Accelerating Innovation for Inclusion
The digital revolution is changing the way people move, work, and interact with information and services. Governments can leverage new technologies to create more inclusive communities by developing systems that ensure benefits and services are accessible to all residents who need them. This will require that leaders design new systems built around equity and inclusion. But important questions remain about how and where new technologies can contribute to equity and inclusion and how to build upon existing systems without recreating the disparities of the past.
Supported with a grant from the Mastercard Impact Fund, in collaboration with Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, the Urban Institute will fill critical knowledge gaps on what the digital transition means to cities and states in the US. Urban’s experts will develop tools that policymakers can use to target investments aimed at reducing inequities and increasing pathways to upward mobility.
Our research will focus on four “keys” to the inclusive city:
- Adaptive Tools to Promote Economic Mobility: With access to tools that take advantage of new and extensive data on economic indicators such as housing markets, consumer spending patterns, and business development, cities can promote policies and encourage investments in ways that support more inclusive and effective community economic development and economic mobility.
- Modernized Benefits Delivery: By leveraging technology and advances in data analytics, cities can improve access, usage, and disbursement of government benefits, with a focus on increased equity and inclusion.
- Digitized Service Delivery: Through increased digital capacity and data analytics, cities and states can improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their service delivery while ensuring more equitable access and usage.
- Integrated Systems for Physical Mobility: By integrating non-traditional transportation technologies like electric scooters, docked and dockless bikes, car sharing, and ridesharing into existing public transportation networks, cities can help to promote more equitable and inclusive access to job opportunities, education, child care, and other critical services to close gaps created by geography and legacy infrastructure.
Learn more about this effort here.
Reports, blog posts, and events
“New mobility” technologies, such as car sharing, ride sharing, ride sourcing, electric scooters, and dockless and docked bike sharing, are providing residents a growing number of options to travel within and across neighborhoods (Clewlow, Foti, and Separd-Ohto 2018). These forms of mobility provide on-demand transportation options and operate outside traditional public transportation systems. As new mobility technologies gain popularity, they present an opportunity to build more equitable transportation systems.
Through their responsive nature, new mobility technologies have the potential to reduce existing transportation inequities. But without proper planning, they could reinforce existing inequities and fail to deliver inclusive and equitable transportation outcomes.[i] To ensure new mobility services successfully increase equitable access to transportation, local policymakers must intentionally incorporate equity considerations into planning and implementation by assessing and responding to barriers to transportation access such as cost of use, service availability, geographic distribution of routes, physiological challenges, and social barriers.
The impacts of new mobility tend to focus on large cities such as New York, San Francisco, Seattle, or the District of Columbia. However, new mobility is increasingly present in many medium-size cities (those with 150,000 to 300,000 people), and yet questions remain about the effects of these technologies in these cities, the practices being developed to ensure equitable access and use of new mobility services, and an understanding of how those practices differ from those in larger markets. Medium-size cities have the advantage of seeing how larger cities have responded to new mobility companies and therefore have the opportunity to more proactively build regulatory frameworks, build partnerships, and support equitable outcomes. However, these cities also face issues different from those in the larger, more densely populated cities that new mobility companies operated in first, and they therefore have fewer models to draw best practices from.
This report has two main goals: (1) to identify what medium-size cities are doing to incorporate new mobility technologies into transportation and equity plans and (2) to identify how these cities can develop proactive planning and decisionmaking structures to incorporate new mobility technologies. Being proactive rather than reacting in an ad hoc manner allows cities to partner with new mobility companies more effectively and engage community residents to ensure inclusive and equitable transportation outcomes.
Our research is informed by interviews with representatives from local and regional planning organizations from 10 medium-size jurisdictions and from three new mobility companies. Participants were asked about topics such as protocols around data sharing, distribution of roles and responsibilities, and strategies for incorporating equity into new mobility planning. Our research is further informed by key insights gained from a roundtable of representatives from five of the jurisdictions.
We find that cities are using the new mobility space to lean into process improvements and incorporate equity into their transportation planning and systems. Cities must identify equity goals in advance, identify equity gaps in existing systems, and position new technology to bridge those gaps. Our research reveals several mechanisms medium-size cities are using to take these steps:
- Flexible agreements such as requests for proposals, permits, and pilots allow cities to test and embed equity mandates into new mobility operations.
- Intermediary data companies can help medium-size cities increase data capacity, navigate data privacy laws, and manage relationships with new mobility companies.
- Collaboration across jurisdictions and sectors is key to building out a transportation infrastructure that is critical for new mobility use.
- Cities can hardwire equity considerations into their operations by recalibrating internal structures and integrating equity guidance in their strategic plans.
We begin our report with an overview of transportation equity followed by a discussion of new mobility, including how we define it and which modes we include in our definition. We then review how cities more generally are dealing with new mobility technology and what strategies they are implementing to support equitable outcomes. Next, we share the new mobility context for medium-size cities more specifically. Finally, we present findings from our engagement with transportation and equity stakeholders in medium-size cities, identifying key challenges, solutions, and future opportunities for practice and research.
[i] Nellie Bowles and Devid Streitfeld, “Electric Scooters Are Causing Havoc. This Man is Shrugging it Off” The New York Times. April 20, 2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/20/technology/electric-scooters-are-causing-havoc-this-man-is-shrugging-it-off.html?action=click&module=RelatedCoverage&pgtype=Article®ion=Footer.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps millions of households with low or no incomes purchase food. Households currently access SNAP benefits using electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards, which work like debit cards. With new payment technologies available and with the growing need for online purchasing options amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it is vital that SNAP benefit delivery evolves to ensure participants can purchase food in the same manner as other customers. We interviewed national SNAP experts, state officials, consumer advocates, and representatives of food retailers, EBT processors, and related technology companies to understand the current EBT system and how future benefit delivery could be more equitable and inclusive.
Amid stay-at-home orders and other tactics to stem the spread of COVID-19, millions of Americans’ daily lives have shifted online. Many employees work from home, students take online classes, and city officials rely on livestreams and social media to disseminate information. But the sudden shift to an online-based life has highlighted the inequity of access to reliable technology for many US households.
To understand how city officials are addressing technology equity gaps to meet their residents’ needs, the Urban Institute surveyed chief technology officers, chief information officers, chief innovation officers, and digital inclusion leads in cities across the country. Our survey received responses from 14 representatives constituting of 11 cities. From the responses, we found four main takeaways:
- Internet access has expanded, but the digital divide is more harmful than ever. Most respondents indicated that since COVID-19 began to spread in the US, low-cost or free internet, access to internet-connected devices, and digital literacy training had all expanded. For most of the responding cities, these steps were the result of accelerating existing programs. Several cities also focused on students, partnering with school districts to set up hotspots and distribute devices. City representatives also said the virus clarified the magnitude of the digital divide, with one remarking, “internet isn’t a luxury anymore, it’s a necessity.”
- With new tools, cities are reaching more residents than ever before. Every city representative who responded indicated that they were using new tools to reach residents, and most also said their cities had also expanded livestreaming of government meetings. Although these tools have expanded access to more residents, there is still potential for low-income and other marginalized communities to be left out because of the digital divide.
- Cities are collecting real-time information and moving services online. Most city representatives indicated that COVID-19 informational pages were one of the most in-demand city services, with many respondents also indicating that information about safety net programs was wanted. Many respondents noted that city services such as building permitting had also moved online for the first time during the pandemic.
- Cities are leveraging relationships and new authorities to deliver services. To serve residents during the pandemic, most city representatives said it has been necessary to obtain new legal, administrative, or procurement authority. With these expanded authorities, city staff were able to purchase devices for students and sometimes deliver cash to residents.
Steps to help cities expand technology access for more residents
Although local governments have responded quickly to increase technology access during the pandemic, many city representatives indicated that there were still barriers hindering their ability to deliver access to all residents. For one, city leaders expressed a need for localized data about their residents’ ability to access city services. Without these data, it’s difficult to make evidence-based decisions.
Most respondents also indicated that discounting internet and providing hot spots were insufficient long-term fixes, and one said that “free access” is what is really needed. To that end, city representatives expressed that greater legal authority is needed in many cities to expand public broadband networks. Even if city leaders have the data to understand where gaps are and what quality equipment could fill those gaps, they might lack the authority to do so.
This survey shows that cities are attempting to address inequities in technology access but still face barriers to closing the digital divide, and that more data are needed to understand how these increased services are benefiting underserved communities.
Racial and economic inequities in the US are growing, and rapid technological change can either promote inclusion or widen this divide. City leaders can use technological innovations to manage infrastructure and improve services, communicate with constituents, and make better decisions. But they must also be aware of the challenges that come with the disruptive force of new technological advancements. This report, which is based on a literature review and interviews with experts, explores trends in four areas of technological change: smart infrastructure, shared mobility, civic technology, and technology-enhanced data analytics. We identify how those trends could exacerbate or mitigate inequality in cities, and we provide examples of cities that are leveraging these trends and innovations to advance equity goals. We also synthesize cross-cutting themes and recommend principles to guide local efforts to harness technological innovation and create more equitable cities.