Shifting the system — using new mobility as a tool for community goals

Katie Fehrenbacher
Lime's electric shared scooters wait on the corners of downtown Oakland for riders to rent them.

While managing land use, transportation, economic development, air quality, environmental sustainability, equity and health through distinct departments may be necessary and even beneficial (as many cities creating new departments of transportation are noting), the issues themselves are not disparate. In fact, most city values require coordination and collaboration between and amongst various stakeholders across internal departments and external groups. Traditionally, such collaboration has proven challenging for a variety of reasons, including differing mission statements, misaligned timelines and variations in processes. But increasingly, new mobility options are presenting an opportunity and a catalyst for cities to collaborate, internally and externally, and integrate silos in various areas.

Just one year ago, electric scooters were a fringe concept, seen as a fad by many. Their proliferation and popularity demonstrates a reality that seems simple, but has been difficult to digest in the transportation world. Mobility options are popping up and evolving faster than the public sector can accommodate. But new mobility options, such as electric scooters, dockless bikeshares, micro-transit and driverless vehicles, also present a perfect catalyst for communities to re-examine their systems and align their values.

Just how can that happen? How can communities prepare for an uncertain future and ensure the ever-changing mobility landscape promotes positive outcomes for their residents and visitors? Determining objectives, engaging with public and private partners, conducting scenario planning and establishing evaluation frameworks and metrics have helped some cities align their goals with new mobility options.

Begin with values and objectives

Recently, California released its Automated Vehicle Principles for Healthy and Sustainable Communities, setting clear objectives for deployment of automated vehicles in the state. Defining the overall goals of a mobility system early lays the essential foundation for planning, policy, regulation and evaluation as new modes emerge. The San Francisco County Transportation Authority’s (SFCTA) Emerging Mobility Guiding Principles demonstrate the breadth of policy arenas affected by new mobility, and how local governments can provide guidance for various agencies as they engage with mobility services.

Use data and metrics to evaluate progress

Establishing a framework for measurement and evaluation of success will increase transparency and allow for flexibility in a quickly changing system. SFCTA’s Emerging Mobility Evaluation Report builds on the region’s established principles by identifying metrics for measuring progress toward stated goals.

Early designation of potential metrics can help identify what data will be needed to conduct performance evaluations and build data requirements into partnerships, permits and policies. Private mobility providers collect trip data capable of helping public agencies plan better services and investment in communities. Automated vehicles will increase the amount of data generated immensely as they deploy onto city streets.

Access to real-time and historical data in standardized format allows decision makers across agencies to understand the needs and effects of various mobility options across the system. Accurate information about various provider’s trip routes, vehicle use and time spent idle (parked or not in use) are examples of data points that can be used to plan investments and policies related to equity, land use and zoning, transit routes and times and first/last mile partnerships. Los Angeles’ Mobility Data Specifications (MDS) provides a platform for data sharing between public and private providers.

Recently, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation and private providers Lime and Spin, in collaboration with Remix, agreed to use MDS to share real time data on scooter usage in the region. Cities increasingly are building data sharing requirements into permitting processes and policies, allowing for collaboration and peer learning across regions as data standards such as MDS are adopted.

City landscape with data symbols

Engage the public

As new mobility options hit the streets, public reaction and understanding varies dramatically. Ensuring users and residents are informed of legal requirements, such as license laws and where vehicles are allowed to operate, will improve safety for all community members. Engagement goes beyond information, however, and should include feedback from the community for decision-making purposes. How do residents want their community to grow? What are some challenges and barriers they may face? How can mobility options help remedy those issues? Understanding these questions and concerns will ensure better outcomes and increased buy-in from community members as the mobility landscape continues to shift.

Conduct scenario planning for future needs, and examine existing structure for immediate actions

Traditional planning has relied on historical data to inform future decision making. But innovation is changing the system in real time, and the ripple effects of technology affect conventional modeling. In order to prepare for an uncertain future, local governments must consider the diverse possibilities of technology, environmental and economic change. WSP recently launched a Scenario Planning Toolbox to help decision makers through the process of scenario planning, setting up various potential futures through analysis of qualitative and quantitative data, and identifying levers to use for influencing desired change.

Additionally, communities can examine existing policies to identify necessary changes for reaching their goals. Using the goal setting, public engagement and evaluation frameworks mentioned above, decision makers can identify needed services and actions right now that will help achieve better outcomes. This assessment of existing policies extends beyond enabling new mobility providers, such as changing regulations to allow cars without steering wheels for driverless technology. Planning documents, zoning codes and permitting processes can be updated in the short term, opening a path for new mobility to align with established objectives.

For example, cities across the country are changing parking requirements in urban centers, reducing or removing parking minimums for development in the city core. Chandler, Arizona, recently removed parking minimums citywide, and issued strong guidance for loading zones. These changes not only respond to shifts in travel behavior and decreased usage of privately owned vehicles, but they also align city goals such as efficient land use and increased housing development with existing policies and regulations.

Lyft

Create partnerships and pilots

Private mobility providers create products and services based on perceived market opportunity. Rather than compete with one another, public agencies can start with their stated goals and collaborate with private providers to solve identified challenges, improve overall efficiency and provide increased access for users. Partnerships based on identified needs have led to Mobility as a Service (MaaS) platforms internationally, solving access issues while addressing additional goals such as decreased personal vehicle usage and economic growth.

The Whim app in Helsinki, for example, presents an integrated platform for trip planning, payment and booking, with multiple levels of bundled subscriptions to various private and public providers for users. In just two years of existence, Whim boasts 60,000 users monthly.

Even without a full MaaS system, first/last mile solutions for transit agencies present an ideal opportunity for partnership. Micro-mobility providers (bike share and scooter share), transportation network companies (TNC), such as Uber and Lyft, and eventually driverless cars, may increase access to destinations, increase transit ridership and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through reduced personal vehicle usage.

However, TNC’s and driverless cars may replace transit trips as well, increasing congestion, GHG emissions and stress on infrastructure. Pilot programs, with built-in metrics to evaluate progress towards goals, allow the flexibility to shift policies and plans as needed to address trade-offs. Pricing trips to incentivize shared travel, re-routing vehicles to optimize usage, and geofencing vehicles into (or out of) specific zones are just some levers available for public agencies to ensure all mobility in their region is working collaboratively to achieve desired outcomes.

An Uber car in New York City

Think systemically, and think big

Technology enabled transportation is already changing how we move people and goods. The landscape is shifting more dramatically than since the advent of cars and building of the National Highway System. With a focus on values, evaluation and partnership, communities have the opportunity to improve not only their mobility options, but the daily structure of their environment. Local governments can act now to set the foundation for change, and plan for a future that enhances land use, transportation, equity, environment, economics and health for everyone.

This story first appeared on: