Guest Op-Ed: New Mobility Advice for Cities

December 5, 2018

The rapid introduction of micromobility, such as dockless scooters and bikes, in US cities is showing incredible promise to solve age-old city problems. Micromobility is reducing the over-reliance on personal cars and reducing single-occupancy car trips. Portland’s scooter pilot, for example, reported 34% of riders would have taken a car if scooters weren’t available for the trip. With the introduction of shared bikes and scooters, cities have the opportunity to provide the public more mobility choices – if they get the regulations right. Well-written regulations rely on a strong vision for micromobility with goals for what the city wants to achieve. Done right, cities will find themselves at the center of managing mobility on their streets. While the permitting processes can be complex, here is a little advice for cities to consider on three critical areas.

Vehicle Caps:

Cities are right to be cautious with the sudden introduction of micromobility, but many cities are rolling out dockless scooters and bikes with small caps of less than 500 vehicles, with no clear path to expand. These cities are favoring orderly roll-out over promoting the utility of the new travel option. I believe this is happening for two primary reasons. First, cities are exercising their greater regulatory authority over permitted scooters and bikes as compared to the initial un-pregulated rollout of dockless bikes and TNCs of the past. Let’s be honest, many cities were burned with uncapped TNCs. Second, cities are using caps to exercise caution and control over a rapidly changing and unknown new mode of transportation.

Alternatively, performance caps – caps that can increase based on a vendor’s performance – can help cities actively manage mobility by focusing private mobility providers on meeting the cities’ safety, equity and performance goals. Caps should be evaluated on a regular and predictable schedule, making the criteria and schedule for review clear for providers and the public.

What’s the benefit of an increasing cap? Often more vehicles will actually help address some of the most common complaints such as:

  • Safety:Peter Jacobson’s famous 2003 study looked at the number of people walking and biking related to the number of crashes in a region. He found a consistent inverse relationship between the amount of walking and biking and crashes. He makes the same point anew related to scooters. A low cap may actually make a program less safe.
  • Sidewalk clutter:this many seem counterintuitive, but the experience in Seattle proved the more vehicles a city has, the more people ride the vehicles and the quicker riders learn how to properly park them. Over the course of the 12-month pilot, with close to 9,000 bikes in the city, Seattle saw extremely low rates of sidewalk blockage.

Most of all, if a city keeps its micromobility cap too low then the true mobility benefits may never be realized. With a low cap there may not be enough scooters available to meet demand, making them a less reliable mode of transportation, and reinforcing their label as novelties. Scooters are at their best when they are used to serve the underserved edge, when they are able to connect people to transit, and replace short car trips. But this requires a fleet large enough to spark and fulfill demand. Cities can meet demand for micromobility while actively managing their streets by incentivizing good actors with performance caps.

Vehicle Fees:

Shared scooter and bike companies use the public right of way as their storefront, so it’s reasonable to charge fees based on their impacts. Fees should be connected to the administration, enforcement, and evaluation of the program and to help achieve broader mobility goals such as safety and equity. Portland, OR for example charged $.25 per trip and saw close to 700,000 trips since their pilot began in late July. I believe this per-trip fee approach is best practice and enables a city to scale its program management as the volume of scooter and bike trips increase.

Further, per trip fees can help make scooters and bikes even safer and more beneficial by helping to fund safer streets, education and outreach. Indianapolis recently voted to use fees from scooters to make streets safer for those using scooters. Even the scooter companies themselves recognize this “virtuous cycle” through their willingness to contribute $1 per scooter per day to improve city infrastructure where they operate.

But fees for scooters and bikes do often invite the question: why not charge TNCs, or personal car trips? The goal is to not price scooters and bikes out of existence but use fees as a gateway to price all modes based on their impact on the system. And many cities such as Chicago, NYC, New Orleans and DC are striving to make up for the lost opportunity and lost time by imposing trip fees on Lyft and Uber.

Getting the fee structure and fee level right is important. Tying modest fees to each individual trip is the best and most direct way of accounting for the impact to the system.

Dockless Data:

As cities move to regulate the private operators using their streets, they are wise to build out their digital infrastructure simultaneously. While some cities are simply asking for monthly reports, others are asking for access to real-time data through an API, enabling cities to report on activity more frequently and in greater detail. The more cities require real-time and standardized data, the more they’re empowered to play a central role in right-of-way management.

Recognizing the importance of this, LADOT has led the development of the Mobility Data Specification (MDS), which many cities have embraced in their micromobility policies.  In our survey of existing city micromobility policies, we found universal agreement on the need for anonymized individual trip and fleet availability data. Also, many cities are rightly requiring maintenance and safety/collision data. By converging on a single data sharing standard consistent across jurisdictions, cities can work with providers to effectively manage the many modes using the public right-of-way.

MDS is the only existing comprehensive, easily-adoptable API standard for trip, fleet, and other micromobility data. It gives cities useful data to manage mobility programs, keep providers compliant, and report on bike and scooter use. With a standard format, cities need fewer technical resources to get value from data.

Shared scooters and bikes present a real opportunity to remake our urban streets, sever the over-reliance on the personal car and put cities back at the center of managing mobility. Getting this right will take iteration over time but starting with forward-thinking policy that includes performance vehicle caps, a per-trip fee structure and a data standard will give cities, private mobility provides and the public a head start.

The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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