There’s never been a better time to help America move forward through effective, well-funded public transportation. In November 2016, voters approved about 70% of public transit initiatives on ballots across America, entrusting government to carefully invest $200 billion in commuter and light-rail trains, subways, buses, and other mobility options.
This investment will go a long way toward improving our discrete systems, but we all acknowledge that the connections between systems remain a critical challenge to broader use of public transportation. In particular, the “first-and-last-mile” challenge — how people get from homes or workplaces to a particular public mobility option — has bedeviled us for decades. We are now finally poised to solve it, but only if we embrace certain new realities.
Reality: We’re in the Multimodal Mobility Business
For many reasons — organizational lines, budgets, and politics — every city and region has an array of managers who have traditionally focused on running single-mode public transportation services. But now, many of these managers are reframing how they operate (and co-operate) to become multimodal mobility managers. In addition to optimizing their components of the transportation system, they have broadened their activities to help integrate modes to serve more users, more efficiently with the goal of advancing “complete trips.”
At the macro level, they are joining with other public and private interests to scope out what a broad range of community members need from the transportation system. Truly understanding these needs demands extensive due diligence, because daily commuters, seniors, the financially or physically challenged, and other users all require different combinations of services. And yet, at the core, people all want some combination of convenience, safety and affordability as they move out from and back to their points of origin. The task is to identify the gaps between the needs and the existing capabilities — and to creatively solve for this problem, wherever that solution might lead us.
Reality: Ridesharing is Our Ally
Throughout my career, I have seen public transportation agencies sometimes view their peer agencies as competitors who were drawing away vital ridership and limited funding dollars. Perhaps we’re now moving past that, in part because sometimes agencies are banding together to face a new “common adversary”: the ridesharing companies.
In the case of ridesharing, a small amount of skepticism from transportation agencies is natural. After all, at least for some trips, rideshares compete with certain rail, bus, and shuttle services…often sharing the same pavement. Additionally, even when these companies come to the table to collaborate with public transportation officials, they are highly protective of their data due to ruthless competition in their industry. This is in stark contrast to public entities that are required to capture and publish data as part of their mission in addition to a condition of funding and transparency.
But, we must work through these initial differences and learn to work together. Ridesharing companies are nothing like agencies — they are disruptors, rule-rewriters. Expecting them to fit in smoothly with government-run organizations is a bit like expecting pirates to suit up in new uniforms and sail under the Queen’s flag.
Clearly, it will take time and patience to find common ground and coordinate efforts to achieve diverse goals. But, think about how much tension we had to overcome when public-private partnerships (PPPs) were starting to take shape for major capital projects — tensions that are inevitable when for-profit and public-sector organizations “meet in the middle.” Ultimately, such collaborations have brought forth a new generation of megaprojects nationwide that are delivering better transportation services to the public, while creating jobs and growing the economy.
In similar fashion, the public transportation industry and ridesharing companies have a significant opportunity to bring PPP-like successes to the service side of the equation. Agencies that manage this transition can take a giant leap toward resolving the first-and-last-mile challenge. Uber, Lyft and their band of disruptors can be powerful forces for maximizing ridership on public systems. And they are only getting started.
Consider this: HNTB’s America THINKS “Public Transportation-2017” survey, which polled more than 1,000 Americans this spring, asked people, how interested would you be in using some form of ride-sharing to get to or from a public transportation service in the future? Looking only at people with access to public transportation, 63% of millennials said they would be interested in using ridesharing to get to or from a public transportation service. Even though over-35 respondents were less bullish on the concept, the fact remains that the ride-sharing wave has the potential to greatly enhance access to public transportation in the coming decades.
Reality: Safety Must Remain the Top Priority
Even when public transportation options are available and there is strong demand for them, people might not feel that there are safe ways to make their connections. We have all seen pedestrians stuck on narrow roadway medians, traffic streaming by, as they scramble to cross to a bus stop. Similarly, bicyclists who want to pedal their last mile to work often must run a deadly gauntlet with zig-zagging traffic on one side and popping-open car doors on the other.
“At the core, people all want some combination of convenience, safety, and affordability as they move out from and back to their points of origin.”
Pursuing a “complete streets” strategy can help to resolve this aspect of the first-and-last-mile challenge. As a first step, we can ensure that pedestrian routes within a mile of a transit hub are well marked, well-lit, and have up-to-date crosswalk technology. Similarly, we can look for opportunities to create protected lanes for cyclists, or at least marked lanes that provide a buffer from traffic. Safety must rule.
Reality: We Must Be the Drivers of Innovation
When we function as multimodal mobility managers focused on complete trips, with the user experience at the center, the possibilities are only limited by our imaginations. Take, for example, the needs of families who visit a city to explore. They build their travel plans with considerations similar to those of commuters: they want safety (they don’t know the city), predictability (they don’t want to get stuck without transportation or shelter), and affordability (they want a square deal for every leg of their journey). Additionally, they want to see the most exciting attractions the city has to offer, which requires a second, entirely different plan: sizing up each historical site, museum, or venue; looking at prices and packages; and trying to connect all the dots. We’ve all been down this path — it’s exhausting.
Copenhagen, Denmark, is trying a different approach. With a focus on optimizing mobility, they are putting visitors at the center of the equation to allow for an easier, more integrated city experience. Buyers of the “Copenhagen Card” gain unlimited access to bus, train, and Metro across the city, as well as travel to the airport. Additionally, card holders gain complete access to more than 70 of the city’s top attractions — museums and gardens, zoos and aquariums, historical sites, and children’s museums. The card also provides discounts for everything from tours and dinner theaters, to bicycle and Segway rentals.
In the U.S., public transportation agencies are already working together to consolidate fare systems to ease transfers between modes. It’s only one step further to coordinate with other, non-public players — ridesharing and bikesharing companies, parking garages, and others — to establish integrated platforms for payment, trip planning, real-time connection updates, and other user-friendly services.
We are being presented with a golden opportunity. About nine of every 10 Americans (88%) feel that public transportation systems offer specific benefits to the areas they serve, according to the HNTB survey mentioned earlier. And of course, we saw how voters confirmed this positive view at the ballot box by passing measures that will fund improvements and expansions to the tune of $200 billion.
The challenge we face now is to reframe how we think about our roles and to forge new partnerships that can connect people more efficiently to the public transportation assets they are paying to build and maintain. With the right blend of creativity, collaboration, and user-centricity our transportation leaders will continue to deliver on our promises, and keep America rolling.
Diana Mendes, AICP is the Mid-Atlantic Division President & National Transit/Rail Market Sector Leader for HNTB Corp. (www.hntb.com).