Episode 8: Mobility on Demand
This episode of our podcast explores a future where mobility is frictionless, easy — maybe even fun.
“City of the Future” is a podcast that explores ideas and innovations that could transform cities. In this episode, hosts Eric Jaffe and Vanessa Quirk discuss the future of mobility in cities. They speak to author Horace Dediu, Trimet’s Bibiana McHugh, MaaS Global CEO Sampo Hietanen, and Sidewalk Labs’ Associate Director for New Mobility Corinna Li. The following is an edited transcript of the episode.
Vanessa Quirk: Hey Eric!
Eric Jaffe: Hi Vanessa.
Vanessa Quirk: So, how did you get to work this morning?
Eric Jaffe: The usual way. I took my flying car.
Vanessa Quirk: Uh, huh. That’s very exciting, this is how everybody at the Sidewalk Labs office gets to the office by the way.
Eric Jaffe: I walked to the train. You?
Vanessa Quirk: Well, I usually do the same thing. But this morning I was checking on Twitter and I saw there were delays on my train, so I decided to try something new…something I’d seen popping up in my neighborhood.
Vanessa Quirk: [Sounds of city traffic] Ah! there’s a Revel on my street, on my block!
Eric Jaffe: What is a Revel?
Vanessa Quirk: A Revel is a moped — so It’s kind of like a Vespa, maybe a little bit bigger. And they’re dockless. So you download an app, and you can see where they are in the city.
Vanessa Quirk: [Sound of beeping] Ooh! Things are happening.
Vanessa Quirk: So, after I paid, and uploaded my license, I put on my helmet, and I thought I was ready to ride to work. But when I opened up the map portion of the app, I realized that you can only Revel in designated zones, and those zones are Brooklyn and Queens, but not Manhattan.
Eric Jaffe: Ah…OK, so you can’t ride your Revel to work.
Vanessa Quirk: No, you cannot revel into Manhattan yet anyway. The city’s kind of taking a more cautious approach to rolling them out — and I can kind of see why.
Vanessa Quirk: OK, green button ready! Yes! Here we go! Where’s the brake? I’m gonna hit a car! I’m going to hit a car! [Sound of crashing]. Oh my god, oh my god.
Vanessa Quirk: I fell.
Eric Jaffe: What have I told you about technology?
Vanessa Quirk: I know! And it was heavier than I thought it would be. And I fell.
Eric Jaffe: You didn’t hit that car?
Vanessa Quirk: I didn’t hit the car.
Eric Jaffe: OK, you didn’t hurt yourself?
Vanessa Quirk: I didn’t hurt myself. I did survive. And I successfully did ride the moped…
Vanessa Quirk: [Sounds of successful moped riding]. Ooh, got a little breeze happening — this is nice!
Vanessa Quirk: 8 miles an hour, to the ferry!
[Sound of ferry honking.]
Eric Jaffe: Ahh okay, so you can definitely ferry into Manhattan.
Vanessa Quirk: Yeah, but the one downside is that it is not not officially part of the MTA, which means I cannot use my Metrocard. So you need a whole other app.
Eric Jaffe: Alright, but unless the ferry operates differently from how I remember, you kind of have to stop once you get to land.
Vanessa Quirk: [Laughs] Yeah.
Eric Jaffe: So how did you come the rest of the way?
Vanessa Quirk: Right. Well, as soon as I got off the ferry, I actually saw a CitiBike station. But again, that’s a whole other payment system…
Eric Jaffe: Right, you gotta pay yet again.
Vanessa Quirk: Yet again.
Vanessa Quirk: [Sound of car honking]. Says Mastercard, OK, I think I can only use a Mastercard. …wait, is my only option a day pass? I just want one ride!
Vanessa Quirk: So yes, I had to download another app and then when I finally did pay for the bike and unlock it — it’s not like it was easy after that either! There were potholes in the bike lanes, there were fire trucks in the bike lanes, delivery trucks. And, at one point, I swear, it was like a movie, I saw a cart rolling out of a truck and into the bike lane just as I was about to pass! [Laughs] So, the infrastructure isn’t really holding up to everyone in this space right now.
Eric Jaffe: And bike-share isn’t even new. This isn’t something that popped up overnight. The city has planned this for years and years and is still struggling to create the space for cyclists along the street. And frankly, let’s give credit, New York is one of the best at this. This is a tough problem.
Vanessa Quirk: And it’s only going to get tougher with all of these new modes coming in the future.
Theme music starts.
Eric Jaffe: But imagine a city that was set up for you to take any mode at any time.
Vanessa Quirk: And instead of it being difficult, and siloed, and inconvenient it would be seamless, integrated, maybe even fun.
Eric Jaffe: Welcome to “City of the Future”, a podcast from Sidewalk Labs.
Vanessa Quirk: Each episode we explore ideas and innovations that could transform cities. I’m Vanessa Quirk.
Eric Jaffe: And I’m Eric Jaffe.
Vanessa Quirk: And in this episode, we’re going to explore an idea that would make it way easier to get around cities without owning a car.
Eric Jaffe: Mobility on Demand.
Theme music ends.
Vanessa Quirk: Mopeds. Scooters. E-Bikes. Hoverboards.
Eric Jaffe: There’s a term people are using for all these new modes that have been popping up on city streets. Micro-mobility.
Curious music begins.
Horace Dediu: The essential quality of micro-mobility as I defined it is anything that’s not a car. In fact, my definition of micro-mobility goes all the way to 500 kilograms in weight, which is not because I think that that’s a good weight, but rather because I think no car could be made less than that.
Vanessa Quirk: That’s Horace Dediu. He’s an analyst from Finland who’s currently writing the book on micro-mobility. And the reason that Horace defines micro-mobility in this way — in contrast to cars — is that the car is not the most efficient mode for most of the trips that we make.
Horace Dediu: The most common trips are short trips, in fact, overwhelmingly so. In the U.S., the most common trips are about less than five miles. The whole premise of micro-mobility is saying, “Hey, a vehicle that weighs a fraction of your own personal weight should be enough to move you around for most of the trips you need to make.” It’s like getting a pickup truck and using it once a year to take the Christmas tree home. You’re carrying all the capacity the rest of the year, throwing away so much energy and CO2 in order to have that optionality.
Vanessa Quirk: There’s another way that these micro-mobility vehicles are different from cars. Cars take years of development to get in front of consumers, which means they always lag behind the times.
Horace Dediu: We still have CD players in cars, we still have cassette players in cars, and we’ll probably have whatever Bluetooth exists today, you know, would be obsolete 20 years from now and we’ll still have it in cars.
Vanessa Quirk: But a micro-mobility vehicle can be iterated on, improved, and put to market in a matter of weeks — kind of like a phone. Amd Horace realized this after his first encounter with an e-bike.
Horace Dediu: When I looked at it I said, “This is a smartphone on wheels.”
Vanessa Quirk: Horace actually worked in the phone business for years and he thinks that micro-mobility vehicles, like phones, will one day be ubiquitous.
Horace Dediu: The arguments I was having with people early on when I was saying, “Everybody is going to have a smartphone.” People said there is no way that there will ever be sufficient bandwidth for a billion people to use smartphones. And here we are with 3-plus billion people using smartphones on 3G-plus networks.
Horace Dediu: It starts with a device by the way. We didn’t build airports and then had airplanes show up. In fact, there were decades of airplanes before an airport was able to be set up. It’s always been the other way around.
Vanessa Quirk: Horace’s point here is that the technology comes first, the infrastructure comes second. It’s why all these scooters, for example, have been so controversial in so many cities — they’ve popped up before scooter parking spots or scooter-friendly streets have been developed.
Eric Jaffe: But it also means that cities are at a moment where they have to try and prepare for all these new mobility options. And not just the physical infrastructure, but the digital infrastructure that can help coordinate them all.
Vanessa Quirk: Coordination is key — otherwise we’ll just be adding even more complexity to our already congested and chaotic streets.
Bibiana McHugh: If we continue as we are, putting more and more vehicles on the road, nobody is going to be able to move through a city.
Eric Jaffe: That’s Bibianna McHugh. She’s a manager of mobility and location-based services at Trimet, the public transportation provider in Portland, Oregon.
Bibiana McHugh: We provide bus, light rail, streetcar, tram, commuter rail.
Vanessa Quirk: Bibiana and her colleagues at Trimet helped develop a key piece of digital infrastructure, one that you may not know about — but that transformed the way we get around cities.
Eric Jaffe: The story starts in 2005, back when getting around a city via public transit required a map, maybe a set of timetables, and a lot of patience.
Bibiana McHugh: It was very difficult to go into a city that you knew nothing about and find out how to get from Point A to Point B. So I reached out to several mapping companies, such as Google Transit, MapQuest, I believe Yahoo.
Vanessa Quirk: So you just emailed all of these companies?
Bibiana McHugh: Back then, it was actually fax.
Vanessa Quirk: Oh my gosh. [Laughs]
Eric Jaffe: [Laughs]
Bibiana McHugh: Believe it or not, I actually have the original faxes that I sent.
Eric Jaffe: Eventually, Bibiana connected with a developer at Google named Chris Harrelson, who wanted to standardize the scheduling data for every kind of public transit. Bus schedules, train schedules, tram schedules, all in the same format.
Vanessa Quirk: And, as luck would have it — Portland was perfectly positioned to make it happen first.
Bibiana McHugh: There are a lot of transit systems that are siloed or proprietary. TriMet took a different approach. We have a centralized database where all of our data is housed and that was I think really the key.
Eric Jaffe: Soon, Bibiana and Chris released GTFS — the General Transit Feed Specification.
Bibiana McHugh: GTFS is basically a standardized format that represents schedule data for transit services. At the time, open data wasn’t really in fashion, if you will. And a lot of transit agencies, you know, their first reaction was, “Well, we’re going to charge Google and other companies for access to our data.
Vanessa Quirk: But as soon as travelers understood the benefits of GTFS — that it would allow a navigation app to tell you when the next train, bus, or trolley was coming — then they started demanding it.
Eric Jaffe: Other cities followed Portland’s lead. GTFS took off.
Vanessa Quirk: And GTFS also allowed Trimet to keep innovating. In 2009, Portland used it to develop a platform called the OpenTripPlanner — the first truly multi-modal trip planner.
Bibiana McHugh: OpenTripPlanner actually integrates and chains trips together and really integrates the private mobility service providers with the public. So a great example of this is, I was at the airport, and to get home across town, it would have taken me an hour and a half on transit because of the schedule. So I pulled up the Uber app, and it would have cost me about $35. I pulled out our new app, which we were prototyping at the time, the new multi-modal trip planner. The app directed me to take Uber to the first stop on the line 75, and this actually cut the price in half.
Vanessa Quirk: So, I know that a lot of private ride-hail companies are expanding and including not just cars, but scooters and bikes in their apps nowadays. And I’m wondering, was it difficult getting a private service provider, like Uber, to open up and collaborate with you on this?
Bibiana McHugh: It was very difficult.
Vanessa: Okay. [Laughs]
Eric Jaffe: [Laughs]
Bibiana McHugh: It kind of reminds me of Google Transit and GTFS taking off, where they’re not quite sure how this is going to affect their business.
Vanessa Quirk: So you’re saying that with GTFS, it was the cities who were the reluctant ones. But now with OpenTripPlanner, it’s the private companies who are more unsure about open data?
Bibiana McHugh: Exactly. It has completely flipped, and governments providing access to their data in an open, fashion is now the norm. Now, the focus is on the private mobility service providers. It may come down to policy and regulation so that all private service providers will make their data accessible.
Dreamy music begins.
Eric Jaffe: Without those providers, you can’t have a truly seamless multi-modal experience — one where you can link trips and use one simple payment system.
Vanessa Quirk: Right, and it’s not just about public and private mobility providers sharing their data — they also need to have open transaction systems, too.
Bibiana McHugh: The vision for everyone down the road is to click once and have all of your trips booked and scheduled and awaiting for you.
Dreamy music ends.
Vanessa Quirk: Portland is helping us move toward that vision. Together with cities like L.A. and D.C., they’re leading the movement for open mobility data here in the U.S.
Eric Jaffe: And some countries are even further along.
Sampo Hietanen: My name is Sampo Hietanen. Do not try to pronounce it, it’s a Finnish name.
Vanessa Quirk: Another Fin!
Vanessa Quirk: MaaS.
Eric Jaffe: My understanding is you actually coined the term “mobility as a service,” or at least popularized it. I’m wondering how you define it?
Sampo Hietanen: Popularized it, yes. How do I define it? If you want the simple version of it, for the people, for the users, it’s a promise of anywhere, any time, on a whim.
Eric Jaffe: Whim is also the name of an app Sampo’s company developed in 2016 — using, in fact, the OpenTripPlanner platform that Bibiana talked about. And interestingly, in 2017, the Finnish government actually passed a law requiring all transportation service providers to develop open interfaces.
Vanessa Quirk: Mmm, OK. So that means Whim probably benefited from new access to all that open data.
Eric Jaffe: Yeah, which means that anyone in Helsinki can sign up for Whim, open the app, and use any modes they want, public or private, in any combination.
Sampo Hietanen: We combine all of them into a really, really simple user interface. With one payment, you can just ride them all. You don’t need to jump from one app to another.
Eric Jaffe: Whim’s subscription package is kind of like Netflix for mobility. For a monthly fee, you can ride any of the services in your package.
Sampo Hietanen: In a way, we open a golden key to your city and to your needs.
Vanessa Quirk: So, can you give me an example of how Whim works in Helsinki?
Eric Jaffe: Sure. Say you want to go from your hotel to a karaoke bar on the other side of town.
Vanessa Quirk: OK, you know me well. This is a likely scenario. [Laughs]
Eric Jaffe: All right. So the app shows you a few options. Now, you’re feeling particularly peppy…
Vanessa Quirk: Mmmhmm, like I do.
Eric Jaffe: And so you decide “I’m going to take a bike-share.” [Sound of bike being unlocked]
Vanessa Quirk: OK!
Eric Jaffe: Then you’re halfway there, and maybe it starts to rain, and the bike-share doesn’t look like such a great decision. [Sound of rain]
Vanessa Quirk: Mmmhmm, or maybe I feel less peppy all of a sudden.
Eric Jaffe: You’re less peppy. You dock up the bike and switch to a train. [Sound of train station]. Now mind you, the app has paid for all of this. You don’t need to worry about downloading a new app. You don’t have to use any new fare payments into the kiosks. You just keep going on your journey. [Sound of train]
Vanessa Quirk: Mmhm! This sounds much, much more pleasant than my previous experiences.
Eric Jaffe: Right, you can focus on your karaoke.
Vanessa Quirk: Exactly, the right song! It’s very important. OK, so what about the car-shares though? Is that included? Because at the end of the night, I’m definitely going to want to take a car home.
Eric Jaffe: Yup, the app also works with taxis and other ride services too.
Vanessa Quirk: OK, so all of this sounds incredibly convenient. But I’m not sure your average American would want to bother with this, especially when they can just drive. This isn’t Europe.
Eric Jaffe: Well, Sampo told me he gets this kind of skepticism a lot.
Sampo Hietanen: I’ve given over 2,000 speeches about this everywhere in the world. One of those mysticism is that, “Yeah, maybe you guys in Finland, you’re so forward thinking,” and all of this. And then they say, “Well, we here in U.S., we here in Switzerland, we in Sweden, we here and there and there, we just love to own our cars, don’t we? We just love to do that.” It’s actually not true. All we actually do desire is convenience and service level.
Eric Jaffe: Sampo has found that mobility as a service offers so much convenience that it appeals to all kinds of people — wherever you’re from or however old you are.
Upbeat music begins.
Sampo Hietanen: There was this one journalist who called me from the biggest local newspaper for something completely different, and then at the end of the interview he said, “You know, I’m a 50-plus guy, and I’ve always been a big car enthusiast. And, now me and my wife, we took up Whim. …” And me, being a bit shocked, I said, “Why on Earth now?” And he said it nicely, “Look. Before it’s been too much hassle that I have to worry about these different modes, and there’s never been anyone who’s on my side. They just try to sell their part of the whole story. Now that you guys have it here, it felt convenient enough, so we gave up the car.”
Eric Jaffe: Mmmhmm.
Sampo Hietanen: The whole idea of what T Ford brought to people is freedom. And unless we provide similar or more freedom, there’s no way we can disrupt the whole mobility. We really have to up our game to be as good as owning a car.
Vanessa Quirk: So I can definitely see that Sampo’s offering a really compelling alternative to car ownership here.
Eric Jaffe: But achieving the type of freedom he’s talking about isn’t just about convenience — it’s about cost and knowing that what you’re paying is definitely less than owning a car.
Corinna Li: One of the allures of thinking about mobility as a service is taking away the mental burden of worrying about cost.
Vanessa Quirk: That’s Corinna Li, Associate Director for New Mobility at Sidewalk Labs.
Eric Jaffe: For our Toronto project, Corinna and her team imagined a neighborhood of the future designed to make mobility as convenient as possible.
Vanessa Quirk: Extensive public transit, bike share, ride-hail services — all accessible via an integrated mobility package. It’s Mobility — on Demand.
Eric Jaffe: And to make sure that package would save people enough money to make them want to give up their car, they crunched the numbers.
Corinna Li: We looked at what it cost, on average, to own a car in Toronto, especially in downtown. And we found that, on average, it costs about just a bit over $10,000 a year. Yet only 50% of the car-owning households would drive it on a typical day.
Vanessa Quirk: Mmm. So I bet you a lot of these folks are already taking transit to work. And probably still getting a taxi when they come home late from a night out.
Corinna Li: Yeah, absolutely. And we looked at the typical mobility needs of, let’s say, a typical two adult household looking at combinations of how much they would use public transit, bike-share, maybe some ride-hailing taxi and some car-share or car rental needs over the weekends for trips out of town, and we looked at how much a hypothetical mobility package would cost for this family. And we derived that it will cost about $6,500. So that’s actually about a 40 percent reduction in just mobility spending.
Vanessa Quirk: So I know that a lot of people today would say, “I mean, yes, I know it’s cheaper not to own a car, but it’s just so much harder to get around without one, so it’s not really a choice for me.” But if a mobility package can offer a frictionless way to travel that combines cost and convenience, then it does become a viable choice.
Corinna Li: Yeah.
Eric Jaffe: I think it’s not a stretch to suggest that you’re giving people a choice that they’ve never really had before, as a household. You can either buy the car as you’ve always done and you’ll use it sometimes. Or you can try this package, and we know that on a month-to-month basis you’re going to end up paying less, and we believe we’ve calculated a way for you to meet all your other needs in there. So this is like buying a car, but it’s not just a car.
Corinna Li: It’s about buying mobility. And this amount, according to our calculations, will be significantly cheaper than the cost of owning and operating a car.
Vanessa Quirk: So let’s talk about how you see this mobility on demand working in the city of the future. Let’s say I wake up in the morning and I see that the subway is totally delayed. What happens next?
Corinna Li: I would just press a button in the app, and it offers me three options. I can either take the alternative bus route, and it will give me all of the detailed directions since that’s a route that I’m not so familiar with. Or it will unlock me a bike-share bike and tell me directions of how to get there. Or they could call me a shared ride-hail ride. But you know, to incentivize me to take the least costly to the package and also the more sustainable way, the feature also would reward me. If I take the bus, maybe I’ll get five dollars of credit back. If I take the bike-share, I might get three dollars. If I choose to take the shared rides, I just wouldn’t get anything, but at least it’s all paid for. I don’t have to worry about it.
Eric Jaffe: And you’d pay for this all from an app on your phone?
Corinna Li: Yeah. Also, it could be a ring. It could be a fob.
Vanessa Quirk: What would you prefer?
Corinna Li: It doesn’t matter that much to me, frankly.
Vanessa Quirk: You don’t care?!
Corinna Li: Yeah, it could be a card.
Eric Jaffe: A big gold medallion that dangles. [Laughs]
Vanessa Quirk! Yeah! [Laughs]
Corinna Li: Yeah. [Laughs]
Vanessa Quirk: OK, let me throw a harder scenario at you here. What about one of those weekend trips that you mentioned before?
Corinna Li: For people who want to travel out of town, especially on weekends, a lot of them at present will face this issue that they tried to book a car-share or car rental vehicle, three days or a week in advance, and find that all the cars nearby are gone. Or only the most expensive ones will remain.
Vanessa Quirk: That happened to me two weeks ago. That was very, very, very frustrating for me.
Corinna Li: Right? With the package, you actually are getting a price guarantee. Right? And that takes the anxiety of it out. You don’t have to worry about, “Oh, when I rent a car, is it going to be $100 this weekend, or actually 325?”
Eric Jaffe: But how many trips did you calculate that a family could take for it to still be cheaper than owning a car?
Corinna Li: We just assumed every other month you would do a weekend car rental over the course of a year.
Eric Jaffe: That sounds pretty good! It’s certainly more than I do now.
Vanessa Quirk: OK, I have one last scenario for you, Corinna.
Corinna Li: OK, sounds good!
Vanessa Quirk: Costco. So the whole reason that I go to Costco is to buy items in bulk to save money, right? But if I take a taxi or a ride-share home, which you kind of need to because you’ve got a lot of stuff, then the savings can just disappear! And I feel like that’s why a lot of people still hold on to cars in cities — for these kinds of trips.
Corinna Li: Costco is … it’s so fascinating, right?
Vanessa Quirk: [Laughs]
Corinna Li: It’s like, the product of suburbanization.You build up a super center with a big parking lot so everyone can just drive there and buy all of their needs for the next week or two.
Vanessa Quirk: Right.
Corinna Li: But we’re envisioning a 15-minute neighborhood, so all your essential daily needs would be satisfied within a 15-minute walk. So what are we talking about? Getting groceries, pharmacies, buying your regular toothpaste and toilet paper, and things like that.
VANESSA: Mm, so since this is such a compact neighborhood, I wouldn’t need a taxi. I could take something like, maybe a cargo bike!
Corinna Li: Yeah. I think a cargo bike should definitely be an option. One thing I’m very excited about is can we have some sort of a school pick-up and drop-off service that actually uses bikes and the bike lanes that we have? That’s essentially like a cargo bike for kids. You can fit multiple of them in and you can just take them to school and back. I call this magic school bike. [Sound clip of Ms. Frizzle of Magic School Bus]
Upbeat music begins.
Vanessa Quirk: So in the city of the future, all these modes would work together. The trains, the boats, the buses, the mopeds — even the magic school bikes.
Eric Jaffe: What about my flying car?
Vanessa Quirk: Eventually. [Laughs]
Eric Jaffe: Since all the data would be standardized and payment systems would be integrated, multi-modal trips would be frictionless.
Vanessa Quirk: And it’s not just the digital infrastructure of course. The city itself would be designed to make these kinds of trips easier.
Eric Jaffe: In the neighborhood of the future, transit would be the backbone. Businesses and shops and schools and other services would be near homes, so you could walk or bike to them if you wanted.
Vanessa Quirk: So all those trips that used to require cars — they wouldn’t anymore.
Eric Jaffe: And since you don’t need as many cars, you don’t need as many parking spots. And that means you can have much more space for parks or plazas or whatever the community wants.
Corinna Li: That would also just make a really vibrant urban environment as well, right? Because at the end of the day, it’s not just about mobility, but it’s really about what is the type of place and the feel of the place and the quality of life that you want to have.
Upbeat music ends.
Theme music begins.
Eric Jaffe: Thank you for listening to City of the Future, a podcast from Sidewalk Labs. Your hosts are Vanessa Quirk and me, Eric Jaffe. We are produced by Benjamen Walker and Andrew Callaway.
Vanessa Quirk: Mix is by Zach Mcnees. And a special thanks to all who made this episode possible: Horace Dediu, Bibiana McHugh, Sampo Hietanen (and I’m sorry about the pronunciation there, Sampo), Corinna Li, and Willa Ng.
Eric Jaffe: Our art is by the great Tim Kau. Our music is composed by Adaam James Levin-Areddy. If you want to hear more of Adaam’s work, you can check out his band, Lost Amsterdam.
Eric Jaffe: See you in the future.
Vanessa Quirk: Bye!