May 12, 2014

The Rise of Shared Mobility, A Key Complement to Public Transit

Flickr. DDOTDC. Creative Commons

Flickr. DDOTDC. Creative Commons


This blog post is a response to the Meeting of the Minds & Living Cities group blogging event which asks, “How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?”

From Spotify to Zipcar, modern society values access over ownership. It matters less and less if you own that song, bike, or office space, as long as you can use it when you want. This trend has opened up new opportunities in transportation, and as a result, new ways to connect communities and strengthen cities. Bike-share systems allow one-way trips, eliminating risks and hassles. Microbuses, like Dollar Vans in New York City or camionetas across the country, cater to the needs of various ethnic groups and reach areas with limited or no public transit. The rise of shared mobility, an umbrella term including car share, bike-share, vanpool, minibuses, and on-demand taxis plays a key role in keeping cities competetive, complementing public transit to get residents where they need to go. Cities that make the most of these new, powerful transit choices will have more options, intermodal connections and access for all.

A key advantage of shared mobility is its ability to fill in the gaps where traditional transport is absent or inadequate. Unfortunately, lack of access to public transit is all too common in the United States, especially for many low-income populations. Investment in high-quality mass transit in the US lags far behind many other developed countries. Where the US has a Rapid Transit to Resident Ratio of 8.9 (RTR measures how many kilometers of mass transit exist in a country per million urban residents), France has an impressive RTR of 30.2, due to continued investment in transit over several decades. While improving mass transit in the US must be a long-term goal, shared mobility schemes can play a critical role connecting underserved populations to jobs, commerce, and recreation.

Each type of shared mobility can help address different issues in a city’s transportation network.  Bike-share, increasingly popular in major cities across the US and the world, are especially effective at solving one of public transit’s most persistent problems, ‘the first/last mile challenge’. By providing an easy one-way trip between a transit station and home, or vice-versa, bike-share (in addition to its main use as direct transit) extends the reach of existing transportation networks. In Boston, as the Hubway Bikeshare system has taken root and grown, city officials and Hubway operators and planners made a point to place new bike-share stations in low-income neighborhoods underserved by public transit. As a result of the strategic placement of bicycle hubs and educational outreach, Hubway has successfully enrolled more minorities and women than other bike-share programs across the United States. 

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Boston’s Hubway Bikeshare has expanded into lower income areas, such as Jamaica Plain, and begun increasing access in Roxbury and Dorchester. Source

Vincent VAN Go
Buffalo Car Share introduces its newest vehicle, ‘Vincent VAN Go’. Source

Car share and van share programs have been successfully implemented in cities across the US, offering new medium and long distance travel routes in underserved areas. Car share is best suited for running errands and special trips, such as going to an interview or grocery shopping. By having access to a car, users don’t have to own a vehicle themselves, reducing both transportation costs and emissions. For low-income users, like many members of Buffalo Car Share, in Buffalo, NY, renting a car for a short period of time allows better access to doctors appointments, job interviews, and other errands.

Alternatively, vanpool can offer a low-cost carpool option on routes that are not well-served by public transportation. In New York City, Dollar Vans, an unregulated network of minibuses that pick up riders along several major avenues, run routes that are often more responsive to unmet transit demand than traditional public transit would be. The informality of the system also offers other benefits, such as flexibility. For example, the driver can wait when a passenger needs to pick up a child from daycare, or adjust routes if needed. 

LYFT CC Flickr User Alfredo Mendez
Lyft, a San Francisco-based TNC, identifies on duty cars with their distinctive pink mustache. Source: Alfredo Mendez

Companies like Lyft and Uber are finding innovated ways to tap into the shared access trend by developing smartphone applications that match users in search of a ride with a driver and car nearby. This expands transportation access to anyone with a smartphone, no matter where they are. These transportation network companies (TNCs), as they were termed by a California Public Utilities Commission ruling, have been challenging taxi regulations in every market in which they operate.

Shared mobility offers many things traditional transit cannot. It expands access into underserved areas, offers new types of trips, and provides more flexibility. In addition, it can provide mobility during off-peak hours, be more culturally responsive, and in many cases reduces carbon emissions through shared use and increased efficiency.

Cities around the country are already starting to include car share programs in their long term planning, and bike-share is playing an increasing large part of urban transit. These cities recognize that connectivity is a crucial component to a vibrant, healthy city, improving economic growth and quality of life. Smart cities will focus on integrating shared mobility with mass transit by creating strong intermodal connections, using shared mobility to address equity and access issues, and leveraging the benefits of shared mobility to expand opportunities for city residents. Embracing shared mobility will keep cities competitive. But when a trend is this hot, why compete when everyone can win?


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