Let’s Not Get Run Over by Major Transportation Trends

By Lyle Wray

Lyle Wray serves as Executive Director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments based in Hartford, Connecticut. He has served in state and local governments and as director of a nonpartisan think tank based in Minnesota.

Jun 20, 2017 | Mobility | 0 comments


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The general press and transportation specialty publications are bursting with reports of new developments in four major disruptive transportation technologies:

  • Shared rides
  • Electric vehicles
  • Autonomous vehicles
  • Connected vehicles

As we look back on the auto revolution since 1945, we have spent trillions of dollars on cars and related infrastructure. These investments transformed our country and greatly assisted us to an unprecedented level of prosperity. Yet there are many things we would no doubt do differently with 20/20 hindsight to shape the use of cars in relation to other modes of travel and in relation to the urban forms we want to live in. As we look on in amazement at the current technological prowess on display in the auto and mobility industries, it is important that we learn from the automobile revolution of the last 75 years. We can learn from the past to shape new developments to meet shared goals as these technologies unfold, rather than suffer the impacts of unintended consequences.

Community Impacts and Approaches to Ride Sharing

Of these four disruptive technologies, let’s consider the impacts and opportunities emerging around shared ride systems such as Uber, Lyft, Via, and others like them. Here are a few of the impacts already on the move:

First and last mile to transit

This is a major issue in medium to lower density communities that may have rapid transit, but cannot build out transit networks to increase access at an acceptable cost. There is the potential for major ridership increases in medium density areas with rapid transit if they can be connected to more riders with first and last mile solutions. Communities around the country, like Columbus Ohio, are piloting Uber, Lyft and other ridesharing services for first and last mile access.

Paratransit Service

On-demand paratransit demonstration projects by ride sharing companies have supplemented or replaced the local paratransit services in the communities where these projects are implemented. Services provided by ride share companies have much shorter lead times and potentially much lower cost, with greater freedom for transit-dependent people. Pilot projects are coming to address paratransit services in Boston and elsewhere.

Decreased Public Transit Ridership

Ride share services are pulling customers away from overcrowded and often delayed subway lines in NYC and other cities. People are voting with their feet, or rather, with their smartphones, to send the message that ride sharing is more efficient and comfortable than public transit in many cities. New York City, for example is scrambling to deal with transit challenges in service and reliability that are fueling rideshare services and they are far from alone across the country.

Making Transit Routes More Efficient

Pilot projects are being designed to answer the question of how transit routes with low ridership can be complemented or replaced with ride sharing services. Some transit routes have low ridership in the very early and late hours, but have better ridership during the day. Services to balance ridership and transit service with ride sharing are being piloted in suburban Toronto and elsewhere.

Increased Access to Transport

Ride sharing has created greater access to transportation options in areas where taxis were in short supply and public transit services are lacking. According to a presentation at the American Planning Association Uber and Lyft have added greatly to capacity outside of Manhattan in the New York City area.

In addition to these effects, there are other impacts on the horizon. Communities are looking to avoid the costs of new parking structures at intercity rail stations. Giving riders access to these stations with shared rides allows the communities to begin rethinking parking policies and parking volume. A huge impact will come about if auto sales enter a long-term decline as many urban residents defer a second, and even a first, car in environments where shared rides and rapid transit are easily accessible.

Use Technology Disruptors to Shape the Mobility Industry

These impacts are just beginning to emerge and disrupt many traditional ways of doing business in the transportation world. Considering the other three technologies mentioned at the start of this article, there are many more impacts on the way. So rather than standing at the edge of the ocean and commanding the waves to stop, what can we do to work with these disruptive technologies?

Here are a few ideas to use moving forward:

Develop a framework by which to measure impacts.

Despite great positive impacts, the auto revolution has led to many urban challenges, from flight from the city, to unfriendly pedestrian and cyclist environments. As new technologies continue to disrupt the mobility services industry and shape transportation environments, communities will need to develop a framework by which they can measure the outcomes of policies and projects. One possible framework is the Triple Bottom Line which considers economic, environmental, and social equity impact. Another framework starts with prominent issues in the field of transportation itself including such issues as safety, public transit, and freight. Conversations about which frameworks or combinations of frameworks fit the four technologies would be a good way to go.

Do some crystal ball gazing.

The Dephi technique allows transportation experts to look at impacts and cross impacts of these four technologies on a standard list of transportation concerns such as safety, efficient freight movement, and environmental impacts. The Delphi method is a structured communication method, originally developed as a systematic, interactive forecasting method which relies on a panel of experts. Panels of various types – transportation, urban designers, and residents – each going through a process and then looking at cross impacts would be a good place to start on digesting and monitoring these four disruptive technologies.

Track the results of pilots and prototyping of implementation.

As more of these four technologies move into real world implementation, we need to harvest the knowledge quickly and act to minimize clearly negative impacts.

These and other lenses and frameworks should give us the knowledge to shape developments to meet agreed upon goals, rather than be unfortunately surprised by negative and unanticipated outcomes of allowing technology to shape the landscape with no policy or framework to guide the process. It is important to remember that transportation is a means, not an end, and that we need to discuss the goals of transportation and shape our policies accordingly. To avoid being “road kill” with these new technologies, we need to affirmatively monitor and shape policies to meet desirable goals.

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