How Cities Can Ensure Fair, Affordable Transit Amid a Glut of Emerging Transportation Technologies

The most promising urban future is one where residents enjoy safe and cheap access to a variety of modes of transportation that make it easy to live well without owning a personal automobile.
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A man rides a shared dockless electric scooter along Venice Beach on August 13th, 2018, in Los Angeles, California.

A man rides a shared dockless electric scooter along Venice Beach on August 13th, 2018, in Los Angeles, California.

Being an urban transportation planner these days is no walk (or e-scooter ride) in the park. A well-intentioned city official will strive to allocate street space to benefit the most people—especially those of limited means—but the rapid pace of technological change makes things ever more complicated. Indeed, it's hard for even the savviest of experts to anticipate which new modes of transportation will succeed and which are merely fads. And urbanites enthused about a new service will be left stranded if it is suddenly discontinued.

A case in point: Remember when dockless pedal bikes burst on the scene, and commentators framed companies like Ofo and LimeBike as either the saviors or destroyers of urban life? You probably do; it was only 18 months ago.

Today those dockless bikes have all but disappeared from American streets. Ofo retreated from the United States and donated its bike fleet to non-profits, while LimeBike pivoted toward e-scooters and rebranded itself as Lime. The era of dockless bikes turned out to be little more than a blip—yet city officials spent countless hours trying to manage it.

Ride-hail, bikeshare, e-scooters, and microtransit companies have shown periods of rapid growth, but none has yet made a profit from transforming how we navigate cities. At the time of writing, Lyft is worth about $15 billion following its IPO, but plenty of analysts predict the company—and even the entire ride-hail sector—could eventually collapse.

It would be worrisome if all new mobility services were to disappear in the years ahead, because they collectively offer an exciting opportunity to wean Americans off our century-old infatuation with private cars, which are the primary culprits behind worsening pollution and rising road deaths. Fortunately, multiple signs suggest that new mobility services are here to stay in some form, including the rapid improvement in battery capacities, the densification of cities and suburbs, and investments in walkable places and cycling infrastructure. Yet it's impossible to know right now which mobility technologies will be the last ones standing, and whether the mix of surviving transportation services will serve all urban residents—or merely those with disposable income.

Amid so much uncertainty, what is a city leader to do? Planners and officials must weigh competing demands for scarce public space in streets, on sidewalks, and at the curb. After all, advocates for ride-hail services want pick-up and drop-off points for their vehicles, e-scooter companies want more bike lanes, and transit boosters are pushing for Bus-Rapid Transit—while drivers are loath to give up their on-street parking (even if they only need to park once a week). As if that didn't make things hard enough, forward-looking city leaders must also consider policies enabling new innovations in mobility that haven't been conceived of yet.

With so many unknowns, urban officials need clear, consistent principles to guide policy as mobility companies continue to rise and fall. These goals need not be complex; in fact, two simple ones are sufficient. First, urban officials must design mobility policy to promote equity, ensuring that new travel options serve the maximum number of people while improving access for the most vulnerable; and, second, they must embrace flexibility, so that policies about street and curb space can adapt to technology's uncertain evolution.

Cars and bicyclists travel on a busy Manhattan street on April 2nd, 2019, in New York City. In an effort to ease traffic delays and to increase funding for public transportation, New York City has passed a plan for congestion pricing for all vehicles traveling into Manhattan south of 61st Street.

Cars and bicyclists travel on a busy Manhattan street on April 2nd, 2019, in New York City. In an effort to ease traffic delays and to increase funding for public transportation, New York City has passed a plan for congestion pricing for all vehicles traveling into Manhattan south of 61st Street.

Prioritizing equity can ensure that the rise of new mobility services benefits as many people as possible—not just those with enough money to earn the attention and services of well-capitalized technology firms. A vision of mobility equity will push policymakers to expand street and curb access to transit, sidewalks, bicycles, and other such efficient ways of moving large numbers of people. Meanwhile, less street space would go toward parking and driving the privately owned cars and trucks that take up the most room—and that tend to be owned by wealthier households.

An important characteristic of new transportation technologies is that vehicles come in all shapes, sizes, and speeds. Scooters are small and fast, docked bikes heavy and slow, and e-bikes heavy but quick. It's likely that other types of small vehicles will arise, as batteries improve and urban residents demand safer, more comfortable travel. Wheels will likely grow larger and seats will be added to scooters and shared bikes. In some climates, external shells that protect riders from the elements are likely to emerge.

There's no way to know exactly what these small vehicles will look like in the future, how heavy they will be, or how fast they will go. For that reason, new rules and street space allocations must accommodate, and even catalyze, technological innovation. Setting aside sidewalk space for e-scooter parking is a fine policy, but a better one would allocate that space for securing any shared mobility technology of a similar size. After all, there is no telling what multimodal vehicles might look like as technologies develop and new types of vehicles are imagined.

It's inevitable that people will use new mobility technologies in unexpected and potentially unsafe ways—like the person one of us saw in Austin, Texas, during SXSW riding an e-scooter and balancing three others on top of it. Crashes will happen, but flexible, forgiving infrastructure like slow lanes, which separate riders of e-scooters or similar technologies from cars and trucks, can give people the confidence to try new technologies without fearing for their lives.

For over a century, public officials have prioritized the needs of private automobiles, thereby making our cities dirtier, more regressive, and less safe. Transport policy has favored higher vehicle speeds rather than improved ease of accessing destinations. Most troubling, though, is that we have adapted our cities to ever-larger vehicles rather than setting rules that push vehicle designs to fit the cities we want.

The rise of small-vehicle technologies like e-scooters and e-bikes gives us a chance to right this historical wrong. We can build better cities and design vehicles that work within the space available. It's clear that cities will have to rethink curb and street space allocation; the question is whether local leaders will stand up to the political sway of people who drive private vehicles, and to the private capital behind companies like Uber and Bird. The pressure on public officials will grow even stronger as makers of autonomous vehicles push for their own curb and street space, whether for passengers or for deliveries.

The most promising urban future is one where residents enjoy safe, affordable access to a variety of modes of transportation—including transit, biking, e-scooters, and much else—that make it easy to live well without owning a personal automobile. But we shouldn't embrace every new technology uncritically; certainly not just because it has attracted enough capital to move to the front of the line.

The road to that multimodal future isn't paved with $100 bills for investors to hoover up. Instead, it relies on cities' own careful stewardship of their roads, curbs, and sidewalks. By enabling experimentation, hedging bets on uncertain technologies, and directing resources to promote modes that move the most people in the least amount of space, cities can build a robust mix of mobility services that keeps our residents safe, our sidewalks clear, and our traffic flowing—whatever the means of conveyance.

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