New Data Suggests On-Demand Transit is Essential for Equity

Los Angeles, Arlington, and Jersey City prove that thoughtful integration of on-demand public transit can help cities foster equal opportunity for all.

In the midst of COVID-19 shutdowns, on-demand transit has begun serving specific community needs, such as food delivery to vulnerable populations, and transporting hospital workers in the overnight hours. Further, data shows that dynamic, on-demand public transit has proven to be a mobility lifeline for those in low-income areas during this crisis.

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How the On-Demand Economy Reshaped Cities

In 1964, scientists in the Galápagos Islands fed radio transmitters wrapped in chunks of food to a bunch of giant tortoises. As the animals slept, wandered, and mated, their behaviors pinged back to the research team’s receivers in the form of radio signals.

This early use of telemetry, or the transmission of computer information over long ranges, proved that biologists could observe, make inferences about, and even influence their subjects remotely. In her 2019 tome The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, the Harvard scholar Shoshanna Zuboff writes that the tortoise experiment was also a prelude for the kind of data-collection technology that has become ubiquitous in human society. And in the 2010s, it began to transform the shape of modern cities.

Today, as with the reptiles, we’re sometimes monitored for scientific purposes. Think of the fecal probes that MIT scientists sent into the bowls of Boston’s sewers to search for traces of opioid use. In some instances it is for government and law enforcement, as with streetlight cameras that count vehicles, scan license plates, or nab red-light runners. But the largest stage of telemetric technology has been for commerce. Our data as consumers and participants in daily life are not simply passively gathered: Consolidated, it has become the raw material for many of the products and services we buy.

It’s well known that Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and other information technology companies bottle up our digital exhaust while we’re using their products (and even while they’re just running in the background). Our clicks, keystrokes, and physical locations are aggregated as data points and smoothed into forecasts for our future choices, which turn into nudges towards certain outcomes. That might mean an online ad for the microwave you hovered over, an invitation to “like” a company’s Facebook page, or a coupon for a nearby retailer popping up on your phone. Over the past decade, telemetry has soared to new heights of power on the commercial web: Amazon has amassed 360-degree views of its “everything store” customers to guess our incomes, predict our desires, and charge us prices we’ll jump to pay.

That predictive architecture now shapes how we move through the physical world, too. Modern household lighting, kitchen appliances, personal vehicles, public streetlights, malls, and airports amass telemetric information about their human users and occupants, then use those insights of the crowd to tweak our habits and environments. A “smart” traffic intersection might give priority to city buses. A “smart” car might ramp up your insurance payments. A “smart” TSA scanner might help inspection agents target certain travelers. And a “smart” city? It might watch over and organize how its residents use public spaces, gathering data and sending nudges with aims of improving efficiency, safety, and public health.

The risks and benefits of using these technologies for urban planning and law enforcement are the subject of great debate, and they’re still revealing themselves in practice. But big data analytics have done more than cast a Big Brotherly shadow over urban space. They have also changed the significance of a basic element of what makes them urban: dense proximity.  

Historically, one of the great economic benefits of urban life is having access to jobs, schooling, goods, and services without needing to travel very far. But digital platforms that aggregate consumer demand are making physical density less important. Uber and Airbnb, the killer apps of the 2010s, exemplify this change. Once upon a time, visitors needed to flock to quarters where a city’s supply of hotel accommodations and other tourist amenities were physically consolidated, usually downtown. If you needed a ride, you used to call the taxi company directly, or flag down one of the cabs that served that area.

Now we transmit our demands for trips and beds as data from wherever we are, rather than direct interactions that depend on physical nearness. Uber and Airbnb consolidate our requests with those of a sea of other users, set prices, offer us suppliers, and dispatch them to us (for more on this, see the technology analyst Ben Thompson’s aggregation theory). The apps are creating their own agglomerations of demand, networks that are held together via digital ligaments instead of actual proximity. Kevin Webb, a transportation data expert, points out that Amazon works the same way, building off the big-box store model that came before it: Instead of physically traveling to an area where you can buy tennis balls, shampoo, and a can of tomato paste at three different but close-together shops, its shopping algorithms mean that it can stash those items on a single warehouse shelf thousands of miles away.

What does this shift mean? On-demand platforms have made certain kinds of goods and services more convenient, affordable, and accessible for customers across the income, age, and race spectrums. New places and things opened up for new markets. But the less-desirable consequences of replacing physical marketplaces with digital bundles of demand have been major. As ride-hailing emerged, the taxi industry in most cities has been gutted; in many others, traffic congestion has spiked and transit ridership has declined. Thanks to online short-term rentals, traditional hotels have seen a declining share of travelers opting for their wares and neighborhood housing shortages have been exacerbated by hosts who rent to Airbnb guests rather than full-time tenants. In some cases, once-residential neighborhoods have been emptied of locals and turned into streets of rentable ghost hotels.

As those effects manifested in cities from Tuscaloosa to San Francisco over the 2010s, critics blamed these upstart industries for wreaking havoc on traffic planning, housing prices, and local labor markets. But a subtler impact may be just as important: They altered a key ingredient of what makes an urban economy. The 2010s were the decade the city became an App Store: an online marketplace where our choices were closely tracked, where that data became part of the products we were using, and where digital clusters of activity displaced real-world transactions. Yes, we still go downtown for drinks, meals, and shopping experiences. But, more and more, we live in cities of the cloud.

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Why Do Micromobility Advocates Have Tiny-Demand Syndrome?

There’s a quote that’s stuck with me for some time from Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom: “You know why people don’t like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so f***ing smart, how come they lose so goddamn always?”

American urbanists and bike advocates are smart, or at least well informed. We know how important cycling is. We are educated about cycling cities in other parts of the world and how they are so much better for health, well-being, economics, traffic, pollution, climate, equity, personal freedom, and on and on.

But if we’re so smart how come we lose so goddamn always?

Why is the best we seem to be able to accomplish just a few miles of striped asphalt bike “lanes,” or if we’re lucky, a few blocks of plastic pylons—“protected” bike lanes?

Our current model is to beg for twigs        

More often than not, bike infrastructure is created reactively. Typically in response to a collision or near collision with a car, an individual or advocacy group identifies a single route that needs better infrastructure. We gather community support and lobby local officials for the desired change, trying as hard as we can to ask for the cheapest, smallest changes so that our requests will be seen as realistic.

What’s the problem with this model?

It’s like imagining a bridge and asking for twigs—useless, unable to bear any meaningful weight, easily broken. And it’s treating bike infrastructure like a hopeless charity case.

This makes bike infrastructure seem like a small, special-interest demand that produces no real results in terms of shifting to sustainable transportation, and it makes those giving up road space and tax dollars feel as though they are supporting a hopeless charity.

But when roads, highways, and bridges are designed and built, they aren’t done one neighborhood at a time, one city-council approval at a time. We don’t build a few miles of track, or lay down some asphalt wherever there is “local support” and then leave 10-mile gaps in between.

And yet this is exactly how we “plan” bike infrastructure.

Bike lanes are intermittent at best in most North American cities, and since they are usually paint jobs that put cyclists between fast-moving traffic and parked cars with doors that capriciously swing open, only experienced riders brave them. The lanes are easily blocked anyway, by police, delivery trucks, and film crews, if not random cars banking on the low likelihood of being ticketed.

This kind of bike “infrastructure” doesn’t actually do very much to protect existing cyclists, let alone encourage and inspire the general population to start cycling.

Why are we settling for easily broken twigs? The total number of people on bikes and other micromobility modes like scooters and skateboards is large and growing. An enormous force has been divided and conquered, splintered among thousands of neighborhoods.

In the grand scheme of things, the twig bike lanes we fight for aren’t going to create the significant mode shift needed for the environmental, social, and safety gains we hope to achieve. No one wants to fight for twigs. This cycle does nothing to inspire and grow a strong pro-micromobility movement.

Cars and trucks get billions in federal, state, and local money. Governments can mindlessly belch out vast sums for highway widenings—see the $1.6 billion spent on a single-lane addition to the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, even though we’ve known for years that it would not make a dent in travel times. With all this money seemingly available for car infrastructure, some of which is absolutely useless or makes traffic worse, there’s only a pittance devoted to robust bike networks. Why?

Bigger is better for infrastructure projects

For infrastructure projects, the larger you make it, the bigger the engineering and construction firms vying to get lucrative contracts, the more jobs are created, and bigger ribbon-cutting ceremonies politicians can go to. Expensive projects get media coverage, fire up the imagination, and grab hold of valuable mind share.

Our tweets and op-eds may vaunt the vital virtues of car-free mobility, but our infrastructure demands and budget sizes sadly do not. By lowballing our demands, we micromobilists are pitching ourselves as a niche, special-interest group: We are tacitly agreeing that cars are and should be the dominant mode of transportation, making our near nonexistent position in the budgetary pecking order inevitable. We also leave billions on the table by doing little to go after state and federal transportation funds.

I once challenged a California city’s budget when well-meaning officials were trying to choose between installing bike infrastructure or building a hub for Metro Bike Share, Los Angeles’ docked bike-rental program—there wasn’t enough funding for both, even though their own line items showed a recurring annual allocation of over $1 million for street repaving. I suggested reallocating some of the repaving funds to do both bike projects, arguing that this would result in a reduction in the number of cars on the road that were wearing out the pavement in the first place and reducing the yearly costs for repaving. My suggestions were dismissed: Even for this bike-friendly city council, relocating money for “serious” automobility to less-serious bike infrastructure seemed out of the question.

It’s almost as if we urbanists and bike advocates don’t consider our cause important enough, and it shows in how we approach advocacy and how we imagine bike infrastructure. It also shows in the national conversation, where we are almost nowhere to be found, even amid the talk of trillion-dollar Green New Deals. Serious movements come to the table with serious demands. Let’s dare to think and demand big. Let’s take a lesson from Big Auto.

How did the automobile come to dominate the U.S.?

As Vox explains here, car manufacturers and oil companies helped lay the groundwork for the U.S. Interstate Highway System in the 1930s:

[A] uto industry groups began envisioning an ambitious network of wide, smooth highways, accessible only by on-ramps, that would crisscross the country.

This vision was distilled in a massive, one-acre diorama GM built for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York called Futurama.

Car companies didn’t go council by council, city by city, or even state by state. They promoted an enormous plan for futuristic-looking freeways crisscrossing the nation. They called for these highways to roll right through cities, no matter the untold number of houses and neighborhoods and communities that needed to be eviscerated. And they went straight to the federal government and to the American people, lobbying Congress and President Eisenhower. Eventually over $425 billion was spent to construct the interstate network, from sea to shining sea.

Visitors to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York wait in long lines outside the General Motors Futurama exhibit. (AP Photo)

By creating a mind-shift—framing car infrastructure as a “public responsibility”—the auto industry helped change our national priorities and instigated the creation of car-centric infrastructure to support what Americans now worship as the pinnacle of individual freedom.

As if that weren’t enough, they also stole our primary public spaces in cities: the streets.

Today we think of streets as a utility for transportation. Yet for thousands of years, streets were public spaces, used for socializing, playing, business, street vending, meetings, civic activism, and festivals—they were humanity’s living room. In the blink of an historic eye, car companies were able to occupy these spaces with strategies such as the invention of “jaywalking,”outlawing things humans had done for thousands of years: freely use and cross public streets.

This was likely the largest single de facto privatization of public space in urban history.

“A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.”

Another Aaron Sorkin quote, this time from The Social Network, is fitting here. Go big.

Let’s dare to design something that can actually make a difference and imagine micromobility infrastructure that goes beyond bike lanes and that leapfrogs piecemeal local approaches. Let’s create a blueprint that can have real, lasting impact, to excite the masses, bring together many groups, companies, special interests, and demographics, create real mode shifts, and actually make a real difference in pollution, climate, and car deaths.

If our dreams are big enough and our coalition strong enough, we can create bike infrastructure that politicians would vie to bring to their own districts, one that follows the script of how such projects are funded: something that can draw a large coalition, create jobs, inspire headlines, and generate ribbon-cutting photo-ops. We can boldly create infrastructure that would make bikes, scooters, and many other forms of micromobility fun, safe, easy, and ubiquitous.

A Futurama for micromobility

So what could such substantial vision for micromobility infrastructure look like?

European cities are innovators in this field and urban planners have envisioned how some of their models might play out stateside. Many of their innovations form the core of infrastructure components that should be part of our national conversation.

Rethinking the “bike lane:” The name “bike lane” is yet another reason this infrastructure is seen as a special-interest demand. The conversation has started about renaming these lanes, but as of yet, there is no mutually agreed winner. My suggestion would be “micromobility lanes” to include the very diverse set of current and not-yet-imagined little vehicles.

Protected micromobility-lane network: Today protected bike lanes are usually the most ambitious infrastructure component of the twig-based model; here, it will be the least ambitious component: merely a starting point. A bold bike-micromobility vision likely starts with a complete citywide network of protected lanes, providing safe and equitable access to everyone, everywhere.

Priority or high-bandwidth streets: Priority streets would have bus-only lanes, several lanes for micromobility to accommodate increased riders and varied speeds, and large, broad sidewalks. Cars are the slowest, lowest-bandwidth forms of urban transportation. If we aren’t going to ban them outright, we need to at least start putting cars in their proper places.

Such streets would excite transit agencies fighting for bus-only lanes, as well as ADA-advocacy groups and pedestrian-advocacy groups. If communicated well, they could get find support from homeowners who have seen cut-through traffic skyrocket. Priority streets would also create opportunities for package delivery companies like FedEx and UPS that are seeing faster package deliveries with e-cargo bikes. And local business owners should also be on board, since bike-walk street can often increase sales.

And, finally, micromobility elevated freeways: The arrival of battery-powered micromobility modes like electric bikes and e-scooters has radically transformed the capabilities of the humble bicycle. Now, almost anybody can go for miles fairly quickly without breaking a sweat. Often electric micromobility is faster than cars in cities: One study found that e-scooters could reduce trip times in congested U.K. cities by 70 percent.

Recognizing these technological upgrades, shouldn’t our grand plan be to eventually provide a completely new infrastructure to support it? Once it is built, bikes and other micromobility modes could be lifted both literally and metaphorically and fly above cars on elevated freeways.

How would micromobility freeways create support? If they are beautifully designed and branded, perhaps like a seductive new technology product, they could spark excitement in traditional and social media. Urban planning, architecture, engineering, and contracting firms would love such a large-scale project because it would mean lucrative contracts to plan, design, and build.

Politicians would be able to tout the local construction jobs created by such a project. If a bike highway also included urban upgrades outfitted with such technology as solar generation, smart grid components, new data pipes, and served as a 5G backbone, a bike freeway could be hugely exciting for electricity, as well as telecoms and wireless providers. Just as big oil and auto companies pooled resources to create Futurama, we suggest a similar coalition of bike advocacy groups and micromobility manufacturers and providers to pay for the development and promotion of a micromobility Futurama. Such a coalition can quickly grow into a powerful force by strategically bringing in all the groups and institutions noted above that would have never been interested in biking infrastructure.

Too ambitious?

If you think a micromobility Futurama isn’t realistic, ask yourself: Would car companies have succeeded if they asked for twigs? Cars needed massive infrastructure, gas stations, oil extraction, police departments, driver education, and a whole host of other elements to be viable. If big oil and auto simply made cars and didn’t think about the ecosystem they required to proliferate, today they would likely still just be toys for the rich.

And the automotive and technology industries are still thinking big, racing to develop self-driving cars and flying taxis and insisting that we must “prepare” our cities for these new innovations. The unofficial king of these technologists, Elon Musk, even has a side business ready to export his cartopia to another planet. Conveniently, these narratives will maintain the car-centric status quo and keep their dominance over urban transportation.

We can’t let car companies again shape the vision for our future; if we don’t dream big now, we may never get the chance again. Let’s let’s elevate a different kind of transportation infrastructure that recognizes universal basic mobility as a human right and brings it to every man, woman, and child. If we don’t think of micromobility as the serious solution to a whole host of societal and environmental problems, then who will?

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