A Better Way to Manage How We Get Around

Old models for managing urban transportation are insufficient. New options demand that we think in terms of mobility.
June 20, 2017
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By Stephen Goldsmith  |  Contributor
Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program

Urban mobility is undergoing its starkest transformation since the first Model T rolled off the assembly line more than a century ago. Emerging services like car-, bike- and ride-sharing have provided city dwellers with a vast -- and often confusing -- array of options for getting around. And it's too early to predict the impact of technologies that are on the horizon, such as driverless cars.

Yet for all of these new and developing options, our urban transportation infrastructure remains insufficient in the face of such economic disruptions as the relocation of jobs and the suburbanization of poverty. According to a Brookings Institution study, low- and middle-skill workers in major metropolitan areas are able to reach only about one-quarter of their jobs within a 90-minute transit window.

The old model for managing urban transportation may have sufficed in the days of the horse-drawn trolley, but today's changing needs demand that we find ways to bring together old and new modes of transportation so that they complement and enhance each other. With more and better data available now than ever before, we need to think in terms of true mobility management.

That's a major departure from the traditional model in which cities might run a transportation department, a mass transit agency, a taxi commission and, perhaps in recent years, a bike-share program. That leaves individuals responsible for stitching together the various modes of transportation they need -- car to bus, bus to train, train to bike and so on. As things stand, commuters can only make educated guesses about cost, duration and the likelihood of service availability and delays.

In the new data-enabled, service-oriented model, mayors and urban county executives will appoint mobility managers to enhance convenience and remove the transit deserts that plague many individuals who cannot afford cars and for whom inconveniently located bus routes provide little relief. These mobility managers will help smooth transitions between public, private and shared transportation services. Individuals will be able to plan and pay for trips all in one place. Gone will be the days of chasing after the bus -- the bus will come to you right when you expect it.

 

Still, many cities and transportation agencies hesitate to stray from the old model, built primarily around private cars and mass transit, that has left many citizens underserved. Some transportation policymakers are concerned that new mobility services such as ride-sharing will harm traditional mass transit systems. While studies reflect that this doesn't need to be the case, I would argue that the question itself is misguided.

New mobility services exist and expand because they deliver value to transportation consumers. A city's goal, therefore, should be to improve mobility for all of its residents, creating a seamless system of transportation from what once were discrete components. Mobility managers should not be in the business of protecting any given transportation mode but should instead focus on creating value and reducing inefficiencies and inequities for the commuters they serve.

A vanguard is forming. Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Pittsburgh and other cities have taken strides to string together their transportation services and bring equity and ease of use to their systems. These early efforts at mobility management have the advantage of massive amounts of data never previously available, such as the GPS-determined locations of each bus and, in some cities, each taxi and bike-share. These cities also have far better information on passenger loads and route efficiency than ever, and some are using sophisticated mapping to study how transit relates to housing prices and job access. Mobility managers will use this rapidly growing tapestry of data to make service level decisions, reduce congestion and improve land use planning.

In a time when trust in the government is very low, improving mobility offers a great opportunity for cities. After all, public transportation is often the first and last major service provided by government that an individual will knowingly utilize during the day. For that reason, any improvements we can make to mobility will be felt quickly and broadly. The bus is leaving the station. Is your city on board?