Multi-Modal Transportation: beautiful concept, difficult reality
In recent years, the concept of multi-modal transportation has become increasingly popular among urban planners. Advocates claim that multi-modal transportation will reduce carbon emissions and general congestion.
It sounds great — but is it realistic? There’s reason to think it will be a hard journey.
The dream of multi-modal transportation
As the name suggests, Multi-modal transportation is centered around the idea that people will use several modes of transportation to get to their destination. So, for example, a person might bike to the bus station, take a bus downtown, and then walk to work. There are many modes of transportation that can be incorporated into multi-modal transportation: driving, walking, bicycling, and numerous forms of public transportation such as buses and trains.
Multiple modes of transportation are already here, of course. But advocates of multi-modal concept want to redesign urban infrastructure so that it better accommodates non-driving modes of transportation. That means adding sidewalks, sheltered bus stops, bike lanes, and other features that make it easier to get around without a car. Transportation networks will be better-integrated so that it’s easier, for example, to take a bike on a public bus.
Some advocates continue that automation will be incorporated into these systems. For example, an autonomous van or bus can take the place of traditional public transportation vehicles.
Although there is still a place for personally owned cars in the multi-modal system, most supporters of the idea envision a world in which cars play a less central role in transportation.
Yet the idea may be more popular among urban planners than the population at large.
The reality of convenience-first transportation
However wonderful multi-modal transportation sounds — and it does sound great! — there is one big problem. People may not want it.
To illustrate this point, you don’t have to go any further than the popularity of ridehailing services like Uber and Lyft. Ridehailing apps have led to a noticeable decline in public transportation. Since Uber entered the San Francisco market in 2010, use of public transportation has declined by 12.7% in total. And it’s not just San Francisco. The same thing has happened in almost every major city in the U.S.
Additionally, there are other reasons why Americans are abandoning public transportation. One survey of Americans in seven major metro areas found that half of public transportation users have either started using public transportation less frequently, or have stopped using it altogether.
The reasons behind the shift won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has ever taken a bus. Getting places via public transportation can be incredibly time-consuming. The environment is generally less than pleasant, and some people may feel unsafe. Buses and rail transportation don’t run 24 hours a day, and riders are almost certain to spend some time waiting. Sometimes, they spend a lot of time waiting. The waiting areas are also not always safe, well lit and well equipped.
Now that ridehailing apps are here, people have a much more convenient solution. They can get a ride on demand, whenever and wherever they want. And the experience is usually more enjoyable than sitting in an over-crowded bus. Even though ridehailing is considerably more costly than public transportation, it’s clear that many people are more than willing to make the trade-off. Uber and Lyft have even started providing information about public transportation in their apps. But most choose to call their own ride anyway.
For advocates of multi-modal transportation, this should be sobering information. Even if greener solutions are better for the environment, it is incredibly difficult to overcome consumer behavior.
Here’s the truth. You could build a completely automated, green transportation system to the moon. But if Moon Uber were available to offer people better convenience, most people would go for Moon Uber.
It’s likely that multi-modal transportation can never compete with the automobile when it comes to convenience, and that poses a ceiling on how many people will adapt it.
Transportation solutions of the future must offer a better user experience than current ones. Otherwise, they just won’t gain traction among large numbers of people.
This is actually good news for automakers. Contrary to what some idealists believe, cars aren’t going anywhere.
But that doesn’t mean automakers don’t need to adapt to our changing transportation landscape. If they want to compete, they need to prioritize convenience, cost, and usability in their designs. By offering drivers a convenient mobility experience, they can succeed even as new technologies continue to enter the market.