Convergence: What Role Do Cities Play in a Changing Mobility Landscape?

At Eno’s Convergence conference on March 24, a session on “The Role of Cities in our Mobility Future” looked at a vital component on how our transportation systems are implementing technology solutions. Cities across the U.S. have been leaders in demonstrating how cities can deal with to the growing sharing economy.

The panelists included:

(Other sessions during the day focused on technology as it relates to public transit and freight. An overview of our Convergence event can be found here.)

Cities have been recently bombarded with new mobility options, such as car sharing, bike sharing, and other tech services like on-demand ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft. The panelists represented a slice of this industry, with both private and public sector representatives. While Zipcar, a car-sharing service, is considered among the early transportation companies that helped spur the sharing economy, Hopista and BCycle are more recent start-ups. Hopista focuses on organized hitchhiking as a form of ride sharing, and BCycle works with cities to launch bikeshare systems. As innovations from the private sector have continued to evolve, public sector efforts within this space have not gone unnoticed. For instance, LADOT has recently launched a designated shared-use mobility program.

Kubly, with his public sector expertise, kicked off the panel discussion by posing the question: “What is the role of cities when the private sector is providing so many services that were public years ago?” Each panelist pointed out the rapid changes in the last decade, or even in the last five years, and that each sector – public, private, and research – have a contributing role to play in an increasing urbanized population.

The discussion touched upon topics related to long-term land-use planning in the context of recent technology transportation trends, large scale paradigm shifts resulting from new innovations, and social equity in the transportation technology system. When Kubly asked what public agencies can do to help private-sector innovation and vice versa, Holmes acknowledged the bigger picture of the built environment and the role transportation plays within it, noting that “many cities need to re-evaluate their land use policies.” These include minimum parking requirements for new developments and free on-street parking in residential areas that might not be as justified with technology-enabled sharing. Jones added that cities could also help in terms of facilitating the permitting process so that these innovations can move beyond pilot programs. Porras emphasized the need to continue pursuing partnerships and collaborations between all sectors.

However, revising these large-scale policies will also require a paradigm shift among both agencies and the general public when approaching public transit. O’Brien described Bridj’s partnership with the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority as a way to overcome the stigma of public transit and introduce new riders. In this model, she defined success as “not necessarily massive ridership, but new people trying transit.” Shaheen pointed out the important role that universities and research can play when the public sector is unable to take a risk or the private sector becomes too self-interested. Universities can act as separate entities to evaluate data and help inform decisions impacting both public agencies and private companies. Holmes also suggested pilot programs as another way to assuage concerns and skepticism about potential partnerships.

Kubly addressed social equity concerns surrounding new technology-enabled mobility, as most available apps currently focus on English-language speakers, despite the multilingual communities in the U.S. There are also  challenges in helping the elderly population adapt to these new technologies. Porras talked about LA DOT’s partnerships with neighborhood non-profit groups – in this case, to help develop a car-sharing program for low-income communities. He explained that social equity comes down to understanding a community’s relative needs: if a carsharing program seems expensive, it requires understanding how other transportation costs are compared. He also mentioned the role that millennials play in these communities as “in-house translators” for non-English households.

A question from the audience asked how transportation trends would change as millennials transition to parenthood, which has traditionally been the impetus for car ownership. Shaheen and O’Brien – both parents – pointed out that being parent doesn’t require having a minivan and “having a car is different from having lots of cars.” O’Brien also emphasized the importance of introducing public transit to children, which encourages them to continue using transit as adults.

Another question addressed how public agencies approach long-term planning, given the uncertainty of how transportation trends will unfold. Kubly explained from his own experience in Seattle, part of long-term planning also involves “[finding] out what people want.” He shared an anecdote where one resident asked how the city was going to account for autonomous vehicles, noting that if he had been the one to introduce the idea first, and not a member of the public, he “would be laughed out of the room.” This highlights the need for cities to have an open dialogue with community members during the next several years as the transportation technology options become more established.

This panel overall demonstrated the increased role that cities will play as the facilitators and partners in technology-enabled mobility. Innovations are coming rapidly and cities are often best positioned to be nimble and react to the needs of their communities. Regardless, there still appears to be a need for regional, state, and federal bodies to play a role in ensuring consistency across jurisdictional boundaries. As the options mature, these policy discussions will have growing importance.


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