Smart Mobility: Crowd-Sourcing a Transportation System

Last week’s "Innovations in Mobility" public policy summit in Washington DC evidenced the extent to which smart phones, technology and open source data are beginning to bring dramatic change to the transportation arena — as they already have to communications and media. “Smart mobility” is -- for lack of a better definition – the new set of transportation options that can be accessed and paid for using apps downloaded onto your smartphone. These options range from peer-to-peer car-sharing to bike-sharing to formal and informal carpooling to the host of new TCNs or “transportation network companies” coming on the market monthly — from Lyft to Car2go to Getaround, RelayRides and (We’ll leave Uber out of the discussion given their recent bad behavior with the taxi industry).

TCNs are part of the new “sharing economy” — though there are those who ask, like one recent Huff Post blogger, whether this “sharing” is really “communism” or whether it’s “hyper capitalism.” The goal, however, is very real: to make it feasible for people to not own cars because, of course, they’re so expensive (and too many young people have crushing school debt), they’re too damaging to the environment and climate, and dependence on the internal combustion engine is necessitating prolonged military engagement in the Middle East.

Take, for example, RideScout — an app launched last November, and now available in 69 cities (including LA and San Bernardino) — that provides “the reliability and flexibility of car ownership” by offering access to information about bus and rail, bike- and car-share, taxi, carpools, walking, biking, driving and parking. CEO Joseph Kopser told the conference audience he was inspired to create this app during 2 tours of duty in Iraq, when he realized the extent to which American soldiers were dying just to protect oil supplies. If an environmentalist had said that it wouldn’t have had the same resonance.

At the conference it was widely acknowledged that this is a fledgling industry — poised for explosive growth in 2014 — that cities haven’t yet figured out how to regulate like they do the taxi industry. Moreover, there are oh-so-many unanswered questions, like: Is shared mobility a complement to transit or competitor? Can it be a ladder to opportunity for those who can’t afford a car, or is it merely a new Lexus lane? Will it really result in reduced car ownership and VMT?

Nonetheless, shared mobility holds out tremendous promise as a new transportation solution in a city like Los Angeles that’s characterized by too many single-family neighborhoods that may never be served by frequent transit. It could be a solution to traffic congestion. And a first-mile last-mile solution. And most impressively, it offers an alternative to owning 1, 2 or 3 of the 1 billion cars on the planet today — a number that is expected to double in a decade.

The conference was hosted by the Association of Commuter Transportation, UC-Berkeley Transportation Sustainability Research Center, Mobility Lab, the Transit Center, and the Shared Use Mobility Center. Here are some of the interesting things said at this 2-day conference attended by some 500 people, including staff from transit agencies and cities, and many other transportation professionals:

Padden Murphy, Getaround
“There are 250 million cars in the U.S. – and these are very expensive assets that if shared [using TCNs like Getaround] can each earn $6,000 a year.”

Luana Huber, the Walt Disney Company
“The point of shared mobility is to improve transportation using the infrastructure we already have by encouraging people to share.”

David Bragdon, the Transit Center
“Think how much the world has changed for consumers because of technology: You can do your banking in your basement at 3 a.m., for example, and have instant access to new music without having to go to a store during business hours. Do you really think these changes aren’t also coming to the transportation industry?”

Paul Steinberg, Carma
“We are crowd-sourcing a new transportation network!”

Kari Watson, Georgia Tech
“When you have real-time information about arrivals and departures it completely changes your perception of the safety of a transit trip.”

Tim Papandreou, San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency
[Showing a slide of a jam-packed freeway] “Here’s what our roads look like with a fleet of combustion-engine vehicles.” [Showing a slide of another jam-packed freeway] “And here’s what our roads will look like with an all-electric fleet."

Peter Torrelas, Optym
“We have a tendency to think that shared mobility is solving the transportation problem. But it isn’t – unless we dramatically scale this up. We need a SWAT team to provide technical assistance to cities.”

Emily Castor, Lyft
“The issue at the crux of it is what does it mean to rideshare? Our transportation assets are not designed for quasi-public use.”

Bibiana McHue, TriMet in Portland, OR
“TriMet has 59 apps [created by third party app developers using the agency’s open source data] and an open trip planner that together make it possible for people to get from point A to point B via the quickest route, the flattest route and/or the safest route.” (And with real time information as well as other info about neighborhoods surrounding stops.)

Sue Zielinski, SMART at the University of Michigan
“Smart mobility is a paradigm change that is moving us from a single [transportation] product to an industry cluster, from making decisions ‘between’ to decisions ‘among,’ and from single policies to policy suites.” [Because we are moving toward multi-modal in the broadest sense.]

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