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Can we learn to share? How the sharing economy can help launch the mobility revolution

May 28, 2021

By Ashley Thompson

Focusing on moving people, not vehicles, is a paradigm shift that promotes accessible, inclusive, and equitable transportation

Most experts would say the last major transportation revolution was just over 100 years ago with the advent of the first mass-produced automobiles. Not a lot has changed in the past 100 years. From Henry Ford’s Model T to today’s Ford F-150 or Tesla, personally owned vehicles have dominated the way we think about transportation in North America.

However, we are on the cusp of a dramatic change. Cities, planners, developers, private operators, automakers, tech companies, and transit authorities are starting to focus on how they move people, not vehicles. This paradigm shift—which promotes accessible, inclusive, and equitable transportation—might be more accurately referred to as a “mobility revolution.”

Automated shuttles are one of the most exciting new mobility prospects—particularly if they are shared.

New technologies on the scene—automated vehicles, app-driven mobility services, micromobility, etc.—have the potential to transform the way we move around. But depending on who you talk to, these technologies will have the power to either: a) deliver us into an equitable and resilient future of vibrant communities with smarter mobility choices or, b) summon a congested and chaotic future accelerating suburban sprawl and disconnection.

One way we can actively choose option a) is by calling on the sharing economy for help. It is true that these innovations have the potential to shape the positive future we imagine—if we can learn to share.

Shared automated vehicles can increase safety and accessibility

Shared automated vehicles (AVs) come in various shapes and sizes. Some examples include rideshare-style vehicles that look like personal cars, low-speed shuttles that look more like public transportation vehicles, and mid-sized buses like paratransit vehicles. As this technology becomes more prevalent on our streets, one thing is certain: “sharing” these vehicles holds real promise for the future of transportation.

The most frequently cited application for shared AVs is first/last mile solutions or other transit applications in dense, compact environments that give us the opportunity to use existing roads and reduce capital costs. For instance, a more holistic transit plan might consist of a streetcar running through a designated corridor while a fleet of nimble shared AVs circulate through nearby neighborhoods, using existing roadways and bus stops, to feed the streetcar line with passengers.

It is true that these innovations have the potential to shape the positive future we imagine—if we can learn to share.

Using shared AVs in this way could help improve peoples’ transportation experience and increase equitable access to options for getting around. Firstly, you might be able to provide a service where there wasn’t one before. Shared AVs aren’t constrained by driver shifts and can be programmed to provide on-demand service through off-peak hours, servicing shift workers not working 9-to-5 schedules or those working flexible schedules. They can also be deployed to less dense areas, bringing more people to the main arteries of the transit system. This is a game-changer for many people who may live further away from a transit stop.

If AVs aren’t needed for moving people during off-peak hours, they can be deployed for overnight delivery, efficiently limiting the number of vehicles on the road.

Shared micromobility hubs can fill gaps in our transportation system

Micromobility, like e-scooters or bikeshare programs, can have a positive impact on first and last-mile connections, shifting people away from private vehicles.

In cities with an established or growing subway or light rail transit (LRT) system, micromobility could boost ridership by being deployed in neighborhoods and commercial districts near stations. Adding micromobility as an option does not necessarily compete with public transit—it boosts the opportunity to shift transportation mode. By adding a smart mobility hub with other shared, electric, and connected options, we can make main transit arteries more accessible. This could take many cars off the road, reduce the need for parking at LRT stations, and spur new transit-oriented development.

Micromobility can also serve as a mobility equalizer, where cities partner with private providers to launch low-income pricing plans. Portland has launched a low-income e-scooter pilot, and I expect other cities to consider this in the future.

Micromobility increases the potential for shifting away from single-occupant vehicles to a more shared-mobility ecosystem.

Ridesharing has led the way and still has a role to play

Ridesharing app services might be the most common option that comes to mind when talking about shared mobility. The popularity of these services has made people more comfortable with sharing and helped them understand the convenience and efficiency of an app-driven service.

While these are mostly privately owned and operated services, they help reduce the need to own a personal vehicle. Ridesharing supports trends of younger generations choosing not to own cars and older generations no longer driving. It also supports urban lifestyles where parking can be expensive, while remaining a convenient option nearly on par with owning your own vehicle.

As ridesharing has caught on, some transit agencies have looked at integrating these services, which is called microtransit. Some have agreements with private companies to fill service gaps or to support population segments that don’t have proper transit access. These agreements can extend an agency’s service area and times, increasing transit access for more residents. As agencies look at ridesharing to augment their service, rather than compete with it, we will see more creative ways of sharing mobility options.

Shared mobility can help those with mobility challenges

Getting around has always been difficult for people with mobility challenges, whether it’s a physical, sensory, or cognitive disability. While transportation authorities strive to prioritize and enhance accessibility standards, shared mobility innovations are a key part of reshaping the whole system to work for more people.

We need to create an ecosystem of smarter solutions with a people-focused approach and accelerate the next generation of mobility.

On-demand, flexible routing—whether it’s through ridesharing, automated vehicles, or micromobility—can be like existing paratransit with a focus on quality-of-service options. Likewise, ridesharing through microtransit has great potential here. Micromobility options are also expanding to include modes suitable for those with disabilities, like wheelchair-accessible e-scooters.

Perhaps most importantly, offering safe shared options can increase the feeling of independence. For example, with shared AVs, the reliance shifts from another person (the driver) to a machine (the vehicle) and there is no fixed schedule or limited range. In fact, it can nearly mimic the convenience of owning a vehicle when you cannot drive yourself.

Moving toward smart (and shared) mobility of the future

For many years we have been trying to build ourselves out of congestion by doing things the same way—subsidizing new freeway construction and widening old freeways. While there are still new roads to be built, shared smart mobility has the potential to move more people, more efficiently, and more comfortably.

While many technologies show promise, it is important to remember there is no silver bullet, no single innovation to carry us into the mobility revolution. It will be the work of many innovative thinkers to help shape what new mobility means for each community. By uncovering and implementing an ecosystem of smarter solutions with a people-focused approach, we will accelerate the next generation of mobility.

  • Ashley Thompson

    An urban designer and Smart(ER) Mobility planner and practice lead, Ashley focuses on both traditional urban design projects as well as autonomous vehicle work and technology reviews and assessments.

    Contact Ashley
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