At first glance, tech-enabled mobility disruptions may seem to be the enemy of public transit. In 2017 — the moment when new mobility options began to appear on the scene en masse — transit ridership was down in 31 of 35 major metropolitan areas in the U.S. amid concerns about reduced frequency, reliability, and safety. While the trend seems to be reversing in some cities as of late 2019, new mobility — including micromobility and e-hailed ridesharing — is experiencing a boom.
The marriage of technology, transportation, and convenience has worked to drastically shift consumer expectations toward immediate gratification — not just for travel services, but also for consumer freight and food delivery. Meanwhile, venture capital-funded subsidies intended to help mobility startups acquire market share have resulted in a strong consumer response to new, inexpensive transportation options that enable trips from any origin point to any destination. We want it now, we want it fast, and we want it cheap.
Some have argued that tech-enabled transportation disruptions obviate the need for public transit as a whole. Fixed-guideway transit systems, with their mandate to move as many people as possible on static routes and scheduled, sometimes lengthy intervals, cannot keep pace with transport companies that connect users to on-demand service at the touch of a smartphone.
While these alternatives are great in that they expand the choices travelers have, taking all trips by e-hailed vehicle is increasingly expensive relative to transit, especially as pricing hikes begin to reflect a need to show investors these companies can turn a profit. Some longer trips cannot be practically or affordably taken by scooter or even bike (but could be by transit), and the vision of every trip taken door-to-door by e-hailed vehicles, especially cars, would confront massive traffic congestion, increased carbon impacts (both short and longer term), health and safety implications, and a further loss of day-to-day interaction with your fellow citizens in the public realm.
But new mobility and transit need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, the public and private sectors in this case can both achieve success, even profitability, by uniting under a common goal: reducing the number of personal car trips.
Here’s how transit agencies and privately-operated mobility services could collaborate to solve connectivity gaps, potentially win back transit riders and expand to a broader market, and propel a culture shift away from car-only transport toward multi-modalism.
1. Focus on expanding existing transit sheds through mobility partnerships.
Ironically, public transit has helped to shape urban development in some cities so as to pave the way for the micromobility explosion. That’s because cities with fixed-guideway transit systems are, for the most part, cities of shorter trips. Residents proximate to these high-density locations rarely need to venture too far from home to reach work, healthcare, schools, recreation, or retail. It’s in these locations (places of density and transit connections) that new mobility functions best and where the companies operating these services make their money.
But fixed-guideway transit systems experience natural limitations, namely that stations and routes aren’t easily moved to respond to shifts in demand or land use patterns that place residential zones at inconvenient walking distances or even directly outside of the dense urban core where public transportation functions best.
Since micromobility began to gain a foothold, many have theorized these shared vehicles could provide better and more convenient connectivity to transit nodes. Strategic integration of micromobility (both docked and dockless) can also expand a transit agency’s catchment basin by providing convenient, affordable rides for shorter trips that take users to destinations away from transit trunk lines.
A similar theory exists for app-based transportation network companies such as Uber, Lyft, and Via. Some agencies have even turned to these companies to expand their transit sheds or to boost ridership in areas where public transportation is not within walking distance or at times of day when service is curtailed, though the jury is still out on the results of these experiments.
2. Identify relationships among city policy, mobility deployment, and public transit.
A key way transit agencies and new mobility operators can begin to collaborate is by analyzing data to see patterns in a city’s transportation and land use. Historically, getting data from the private sector has been challenging, and recent conflicts arising from questions about what kind of data are needed and for what purpose in some cities have muddied the waters.
That’s why NUMO, the New Urban Mobility alliance, has launched a new platform — the New Mobility Atlas. In partnership with a consortium of mobility service operators, third-party data platforms, and NGOs that all recognize they are stakeholders in this burgeoning transportation revolution, the Atlas serves as a tool for visualizing and understanding the rapid proliferation, deployment, and potential viability of new mobility in cities around the world.
The addition of a policy comparison tool in early 2020 will increase the scope of the Atlas to identify what policy strategies cities are using to respond to tech-enabled mobility disruptions. A transit agency might, for instance, seek insight into how cities are regulating deployment of privately-owned shared bikes and scooters in ways that help to serve first/last-mile connections to transit. Or how micromobility companies are responding to city policies regarding how and where the vehicles are operated (e.g., on the sidewalk, in the street, or in a bike lane). Which leads us to…
3. Look at what other city agencies are doing to prioritize and boost public transit.
Being a copycat isn’t always bad, especially when you’re replicating strategies other cities are using to provide tangible benefits to residents, mobility companies, and transit agencies alike. The inside joke among mayors is that good mayors borrow ideas; great mayors steal them.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for example, is serving as a laboratory for a unique public-private-people partnership dedicated to providing better, more accessible, and affordable first/last-mile solutions through mobility hubs. Facilitated by collaboration and communication among the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, the Port Authority, and a consortium of private mobility operators called the Pittsburgh Mobility Collective, these mobility hubs will function as mixed-use areas for commuters to connect to public transportation (buses and light rail), which should expand access to public transportation, cut down on the number of single-passenger cars on the roads, and demonstrate the diverse benefits of strategic deployment of new mobility to complement transit.
More than ever, we need transit to connect people to places, resources, and opportunities. Rather than disrupting or cannibalizing transit ridership, new mobility technologies can be leveraged by transit agencies through creative partnerships and strategic deployment to serve as a complement to public systems that are — and will continue to be — the backbones of cities around the world.
Harriet Tregoning is Director of NUMO, the New Urban Mobility alliance.