9 Ways Cities Can Unlock the Potential of Shared Transportation

Bikeshare and buses in Minneapolis. Credit: Eric Fischer via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Instead of the promise of freedom, our overreliance on car ownership has chained Americans to enormous financial obligations, devoured space in our communities, and has contributed to transportation’s emergence as Climate Enemy #1.

Americans are more in debt paying for their cars than at any point in history and transportation is the second-highest expenditure in most households, behind only housing. The cost of our car-dependent transportation system doesn’t just fall on people who own cars, but it also burdens all taxpayers and drives state and local governments into debt for road maintenance and expansion.

In growing cities, where it is often alleged that there is no room for additional housing, roads and parking lots gobble up vast amounts of space. In the city of Denver, 60 percent of paved space is infrastructure to support cars (including roads, parking and driveways). And when it comes to the urgent problem of climate change, America’s car-dependent transportation system produces more carbon pollution than any the entire economy of any other entire nation besides China, India and Russia.

Near-universal car ownership is at the root of these problems. Car storage consumes space and costs money and the sheer act of owning a car virtually guarantees that it will be driven. After all, why not drive when the costs of vehicle ownership are paid up front and it’s often cheaper to drive into a city and park than take transit?

There is an alternative to personal vehicle ownership: the use of a combination of active transportation (walking and biking), public transportation and shared mobility services such as shared cars, bikes and scooters. Combining those tools gives more people the freedom to choose among a diverse set of transportation options, suited to the needs of their particular trip. Many of these options are more energy efficient and take up less space than personal cars. And they can be cheaper, too.

Shared bikes and scooters at Denver’s transit hub, Union Station. Credit: Alana Miller.

As the new kid on the block, the role of shared mobility is still emerging — and is not always well understood. Moreover, while many of America’s cities now offer some combination of shared options, they’ve largely been permitted on an ad hoc basis, presenting a hodgepodge of choices that don’t always build off of each other. If shared mobility is going to work in and for our cities, the whole needs to be greater than the sum of the parts.

Earlier this month, I was among more than 700 people gathered in Chicago for the Shared Use Mobility Summit to discuss the benefits, challenges and potential of shared transportation. Rapidly changing technologies and innovative thinking (along with a boon of venture capital funding) have facilitated the adoption of shared bikes, cars, scooters and more in cities across America.

But the excitement over these new services is tempered by the obstacles faced not only in sustaining quality service, but also in addressing some of the challenges and downsides they present.

A number of people have grappled with these issues and offered smart ways to make shared mobility work for cities. For instance, Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase initiated conversations that resulted in the 2017 adoption of the Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities by a number of nonprofits, service providers, and local governments globally. There is also a growing base of knowledge worldwide about what works and doesn’t work. In July 2018, for example, the Shared-Use Mobility Center and the Federal Highway Administration released a benchmarking study identifying best practices that have been adopted in Europe to facilitate shared mobility.

To overcome challenges, and ensure that each new shared mobility tool adds to the value of the entire transportation system, communities and shared mobility providers need to embrace the following strategies:

1. Set comprehensive transportation goals.

One barrier to harnessing the full possibilities of shared transportation is that transportation decisions in the U.S. happen “across a patchwork of agencies and planning organizations,” according to a study from the Federal Highway Administration’s benchmarking program.

The report authors found that in European cities, shared mobility is tied into long-term planning, guided by frameworks and regulations at the EU level. Cities set goals in their long-term plans, including emissions reductions and transportation accessibility goals, and then assess their needs and issue requests for proposals so shared mobility opportunities can help meet those goals. The same is rarely true in the United States.

2. Establish performance measures.

Performance measures help ensure that shared mobility options are meeting cities’ goals. There are a number of ways to set performance metrics, including through contracting and permitting processes.

For instance, cities can use requests for proposals and contracts with private mobility providers to achieve desired outcomes, like covering specific geographic areas or expanding electric vehicles. Cities can also issue permits on the condition that services meet certain standards that help move the transportation system in the right direction.

3. Ensure that policies and regulations for shared options match goals.

Many cities may have existing policies on the books that inadvertently stand in the way of shared mobility adoption. For instance, many localities have regulated carsharing under existing rules for traditional car rentals, which are typically taxed at a higher rate to target tourists instead of residents. As a result, excessive taxes are often imposed on carsharing services, putting carsharing at a disadvantage compared to driving a personal car. Another example: a Colorado state law classifies small electric scooters as toys which requires them to stay on the sidewalk, as opposed to in a street or bike lane, which could hinder widespread adoption.

Examining existing policies and regulations with an eye toward new accommodating transportation options can help support shared mobility.

4. Dedicate space.

Shared transportation options can only be used safely and productively if they are given a place on the streets. The expansion of bike lanes enables more people to safely take advantage of shared bikes and slow-speed scooters, while on-street electric vehicle charging stations facilitate electric carsharing. In addition to facilitating the services, dedicated space can make new options more visible and help embed shared mobility into the fabric of the city.

5. Integrate modes.

While any particular shared option can provide a valuable service on its own, the options will be more impactful when they can support and build off each other. Physically co-locating shared transportation options in “mobility hubs” can integrate the services and help facilitate multi-modal trips.

For instance, the FHWA report highlights how cities can locate carsharing and bikesharing at public transit hubs, and provide bike parking and curb space for ridesharing. The report notes that in Europe, shared mobility is viewed as a way to expand the reach of public transportation — even though someone’s train stops at a station, their trip can continue via another shared mode. Paris’ rapid transit expansion project, for example, includes expanding bike lanes and bikesharing to provide connections to new transit lines.

Cities can also integrate shared mobility and facilitate multimodal trips by requiring that real-time dataabout the services be made publicly available. This allows apps to show multiple options online, including transit, bike or scooter sharing, and even walking directions. Through this approach, people can compare trip costs and trip length in a single platform and choose the most efficient combination of options based on their needs.

6. Use shared mobility to accelerate vehicle electrification.

Shared transportation systems can help accelerate the transition to electric vehicles (EVs). Cities can encourage electric carsharing and other shared electric vehicles by facilitating access to charging stations. Cities can allow charging infrastructure to be installed in public lots, such as at schools and municipal buildings, as well as on the curb. In approving contracts for shared electric vehicle programs, cities can require that charging stations be available to the public, while allowing carsharing vehicles to charge at any publicly accessible station. Agreements like this can help facilitate electric carsharing while expanding private access to charging infrastructure

7. Allow access to shared mobility to replace parking requirements.

Municipalities typically have parking minimums for buildings, which require that a certain number of parking spaces be made available to residents or employees. Requiring ample parking can hinder cities’ goals to reduce vehicle travel and can drive up the cost of housing. By allowing developers to substitute access to other modes — like transit passes, or access to carsharing and bike sharing — for parking spaces, cities can promote those options while decreasing car ownership and driving.

8. Embrace pilot projects and new strategies.

New mobility services can improve transportation systems, so transit agencies and cities should be open to trying them. As highlighted in a 2016 report from TransitCenter, emerging shared mobility options can help provide service for residents while reducing the burden on transit agencies, so those options should be explored. Pilot programs offer a way to test new models and strategies at relatively low risk, and allow cities to bring on new services once they’re proven to be successful. Additionally, the TransitCenter report urges cities and agencies to reevaluate cumbersome procurement processes and other bureaucratic hurdles that may stand in the way of creative collaboration with private entities.

9. Don’t let technology distract from the basics.

Innovative new options can improve transportation systems and expand options, but technology shouldn’t be used for technology’s sake. New mobility services do not take the place of high-quality, frequent public transportation, or safe, walkable streets. Decision makers should embrace the potential for new options to enhance public transportation, but keep in mind that it is no substitute for the tried-and-true basics of good community design and access to transit.

At the same time, private partners need to recognize the fundamental role that public transit and government agencies play. Mobility companies should help meet community goals by listening to what cities need and addressing existing transportation challenges. As they look to enter and expand operations in cities, private mobility providers should strive to be a long-term partner with municipalities in order to provide an essential service to communities.

Shared mobility has the potential to allow people access to a myriad of efficient and fun transportation options with the click of a button. American cities have barely scratched the surface of what is possible when it comes to carsharing, bikesharing, scootersharing and more.

But technology is only as good as the policies enacted to support it. By thinking creatively and embracing change, while simultaneously setting goals and performance standards, communities have the opportunity to harness the full potential of shared transportation options. By incorporating shared options into cities’ transportation networks, people will have more opportunities to meet their needs without driving solo in a personal car, freeing up street space, reducing emissions, and expanding access to the good things cities have to offer.