery-powered people movers. Electric skateboards and hoverboards and electric bicycles could all soon close a lot of gaps in connecting people to transit options. It helps that 67 percent of those surveyed say they need a shower after a conventional bike trip, while 74 percent say they don’t after an e-bike trip, according to Portland State University’s Transportation Research and Education Center.

And last but far from least, transportation demand management – which includes clear information about options – presents an inexpensive, effective path for forging and solidifying those connections. Arlington Transportation Partners in Virginia works with 221 local organizations in its Champions program to make sure residents and employees know about the many transportation options throughout the county. Places are also learning that their front-line transit information – maps – simply need to be clearer, because most of us don’t understand them. And, finally, to catch up with the allure of the personal car, TDM and marketers can promote these options to connect in more exciting ways that portray transit as the norm.

Having the freedom to walk from home to take bikeshare to the subway to get to work, then maybe take a Zipcar on the way home, should present an exciting opportunity for cities. Racing towards the ultimate connected city could allow for places to provide innumerable benefits like improved traffic, health, safety, environmental conditions, and overall quality of life for many more people.

Photo by Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab,

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