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4 ways to make most of this pivotal mobility moment

Driving is creeping up, but there actions city, state and private-sector leaders can take to encourage dramatically different transportation habits.

Citi Bikes

New York is offering a year of free Citi Bike services to essential workers to help with their transportation needs during public transit service disruptions.

We are most likely to change our transportation habits during big milestones or disruptions in life such as starting a new job or sending kids off to school. Or, of course, like the global pandemic that has shut many of us inside our homes for much of the time.

Global transportation and mobility habits are dramatically shifting on top of the churning tectonic plates of the pandemic. When the world begins to resume some kind of "new normal," those transportation and mobility habits will start to stick in various ways. In this new world, what mobility opportunities will arise?

For Seleta Reynolds, manager of the Department of Transportation for Los Angeles and a mobility data advocate, it's a critical time for new partnerships and new ways of thinking to emerge. During a virtual discussion hosted by the UC Davis Institute for Transportation Studies last week, Reynolds said:

If there was any clearer indication that the universe wanted us to pause and listen and reflect, it’s this. ... It really is time for us to have a different kind of conversation about the purpose of what we [transportation planners] do and who it serves going forward. ... Going back to normal isn’t the best pathway forward.

As the world starts tentatively opening up after months of sheltering-in-place, one of the biggest mobility challenges will be a likely surge in private car ownership and driving. That's because urban and suburban dwellers are concerned (rightly so) about the safety of public transit, as public transit operators disproportionately have gotten sick and public transit has been linked with New York City's outbreak.

That driving surge might be temporary, but it's showing up in early data in South Korea, China and Germany. Data shows that driving is starting to creep back up around the world, while public transit movement data isn't, according to Apple Maps.

So how do we address this likely jump in driving? Well, initially, here are four ways: offer better low-carbon mobility options; incentivize electric vehicle purchases; prioritize pedestrian and cycling projects in cities; and Incentivize and promote the upsides of telecommuting.

Better mobility options: Reynolds promoted the idea of a "mobility wallet" that allows city residents access to mobility services — including shared bikes and scooters, public transit trips or ride-hail rides — and enables such services to be cheaper and more accessible than car ownership. We need to "disentangle auto ownership with auto access," Reynolds said. 

Not all mobility players have been collaborative. Some scooter companies have been shutting down shared services in cities to combat the spread of the pandemic, but others such as Spin have begun working with cities to try to offer crucial mobility services to front-line workers. New York City is offering essential workers a free year-long subscription to the shared Citi bikes. It's time for mobility companies to realize that cities are important partners to work with, instead of roadblocks to route around. 

At the end of the day, whether people adopt these mobility services over car ownership likely will have to do with pure economics and ease-of-use.

At the end of the day, whether people adopt these mobility services over car ownership likely will have to do with pure economics and ease-of-use. "When people can understand how much money is in a fixed asset like a car, they may make the calculus to get rid of that car," said Susan Shaheen, director of the Resilient and Innovative Mobility Initiative at UC Berkeley, during the digital discussion last week.

A green stimulus that incentivizes EV: With gas prices so low, it's easy to write off EVs in the short term. That's why policymakers need to make sure to tap already-created EV incentive programs as part of global green stimulus packages. As Bloomberg New Energy Finance's Albert Cheung put it, it's not just about deploying EV charging infrastructure, it's also about incentivizing people to trade in gas-powered clunkers for brand-new clean electric vehicles.

Walking and bicycling-centered streets: As Europe starts to come out of lockdown, it has miles and miles of new bike lanes to access that city governments started to build in a proactive and guerilla-way during the shelter-in-place. During lockdown, the San Francisco Bay Area has created miles of "slow streets" that block through-traffic and are giving bikers and walkers a respite from crowded sidewalks and clogged streets.

Building mobility infrastructure that prioritizes people and not owned cars is an important way to begin to disincentivize car ownership and incentivize alternative and active forms of transportation. While subtle, such infrastructure could have a very real effect when people start going back to work and public places. 

Telecommuting: The stickiest transportation impact of the pandemic just might be telecommuting. While companies have talked about having their workers work remotely for years, tens of millions of workers have been forced into the scenario of making working-from-home, well, work.

Many big tech companies plan to continue major work-from-home strategies into 2021. Slashing cars on the roads commuting to office buildings will have a significant effect on lowering carbon emissions related to transportation.

This article is adapted from GreenBiz's weekly newsletter, Transport Weekly, running Tuesdays. Subscribe here.

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