Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and cities and states’ issuance of stay-at-home orders, public transportation use has fallen drastically leaving city officials with tough decisions on how to best manage future transit operations.
Some cities have partnered with new mobility companies offering ridesharing, car sharing, ride hailing, and micromobility services—shared docked and dockless bicycles and electric scooters—to provide transportation to essential workers. Some have also created more space in streets for pedestrians, bicyclists, and scooter riders to use micromobility options. As businesses and facilities reopen across the country, new mobility technologies could grow as an alternative or a supplement to public transit.
Even before the pandemic, many city leaders were working to integrate on-demand forms of transportation into their transportation systems. Through their responsive nature, new mobility technologies could increase transportation access for riders who lack reliable public transit options and reduce existing transportation inequities. But without proper planning, new mobility could have the opposite effect.
To better understand how cities are assessing the potential of new mobility technologies, we talked to transportation planners and new mobility companies in medium-size cities about how they work together to promote equitable access to transportation. We learned how these partnerships function in potentially low-demand markets and use proactive procurement strategies to ensure equitable transportation outcomes for city residents. Three key themes emerged.
1. Transportation officials use flexible permitting and proposal processes to embed equity considerations into new technologies
Recognizing that companies are typically willing to negotiate when entering a new market, many cities use a request for proposal (RFP) or permitting process to codify equitable access requirements for companies. This process can help cities ensure new mobility technologies:
- are distributed across all neighborhoods
- have payment options for residents without bank accounts or smartphones
- are accessible for residents living with disabilities
- have discounted prices for residents with lower incomes
- are accompanied by outreach and multilingual informational material
When deciding whether to use an RFP or a permit, cities should consider factors such as the duration of the permit or license and how responsive they can be to changing requirements.
2. Cities and companies need to engage with residents during each step
Pilots can help cities learn more about the challenges they might experience working with and regulating companies. A pilot process also allows cities to engage with community members to understand how they perceive the new technology and what barriers they face in access or use.
Baltimore launched a six-month dockless vehicle piloting phase, allowing any company to participate with the payment of a pilot fee. Through the pilot period, the city tested out different equity-based requests, such as bike and scooter distribution plans, and gathered public input through community meetings. Informed by the resulting pilot evaluation report (PDF), the city launched an annual permit program.
Effective community engagement through the pilot and beyond is critical to understanding public perceptions of new mobility technologies, residents’ engagement with new mobility technologies, and barriers to access. Public outreach requires time, a dedicated budget, staff trained in community engagement, and organizational flexibility to respond to community needs.
Cities can involve new mobility companies in this process by requiring public engagement in their RFP or permitting process. Engagement could include multilingual bike and scooter safety workshops and campaigns, demonstrations, and outreach at festivals and community events.
3. Planning organizations should craft transportation plans with equity as a goal
Cities and regions can also set equity as a goal in their planning processes. Communities in our study are incorporating new mobility technologies into long-range plans.
- In 2019, Akron, Ohio’s new Office of Integrated Development launched a five-year strategic framework listing equity as a core value for planning and established a goal of a “more equitable Akron.”
- In the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County’s 2050 transportation plan, the organization details plans for “promoting equity and environmental justice.”
- In New York, the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council’s Moving Forward 2050 outlines how micromobility and other noncar options can help the region increase mobility options for residents without personal vehicles.
The future of new mobility
To ensure that new mobility technologies are supporting transportation equity goals rather than exacerbating inequities, cities must build the capacity to be flexible, establish open lines of communication with companies, and engage the public throughout the decisionmaking process. Though the viability of current new mobility companies is uncertain, these emerging practices can inform systems and approaches to ensure cities are ready to proactively respond to future mobility technologies.
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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Co-hosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.