A teachable moment in the adolescence of the mobility revolution

It has been almost half a year since the little blue and white Car2Gos parked throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul departed. Back in January, corralled by the last of their minders, these vehicles relocated to greener pastures with, what we can only hope, are more favorable tax rates.

Photo by aaronparecki CC BY 2.0

As with all mourning periods, those that knew Car2Go will reflect on the good it brought to their lives and to others. The urban planner’s eulogy will read long with the promise of what could have been. If only we spent more time with it, maybe, just maybe we could have saved it. But what if we really never knew Car2Go? Funerals often cause hard questions to be asked of ourselves and our dearly departed. Yes, we know the concept and the marketing, but what was Car2Go really? Who did it serve? Where was it used? What questions should we even be asking? Turns out a postmortem is tough to do without a body.

What’s Left Behind

The one-way model of Car2Go shows great promise in breaking the reliance on car ownership that plagues many an American city. To former users in the Twin Cities, having the service leave seems like a great step backward from the transportation revolution they signed on for*. What is just as equally shocking as the service’s sudden departure is the lack of records detailing Car2Go’s time in the Cities. For a service that operated over 300 vehicles throughout the metro and was central to many resident’s commutes we’re left only with traces it ever existed. 
*Check out Here To There’s excellent podcast on the subject

Now the absence of data is not for lack of trying. In the agreement between Car2Go and Minneapolis/St.Paul there were provisions for quarterly operation reports to be shared with the cities. After coming across a few of these, they appear to be more showcases of the service’s health rather than meaningful data sources. It’s truly a missed opportunity when we think about the insights this data could have provided in understanding how the metro moves and how the novel car service could play a critical role in ensuring transportation equity. It is also this data that could have shown state legislators the value of the service and maybe entice them to work with the provider to keep Car2Go operating into the future.

The possibilities for the service as well as its data could have redefined how people move around our city. Instead, we are left with neither the service nor any sort of metric on which to measure its success during its 3 year run. Yet, we are not left without an important lesson. In an age where more and more private companies establish themselves as role players in city transportation systems, the chronicle of Car2Go in the Twin Cities provides insights in how to correct the mistakes of the past moving forward. Among these lessons is the need is the need for cities to work alongside private firms to create impactful and sustainable transportation solutions.

“Car2Go” by Payton Chung is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Where We Go from Here

In the past, cities have organized their emerging tech strategies from the top down. There is an attempt to implement a sweeping “newness” rather than seeing innovation as a tool to deal with existing problems. In many ways, Car2Go was treated as such when it arrived in Minneapolis. Seen as a standalone solution rather than something that could be woven into the transit tapestry. Thankfully this trend has started to change as cities are now realizing the importance of integrating technological advances into their ongoing mission of public service to confront challenges. As such, implementations of new technologies and services, such as Car2Go, should be viewed as true partnerships rather than just providing permission for a private company to use public resources.

In creating these partnerships it is important that cities start with a few basic questions to help orient themselves and their goals:

  • What is the problem we are looking to solve as a community? These challenges inform what types of solutions are considered and the policies surrounding their implementation. From here we can also better understand what data from providers is actually useful to the city. There is a lot of data out there and often private entities are unwilling to part with it wholesale. By developing a targeted and informed “ask”, agencies are much better prepared to negotiate with providers as to what data and what level of detail is needed to move forward with the agreement. By understanding the service’s concerns as well as the city’s there is hope that the private business model can find some alignment with the public’s social initiatives.
  • How do we evaluate if the service is solving the problem? Once cities implement a solution there need to be routine check ins to see if it is meeting expectations. These retrospectives can identify what is working and what needs to be addressed to get performance back on track. Data and timing is critical to help these retrospectives shore up the solution over time. Again if cities know what data they’re after early, they can better negotiate with services and partner with them to insure their goals play an influential role in the service’s operation.
  • How can we build mutually beneficial partnerships? For this all to work it is important to build meaningful/mutually beneficial relationships between the public and private sector to address citywide issues. The city in this sense is both a customer of these services and provider of the underlying infrastructure mobility services need permission to operate. Using this unique placement, cities must be open and active in finding ways to work with providers to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome. This might be through incentives, tax breaks, or some other means, but the end result is a partnership that keeps the business operating while the city can use it improve the public good.

In Practice

To illustrate how all of this might look in practice let’s approach Car2Go with a specific goal in mind: providing greater mobility for low/moderate income families. Car2Go’s model is a natural fit for this type of problem because it mirrors the freedom of movement that a private vehicle provides without the cost of traditional ownership. So in addition to creating an agreement with the company that will keep them happy, we will also want to work with them to bring social advancement via technological innovation

Referring back to the guiding questions, we need to capture and evaluate certain metrics in order to measure progress toward this goal. In this case one such metric is understanding who has reliable access to these vehicles? Not only do cars need to be in the neighborhoods that need them, they need to be consistently available as to become a trusted form of transportation. This is a unique challenge for the largely user-driven network of Car2Go.

Tracking every vehicle in the fleet will certainly help in answering this question, but it may not be something the company finds palatable. Again, its difficult to demand Car2Go share all of their information so cities need to develop a targeted ask. As we are looking to measure if Car2Go can provide reliable transportation option for certain areas, we could do so using a measure of disparity, such as the Theil Index. The Theil Index provides a measure of how dissimilar the Car2Go distribution is throughout the operating area. For this approach we don’t need to get all the location data for all the cars all the time. Instead, we might just ask for an aggregated count of cars with Census Block Groups during specific time periods. This approach has the advantage of still letting the service provider obfuscate and aggregate to protect privacy, but still provides meaningful data to the city. Such compromise and creativity will be the key to these public-private partnerships. In the end, while we might not be able to ask for every vehicle location at every point in time, it doesn’t mean we can do something meaningful with what is the provider is willing to make available. The map below shows an example of what this might look like in practice.

Mock up of what Theil Index Car2Go availability analysis might look like

By pairing the Theil Index with Census data (as is done in the map above), we can start to see which Low and Moderate income Block Groups would find the service a viable commuting option. We can also see what areas the service fails to reliably cover. Such an analysis would allow the city to work with Car2Go to address these under-served areas, something that could not be done in the quarterly reports of the past.

This model of purpose-driven partnerships and data-sharing is one that has the potential to be built on and expanded. As the partnerships and trust between private sector and public grows, so will the opportunities and the data. The two parties have to be willing to work together in order to reach the best possible future for everyone involved.

Going Forward

While Car2Go’s future in Minnesota is unclear, its departure leaves us with lessons as to the partnerships that can exist between disruptive service providers and the municipalities in which they operate. Cities must remember that their communities come first and they should act as their advocate. While the allure of tech might bring notoriety, in the long term its value comes from what these services can do to better the lives of all residents. By promoting social progress through innovation and developing strong private-public partnerships to deliver on that promise, cities can build the frameworks today that solve the challenges of tomorrow.