Ground Zero for New Mobility in Cities

In late March, two rivals that have battled for market share in a competitive industry for nearly a century announced an unexpected partnership to blend their respective market strengths and gain an advantage in a landscape that is fundamentally changing. We are not talking about a telecom or banking merger; we are talking about a milestone in “new mobility.” On March 28, 2018, auto giants Daimler and BMW announced the merger of their mobility services divisions, signaling the significance of the ongoing global shift to Mobility as a Service (MaaS) and how this shift is drastically affecting the transportation sector.

The MaaS industry is transforming the way that people move, as we saw during the Door-to-Downtown pilot in Boulder, Colorado (Rocky Mountain Institute was a member of the project team). People are getting out of their cars and into someone else’s at unprecedented rates—taking advantage of the benefits that shared mobility offers without the hassle of driving, parking, or owning a car. During 2017, Lyft completed 375.5 million rides in the US and Toronto, and the number of unique riders jumped from 12 million to 23 million from 2016 to 2017, while Uber had 4 billion rides globally. Car companies are realizing that they will need to offer more than vehicles as the era of new mobility takes hold.

This mobility transformation, and associated opportunities, barriers, and pathways forward for mobility leaders, were on center stage—literally and figuratively—at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, a premier conference and celebration of technology and innovation. There, RMI partnered with moovel North America and MobilityX to present a roundtable discussion on “Creating the Mobility Operating System of Tomorrow.”

The timing (the Daimler and BMW announcement is one of several recent collaborations in the new mobility arena) and location (Austin is a premier pilot city for the new mobility transformation) were notable. They created the perfect environment to get to the bottom of how the public and private sectors can effectively collaborate to ensure that new mobility has an equitable and positive effect on the people and communities they serve. The presence of and participation from disparate entities led to a discussion that revealed opportunities that rarely surface in more traditional venues. The roundtable participants explored how public transit can work with other modes, including microtransit; transportation network companies like Lyft, Uber, and Rideaustin; bikeshare; and carshare to create compelling options for citizens and cities.

National leaders from the public and private sectors, nonprofits, and community organizations came together for an exciting discussion about the opportunities and challenges associated with this transformation. Here are a few of the key insights and takeaways from the ground.

  1. Don’t underestimate the cultural shift needed to change the mobility paradigm for good

As cities battle with congestion, the culture and expectations around mobility must change. But the benefits of such a change are obvious. Shared mobility options present an opportunity to connect with the community in ways that a single-occupancy vehicle never will. For example, how many of you have shared a great chat with a fellow passenger riding Lyft Line? Or learned about a great new restaurant from your Uber driver? Additionally, when making mobility choices, individuals should consider how their personal decisions will impact their communities. Individual decisions to drive alone in a vehicle, when combined, are what lead to congestion and pollution, among other challenges. “Pronouns are a problem,” said Nat Parker, CEO of moovel North America. “The ‘I’ and ‘me’ culture built around the freedom of cars has defined the fabric and makeup of our cities, and how we’ve designed urban centers.”

  1. Consider how new mobility can enable upward mobility

When discussing challenges facing the US transportation system, experts often bring up safety, congestion, and emissions as top issues. All of these factors are vital to consider, but so, too, is economic opportunity. Mobility solutions that are reliable, efficient, and affordable need to be created so that citizens have access to jobs and the opportunity to grow. “We see mobility as the thing that helps you achieve the next step in your life, where you want to go,” said Karina Ricks, director at the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure of Pittsburgh.

  1. Cities are in the driver’s seat of the mobility future

Cities are in a prime position to take the leading role in regulating the mobility ecosystem to ensure that the benefits of this transformation are shared throughout communities. “We really need to pay attention to equity issues, and make sure that everybody is served by the same types of services—not just that the rich get their private cars, the poor get on mass transit,” said Tim McHugh, chief technology officer at TriMet.

As the US population continues to grow, shared mobility should be prioritized. Owing to simple geometry, shared transportation is the most efficient way to use limited road space. A Lyft Line with three passengers occupies less road space than three Lyfts with one passenger each or three single-occupancy vehicles. As technology improves, shared transportation will continue to be the most efficient mobility solution for cities. City regulators have the opportunity to prioritize the most space-efficient modes: those that are shared or active.

“The whole country is facing a capacity problem. If we could focus on person-throughput and drop level-of-service as a metric that we use to gauge how our transportation system is performing, we could help get people where they need to go on time,” said Meg Merritt, principal at Nelson Nygaard.

  1. Shared mobility + electrification = a formula for lasting impact

In many cases, operating expenses are the primary challenge that keeps mobility providers from being able to offer more frequent service. Renewably powered electric autonomous vehicles present an opportunity to bring operating cost down dramatically and significantly raise frequency. “What is interesting is to think about the operating cost tending to zero… because autonomy, of course, takes a huge amount of the cost out. The other shift to electric mobility dramatically reduces fuel cost, and if we peek into the future of the energy system, those electric vehicles become a tremendous resource on the electricity grid because of their battery storage,” said Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of RMI.

  1. Designing cities for the future, today

As cities face mobility challenges, they are also confronting significant population growth, housing shortages, and cost of living increases. City leaders have a choice to make: they can embrace land use and urban design practices that connect communities by prioritizing people over vehicles, or they can continue to build out, contributing to urban sprawl and exacerbating mobility problems. Density, not just in housing, but also in a variety of uses (e.g., retail, food, recreation), is critical to creating environments where citizens can take advantage of various viable mobility options. “In L.A., we need hundreds of thousands of new [residential] units just to keep up with growth, and we want those to be developed in ways that are supported by mobility services to provide trips and get connections to transit to happen without vying for space that should be used for people,” said Hilary Norton, executive director of FAST – Fixing Angelenos Stuck in Traffic.

What’s Next

Transportation leaders and advocates can develop tunnel vision, where they focus only on improving one element of a transportation system. Better bike paths, higher electric vehicle adoption, or improved transit alone will not be the solution. To find solutions to difficult transportation challenges, communities need a diverse menu of connected options. Collaboration between different stakeholder groups is crucial to turn this goal into reality.

RMI will continue to work with companies like moovel and cities including Austin to rapidly deploy shared, electric, autonomous mobility services in cities designed for it. We are eager to advance collaboration with cities, developers, and private-sector pioneers alike to change the focus of the built environment from vehicles to people. As we move quickly toward a world of new mobility, we look forward to the opportunity to cut down on emissions and co-create a clean, equitable, efficient mobility ecosystem for all. We will be sharing video from the SXSW event soon. In the meantime, you can listen to the recently released recording of the roundtable on the Streetsblog podcast available below.

Special thanks to our moderator, Jeff Wood, founder of Overhead Wire and Talking Headways, and to our panelists: Hilary Norton, executive director of FAST – Fixing Angelenos Stuck in Traffic; Nat Parker, CEO of moovel North America; Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of RMI; Karina Ricks, director at Pittsburgh Department of Mobility and Infrastructure; Meg Merritt, principal at Nelson Nygaard; Jason JonMichael, director of shared use mobility, Austin Transportation Department; and Tim McHugh, chief technology officer at TriMet.

Image courtesy of iStock.