Rethinking urban transit: choice, convenience, and unintended consequences

In an increasingly on-demand era, services designed for convenience will lead to transportation complications and the need for creative solutions.

How much user-centered design is too much? Claudia Gorelick and John Jones recently explored this idea in their article linking an “on-demand” approach to design and prioritizing individual needs in the context of a broader system. For those that live in cities, one area this trade-off is easily perceivable is in transportation inefficiencies, traffic gridlock and congestion.

Many American cities after World War II were built for the primacy of the automobile, which allowed for their continued expansion. The current size of cities like Atlanta, Houston, and Los Angeles would not be possible without the prioritization and convenience of the automobile in the planning and design of the city. A recent visit to Ford’s City of Tomorrow Symposium in San Francisco this month illuminated how automakers are beginning to think beyond the individual car to a broader network of linked transportation options. What will these linked transit options mean for the choices we make as we move through a city?

Ride-hailing apps like Lyft and Uber are built on the foundation of convenience for users. With a few simple steps, users can quickly get a ride across town. However, this ease comes with unintended consequences. Traffic in cities such as San Francisco and New York has increased significantly. The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that ride-hail vehicles are responsible for 20% of the total mileage of trips that begin and end in the city. Similarly, The New York Times described subway ridership falling in 2016 for the first time since 2009 — a trend largely attributable to ride-hailing apps. While future technologies such as vehicle platooning might help to ease congestion within cities, the current state of ride-hailing apps presents an opportunity to address better integration into the broader transportation network.

The noted decline in retail shopping also plays a role in transportation planning. With a marked increase in online shopping comes the need for delivery, usually by trucks that require ample parking to make deliveries. This can be a big problem in already congested city streets which are not designed to incorporate large volumes of traffic. This problem of moving large quantities of packages is compounded by the fact that urban housing typically does not include amenities such as freight elevators or loading docks. Some transit experts argue that this model of home delivery is essentially grafting a suburban model onto an urban context — an unsustainable option for moving forward with large quantities of deliveries. Whether this traffic will eventually be offset by far less vehicle trip to brick-and-mortar stores, the current situation is providing significant problems for urban congestion.

Some urban planners are beginning to tackle this issue. Laura Richards is a transportation planner for Washington D.C. who recently spoke here in San Francisco at Ford’s City of Tomorrow Symposium. Richards helped lead an initiative for freight delivery in the District of Columbia that would prioritize deliveries in off-peak transit hours and provide incentives for businesses to accept these off-hour deliveries as well as for delivery employees who are working non-typical workdays. New York City has also piloted a similar initiative. In this way, planners and transit experts are considering the transportation network — streets, parking, and public transit — as utilities might manage the power grid. In the case of energy, some utilities have begun to implement time-of-use rates, so that consumers pay more at times where there is greater demand for energy production.

While many ride-hailing applications already use a supply-and-demand rationale through surge pricing, the choices presented to users are only around the availability of cars in the ride-hailing app fleet. However, many cities are beginning to offer integrated solutions that show how the broad network of public and private transit options — including cars, trains, buses and bikes — connect and complement one another. The GoLA and GoDenver apps allow users to prioritize transit options and choose between speed, cost and environmental impact when planning routes. In thinking about transit integration, some cities have begun supplementing ride share when the ride originates at a public transit node, like a metro stop. These supplements incentivize the use of public transit by allowing rideshare options to cover the “last mile,” the gap between individuals’ destinations and where public transit actually goes.

As we move into an era where transit becomes increasingly integrated, continued cooperation between public and private sector will be needed. This means everything from the public sector providing incentives for “last mile” rideshare options to the private sector being more transparent about the data they collect. Through promoting integration, users will have an improved experience that is less about immediate gratification and more about providing choices that might even improve how urban transit systems perform.