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Redefining mobility: What does the future look like?

April 12, 2018

Getting out of single-occupancy vehicles and seamlessly connecting shared travel modes will increase equity and reduce traffic congestion

Could you live your life without a car? Are bike-shares just public toys for young, white professionals? What’s the one thing that could make—or break—the transition to self-driving cars? Speakers from government, academia, and the private sector addressed those questions and more in late March at the 2018 Redefining Mobility Summit in San Ramon, California.

The tech-focused conference—sponsored by the Contra Costa Transportation Authority and partners GoMentum Station and Stantec—centers on new-mobility topics such as autonomous shuttles, artificial intelligence, Mobility as a Service (MaaS), and the importance of equity.

While each session was interesting and informative, I especially liked the Mobility as a Service panel, because I think seamlessly connecting shared travel modes (i.e., rail, bus, bike-share, ride-share) with trip planning and payment software will dramatically reduce traffic congestion and air pollution, while increasing equity.

The panel comprised people working on MaaS software platforms and carshare services and a specialist in European Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) research. Although some of their tactics differ, they share similar goals, which boil down to speeding the transition of developed-world transportation from a system that relies primarily on single-occupant, privately-owned vehicles to one that’s connected, multimodal, and subscription-based. Anyone, from layperson to expert, can find merits in both systems, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue in favor of an existing system that promotes low utilization, high cost, and stark inequities.

How to fix inequity in mobility

Keynote speaker Susan Shaheen tackled inequity in mobility: What has kept less-affluent, less-educated, and older users from enjoying the cost savings, health benefits, and convenience of shared mobility? Co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, Shaheen has led a team that identified barriers to using shared mobility. Her team’s STEPS to transportation equity help us understand these barriers by distilling them into five groups: spatial, temporal, economic, physiological, and social considerations. They’ve produced a free guide—Planning for Shared Mobilityavailable through the American Planning Association—that presents case studies and lessons learned from eight cities across North America.

Shaheen noted that a shared system’s ability to lure drivers out of private cars depends on the density of the area around it. In a dense setting—which will have lots of uses and lots of congestion—using a shared system will look extremely appealing. In low-density areas, where a service might take time to arrive, most people will prefer a private vehicle.

A presenter from Whim, a MaaS platform in Helsinki, Finland, touched on this same subject when she asked, “What would it take for you to give up your own car?”

Decades of business-as-usual zoning and land-use planning is perpetuating the things we dislike most about driving.

I’ve thought about this extensively, and my answer always comes back to mixed-use development and density. This question has even led me to live in more dense cities just to experience a car-free life. I believe we need to focus on efficient land-use planning to maximize the benefits of new, IT-enabled mobility platforms and services. Demand-aggregation algorithms and multimodal infrastructure can only do so much to combat a sprawling, single-use built environment. When people make decisions, privately-owned vehicles are still more convenient and affordable in certain locations based purely on how that location has developed. Decades of business-as-usual zoning and land-use planning is perpetuating the things we dislike most about driving, making adoption of new mobility services difficult and costly.

I hope soon we can bridge the gap between tech-centric mobility solutions and traditional land-use planning.  In practice, the subjects don’t exist in a vacuum, yet we plan for them as if they do. Thinkers and doers in the mobility and development worlds need to spend much more time together (conferences like the Redefining Mobility Summit would be a good place to start). I’m already looking forward to next year's summit to learn about the next iterations of mobility technology— from MaaS to artificial intelligence—seasoned, I hope, with a healthy shot of urban planning.

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