Owning a car is an expensive hassle for many. Yet, in most of America, it is difficult to conceive of not having a car. The spread-out nature of our cities, along with a lack of access to transit and other alternatives, makes it difficult for many people to function without a vehicle of their own.
That, however, is changing, and fast. After attending the Live. Ride. Share. Conference in Los Angeles last week, it has become clear to me that shared-use mobility options have the potential to transform the United States’ transportation landscape for the better.
The conference, hosted by TransitCenter, the Shared-Use Mobility Center, the Southern California Association of Governments and a wide range of other groups, illustrated the degree to which shared-use mobility options are evolving and expanding around the country.
Forty-three bikeshare programs have launched in the United States since 2010, and 22 of them have come online in just the last two years. At least 25 more are planned to launch by 2016. Ridesourcing services, such as those provided by Lyft and Uber, are rapidly spreading all over the nation, and are available in 59 of 70 of America’s biggest cities. Carsharing is expanding as well, and doing so in a variety of forms. Peer-to-peer carsharing, the car equivalent of Airbnb, is proving to be particularly valuable in suburban areas and smaller cities. For those who want to use more than one service, multi-modal trip planning tools are helping more people to find the best way to bike to the nearest transit station or to grab a Lyft on the other end.
And that is just the beginning. New and innovative ideas keep on coming, both here in the United States and around the world:
- Companies can now offer their employees 21st century benefit packages that include ridesourcing credits or transportation per diems that incentivize employees to save money by sharing rides.
- App developers are working to re-design trip planning tools so they can better tailor trips to riders’ needs. By asking a few simple questions and distinguishing between different kinds of trips (is this a grocery store run with heavy bags or are you going out with friends?), these tools can adapt to riders’ personal needs at that moment, and offer the most comfortable and convenient option.
- Transportation officials in Finland are reimagining transportation by transitioning away from privately owned vehicles and toward mobility services that offer multi-modal monthly transportation packages unique to each client.
The “Live. Ride. Share.” conference offered no shortage of exciting ideas about the way in which shared-use mobility can help meet transportation challenges. But as these services evolve, there are important questions that must be addressed and challenges that must be met.
One challenge is data. The availability of reliable data is critical to the future of shared-use mobility because, without it, it is difficult to know who is using these services, why they are using them, and when they are using them. If we don’t know these things, it becomes difficult for public officials and transportation planners to support their expansion and integrate them into long-term infrastructure planning.
While a few groups have done surveys on ridership, surveys can’t tell the whole story. In an unprecedented move, Uber, after several scandals involving data collection, released data on its drivers in late January, but not on riders. There are valid privacy concerns over the collection of rider data and, as a user of these services myself, I intimately understand how much someone can learn about riders’ lives by looking at when and where they travel.
But providing access to anonymized data would be a win-win for everyone. Transportation planners would know more about when shared-use mobility is most/least in demand, the areas where gaps in access exist, and how to better integrate those services with transit and other modes of transportation. For the private sector, sharing rider data would enable them to document the role those services play in meeting transportation needs, giving policy-makers the tools to argue for incorporating those services in future transportation investment strategies.
Shared-use mobility has the potential to revamp the way we get around American cities and towns by offering many Americans the possibility of walking out of the front door and going wherever they want to go without the financial burden of owning a car. To realize this potential, the private sector and the public sector need to work together and to share information so that shared-use mobility programs can scale up in its current locations and expand to new ones.