Article by Greg Lindsay
CityLab  |  December 10, 2018

The State of Play: Connected Mobility in San Francisco, Boston, and Detroit

CityLab convenes a hundred transportation experts to debate the future over dinner

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This summer, CityLab Insights published “The State of Play: Connected Mobility + U.S. Cities,” a snapshot of the technologies and actors roiling transportation policy and a briefing for public officials struggling to follow it all. Building on the success of that report, earlier this fall CityLab convened a series of dinners in San Francisco, Boston, and Detroit attracting nearly a hundred public officials, transit professionals, startup founders, technology executives, non-profit directors, designers, academics, and more.

Although each dinner had a theme—mobility-as-a-service, the potential impacts of electric and autonomous vehicles on land use, and whether the public or private sectors should drive transportation policy—several themes emerged that cross-cut all three conversations, regardless of participants or geography. A few are summarized below:

1. The public vs. private debate rages on (and on)

Held in early autumn, in the wake of public officials deciding whether to ban, cap, or begrudgingly allow free-range electric bicycles and scooters in cities ranging from New York to Santa Monica to San Francisco, all three dinners were to varying degrees a microcosm of the debate raging in mobility circles for nearly a decade now – will private companies or the public sector define the future of urban mobility? It was a debate everyone present professed to have no interest in re-fighting… and then did so anyway.

In San Francisco, Lime’s chief programs officer Scott Kubly—who was previously director of Seattle’s Department of Transportation—lamented cities’ approach to regulation, at least when it comes to micromobility. “Many governments are regulating a service, scooters, that is addressing its policy goals of affordability, climate change, and reducing congestion instead of figuring out how to encourage their use,” he said. Rather than grading firms or services on performance, arbitrary caps on vehicles and other measures were largely performative—signaling to voters that the scooter menace won’t be tolerated, and to companies that they won’t get fooled again as they were by ride-hailing.

Work with us was a clear and persistent refrain by private sector participants to their public counterparts. Set objectives, define goals, and let us help you achieve them. If the solution to ride-hailing clogging city streets is to price roads and use the proceeds to fund transit, then why not partner with them to achieve exactly that? (Uber and Lyft both tend to favor broadly-applied road pricing over city-imposed surcharges on ride-hailing.)

But this line of thinking obscures a critical difference between vendors and would-be disruptors. In Detroit, guests mused on what Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi really meant when he said, “I want to run the bus systems for a city.” They unanimously agreed he likely had no interest in running buses as we know them – as heavily-subsidized public goods with a relatively high degree of equity.

Unless Uber wants to own the “holistic experience,” argued Chris Thomas, co-founder and president of the Detroit Mobility Lab and until recently a co-founder and partner of Fontinalis Partners. “They want to own every aspect of that transaction. If they have the opportunity to own the entire food chain,” selling bus tickets will be worth it. And between a flurry of deals to add bike-sharing, car-sharing, and public transportation to its app, it would appear Uber is poised to do just that, with Lyft and Ford among others in hot pursuit.

All of which points to a wrinkle which is rarely discussed openly in polite mobility circles, which is whether these massively-valued companies are content to act as innovative vendors versus uncontrollable disruptors. Given the volatility of their business models—pivoting from ride-hailing to electric bicycles and scooters, for instance—several guests wondered whether they were even stable enough to be effective partners for cities.

2. What cities should do… but won’t

Early in San Francisco’s dinner, Timothy Papandreou—former chief innovation officer of the SFMTA and now founder of Emerging Transport Advisors—passionately argued what cities should do, which is rethink their entire approach. “We haven’t done a good job of asking what is the right price to move a person from A to B?” he said. “Or asking: what is the best way to move people in the most efficient, effective, and safest manner? Quantify that. And then ask, Are you part of this? If so, great. If you’re not, you’re no longer welcome in our city. But I haven’t heard that happen.”

Guests in Detroit framed this approach as performance-based regulation, with an emphasis on ends rather than means. “Should we be thinking about regulating markets or paying for performance?” asked a senior private mobility executive who was present. There was general agreement on both sides of the public/private divide that cities must do a better job in articulating their policy goals.

From there, the question was how. In all three dinners, talk eventually turned to implementing open APIs such as GTFS, GBFS, and LADOT’s proposed Mobility Data Specification as a means for creating a marketplace to achieve those goals. Without them, cities face the prospect of regulating competing, vertically-integrated walled gardens. “Either we’ll have open APIs to which you can plug in, or there will be a fait accompli with a system placed on top,” said Chris Thomas.

3. But they still need the data to do it

Open APIs are great, but compelling private mobility operators to share data granular enough to be useful remains a fruitless exercise, whether cities employ carrots or sticks. While there have been a handful of high-profile partnerships (such as Ford’s, Uber’s, and Lyft’s commitments to NACTO’s SharedStreets initative), new mobility operators remain loath to even allow price discovery, let alone allow their data to be aggregated for mobility-as-a-service. The idea of performance-based regulation is moot if cities have no way to evaluate performance.

“It’s very difficult to act when you don’t know what’s going on,” said Regina Clewlow, a former research scientist and CEO of the mobility data platform for cities, Populus. “The metrics both government agencies and the public sector care about is safety, sustainability, and equity – but we can’t actually make progress if we’re not measuring them.”

One form of information is prices. In Boston, Coord CEO Stephen Smyth described his firm’s ambition to create “a world in which every square foot is priced.” This “asphalt marketplace,” realized through open standards and the Internet of Things, would allocate and re-allocate curbspace and lanespace according to cities’ wishes, as manifested in dynamic pricing.

4. What are streets for, and how should we value (rather than price) them?

In response to several proposals to slice-and-dice city streets in response to mounting pressure from new mobility services, several participants from Gehl Architects and Greenfield Labs—a collaboration between Ford Smart Mobility and IDEO with support from Gehl—demanded guests take a step back and ask what streets are really for.

In San Francisco, Gehl’s chief innovation officer Jeff Risom called for a new means of engaging the public to imagine what streets could be. The now-familiar phenomenon of “bikelash” underscores how cities’ efforts to reclaim streetspace for new uses have faced nearly universal opposition from car owners. “If we want to state new policy goals, we need a new kind of conversation—one that can include a broad number of people and be facilitated in a way that’s productive,” he said.

To that end, Greenfield Labs has launched the National Street Service, a pilot organization recruiting local volunteers capable of leading those kinds of conversations. In Boston, Greenfield Labs researcher Tiffany Obser argued these new roles and institutions will be essential in changing informal rules of the road to promote safety and defuse bikelash. “There’s a lot of fear by residents about all of these modes sharing space, so cities create more rules to govern these systems,” she explained. “The more rules we create, the more fear it induces, and it becomes a vicious cycle. We’re trying to understand where we can move the needle.”

5. Land use and mobility remains a Gordian Knot

Several guests noted who wasn’t at the table—real estate developers, housing experts, and others who can help cut the Gordian knot of mobility and land use.

“Many cities and transportation authorities have challenges beyond their control, especially around land use,” said Clewlow in San Francisco. “We have last mile problems because we created them through terrible housing policy. They’re set up to fail.”

One approach is to work closely with residential developers to offer mobility-as-an-amenity in lieu of parking, which adds substantially to construction costs and is reflected in higher rents. Justin Holmes, Zipcar’s director of public policy, described in Boston how his company partners with cities and developers to provide its car-sharing service as part of mobility bundles. “Not only is it a great opportunity to serve a viable market, but you’re reaching people at a moment when they’re making a life change and thinking differently about their mobility choices,” he said.

But simply providing alternate modes for the first/last mile problem doesn’t actually solve the first/last mile problem, argued Soofa CEO Sandra Richter. Reflecting on her own upbringing in Europe, she noted that American neighborhoods are missing crucial pieces by design. Until we know exactly what those pieces are—jobs? schools?—we’ll never understand what generates trips in the first place, let alone what modes could solve them. Cities are trying to solve traffic congestion when perhaps they should be patching holes in the urban fabric.

Looming over this issue is the accelerating demographic trend of Millennials entering their long-delayed peak child-rearing years. Boston guests lamented the informal selection process facing anyone (especially parents) wishing to live a car-free lifestyle—finding the right combination of schools, commuter rail service, and walkability that fits within their budget. Could AVs provide first/last mile solutions for families, the elderly, and others precluded from using micromobility to expand the scope of car-free neighborhoods?

About Greg Lindsay

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion.  He is also a partner at FutureMap, a geo-strategic advisory firm based in Singapore, a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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