Key Takeaways from 2019 U.S. Workshop: Mobility on Demand, Automation, and Equity

Susan Shaheen
Aug 29 · 6 min read

The market for personal mobility is changing rapidly due to shifting demographics and social trends, as well as technological advances such as: smartphones, information processing, and widespread data connectivity. Over the past year, we have been writing about Mobility on Demand (MOD): an innovative transportation concept evolving around connected travelers, where consumers can access mobility and goods delivery services on-demand by dispatching or using public transportation, shared mobility, courier services, urban air mobility, and other innovative and emerging technologies. MOD is based on the principle that transportation is a commodity where modes have economic values that are distinguishable in terms of cost, journey time, wait time, number of connections, convenience, and other attributes.

In January 2019, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and the Transportation Research Board (TRB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine co-hosted a workshop on: “Mobility on Demand — A Smart, Sustainable, and Equitable Future” at the 98th Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, DC. The workshop facilitated a dialogue among over 150 participants from public-sector organizations, private companies, nonprofit research groups, and educational institutions. Government, industry, and academic thought leaders presented and participated in panel discussions with the audience about the pilot projects, public–private partnerships, research, and next steps, emphasizing the future of on-demand mobility. The workshop also allowed participants to exchange ideas on preparing for the transition to driverless vehicles and possible public policies, such as pricing to optimize sustainability and to ensure equitable outcomes.

The workshop featured updates from the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) MOD Sandbox Demonstration program. In 2016, the program awarded approximately US$8 million to 11 projects to leverage innovative public-private partnerships to deploy, demonstrate, and evaluate on-demand concepts in public transportation. See Figure 1 below for the 2016 MOD pilot project grantees.

Figure 1. 2016 MOD Sandbox Grantees

The MOD Sandbox has five core objectives:

1. Enhancing public transit industry preparedness for MOD;

2. Assisting the public transit industry to develop the ability to integrate MOD practices with existing transit services;

3. Validating the technical and institutional feasibility of innovative MOD business models and documenting MOD best practices that may emerge from the demonstrations;

4. Measuring MOD impacts on travelers and transportation systems; and

5. Examining relevant public-sector and federal requirements, regulations, and policies that may support or impede public transit sector MOD adoption.

A number of the MOD Sandbox grantees and other public transit agencies discussed the trends of: 1) declining ridership and 2) increasing operational costs (particularly in the areas of paratransit operations and service in low-density built environments). Both of which are causing agencies to explore partnerships with private mobility providers. Many speakers emphasized the importance of integrating MOD with public transportation to provide flexible multimodal options.

In addition to public-private partnerships, workshop participants also explored mobility futures, including connected travelers and shared automated vehicles (SAVs). Participants noted: 1) the importance of public agencies being open to innovation; 2) the need for performance metrics to monitor travel behavior and equity outcomes; and 3) the role of smartphone applications enabling on-demand, convenient, and sustainable mobility choices. Throughout the workshop, public and private sector participants mentioned the importance of public agencies keeping pace with technological innovation and enhancing collaboration between the public and private sectors through: 1) data sharing, 2) vendor relationships, and 3) other synergistic activities.

Workshop participants also engaged in a dialogue with TRB and SAE International staff on automation. Representatives from SAE discussed the role of automation and mobility standards, including the recent release of the J3163 standard: Taxonomy and Definitions for Terms Related to Shared Mobility and Enabling Technologies, which provides standard terms and recommended practice for the use of shared mobility nomenclature. Additionally, TRB’s Automated Vehicle and Shared Mobility Forum is bringing together public, private, and academic organizations to share perspectives on critical issues surrounding the deployment of automated vehicles and shared mobility and to support research to inform policy goals (e.g., increasing safety, reducing congestion, enhancing accessibility, increasing environmental and energy sustainability, and encouraging economic development and equitable outcomes).

While the impacts of vehicle automation are far from certain, automation could have transformative impacts on cities and how people travel. Sharing and vehicle automation could result in fundamental changes to user transportation choices by altering the built environment, costs, commute patterns, and modal choice. Automated vehicles have the potential to both compete and complement with public transportation by: 1) providing first- and last- mile connections, 2) enabling increased density (by repurposing parking), 3) reducing the operating costs of public transportation services (which could be passed onto consumers in the form of more frequent service or lower fares), and 4) competing with public transportation and private vehicles on cost.

Six key takeaways from the workshop include:

1. Numerous challenges were noted in early public-private MOD collaborations. Some MOD Sandbox grantees liked the ability to name partners without a traditional procurement method, while others would have preferred to issue a request for proposal to solicit prospective vendors.

2. Public agencies and private sector partners were ambitious in their initial MOD project designs. This resulted in the rescoping or downscaling of many pilot projects.

3. Key performance measures identified for MOD and shared automated vehicles (SAVs) include : a) safety, b) affordability, c) reliability, and d) accessibility for all. Data sharing, data accessibility, and data integration are critical to MOD and SAV success.

4. A number of public agencies noted challenges in working with private vendors, particularly related to contracting and data agreements. In some cases, partners were unable to agree to terms. In others, partners employed a range of techniques to more narrowly tailor data sharing requests to include: less frequent reporting, more aggregate data reporting, and higher levels of geo-spatial data to protect consumer and proprietary vendor information.

5. A number of public agencies expressed ongoing concerns about the reliability of private sector partners. Some included:

  • Partners that over promised and underdelivered;
  • Partners that promised data but were unwilling to share sufficient data for the public agency to report key data metrics to FTA; and
  • Partners whose business models evolved through the course of the pilot projects, causing project continuation post-MOD Sandbox to be challenging.

6. More research and guidance are needed to better understand:

  • Impacts of automation on public transportation;
  • Opportunities and challenges of artificial intelligence and machine learning;
  • Lifecycle cost estimation of shared and automated mobility;
  • Impacts of automation on communities (e.g., land use, travel behavior, etc.);
  • Best practices for implementing a variety of pricing policies (e.g., cordon pricing, distance-based tolls, occupancy-based pricing);
  • Physical and digital infrastructure needed to support SAVs;
  • Guidance for incorporating SAVs into modeling and scenario planning; and
  • Best practices for ensuring MOD meets the needs of all users (e.g., definitions of equity, overcoming technology and banking challenges, etc.).

Overall, the workshop underscored the need for more research to understand potential societal acceptance and the impacts of shared and automated mobility on consumers, public transit agencies, and modal choice. Both shared and automated mobility have the ability to impact public agencies and the competitiveness of core services that have been in existence for decades. This workshop helped to advance current understanding based on existing MOD Sandbox partnerships and lessons learned, to date.

Move Forward Blog

Susan Shaheen

Written by

Susan Shaheen, UC Berkeley, sustainable transportation, sharing economy, researching innovation and disruption in mobility

Move Forward Blog

Working with cities to create a world without traffic jams.

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