The Goal of Seamless Urban Mobility

We won't Uber our way out of traffic congestion. What's needed is a system to integrate all transportation options.
March 12, 2018
Helsinki, Finland, plans to offer a digital service that integrates the capital city's entire transportation network. (Shutterstock)
By Bob Graves  |  Contributor
Associate director of the Governing Institute and a co-founder of Governing's parent organization, e.Republic

Escalating urban traffic congestion is calling out for a fix. What's the solution? Most likely a combination of existing public transit and a well-integrated digital ecosystem that seamlessly connects all other transportation services with it. Narrowly focused, unintegrated solutions aren't the answer, as a recent study of the impact of ride-hailing services by the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California-Davis makes abundantly clear.

The October 2017 report showed that ride-hailing -- the use of services such as Uber and Lyft -- had reduced public-transit use in the seven metropolitan areas studied by 6 percent and that, had the ride-hailing services not been available, between 49 and 61 percent of those trips would have been made on foot, on a bike, on public transport or not made at all. Perhaps most significantly, the report concluded that ride-hailing is likely to contribute to overall growth in vehicle miles traveled. So rather than reducing traffic congestion, ride-hailing is likely to worsen it.

Studies like this that detail the system effects of new technology are vital to policymakers and urban planners. Without them, long-range transportation and infrastructure investments will be less effective and potentially even counter-productive. Every part of the transportation network needs to be viewed and managed as part of an interconnected system.

Helsinki is one place that is making a particularly ambitious effort along those lines. Finland's capital, which also is that nation's largest city, plans to offer a digital service that integrates the entire transportation network, providing a highly connected, cashless and end-to-end transportation experience. It's integral to the city's goal of making private car ownership unnecessary by 2025.

Helsinki's mobility-as-a-service initiative will allow a traveler to buy a "mobility" ticket to his or her destination, and the service will plan the route. The price may vary depending on individual preferences, but the idea is that both public and private transportation options are seamlessly available.


Offering such a multimodal transportation experience is a bold concept. It will work, however, only if it delivers a complete journey without any significant delays or glitches. This will entail developing the needed digital infrastructure, enhancing the transit experience (with onboard Wi-Fi, well designed routes, affordable fares and on-demand services, for example), and providing a variety of multimodal connection options.

There's no comparable system-wide initiative underway in the United States, though some good local efforts are starting to appear. In Seattle, for example, Mayor Jenny Durkan just announced a plan to provide all public-high-school students with free transit passes for buses and light rail by next fall. When implemented, the program would make Seattle the largest city in the country to offer free transit service to every high-school student.

Even though Seattle's transit revenues will drop in the near term, the mayor is betting that young people who use transit now will be less likely to rely on a car later in life. "Traffic's going to get worse before it gets better; megaprojects will lead to mega-gridlock," Durkan told the Seattle Times. "The good news is more people are using transit and fewer people are driving alone in their cars and we need to keep that trend growing."

Farther south on the West Coast, the San Francisco Bay Area's regional planning agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, just approved millions of dollars in grants for six pilot projects to not only better understand the potential impact of driverless vehicles but also to encourage modes of transport other than cars. To encourage cycling, for example, one of the grant-recipient cities, Emeryville, proposes using a city-provided app for cyclists to give them to more green lights at intersections.

These are relatively modest efforts, but they do reflect a new way of looking at urban mobility. Rather than thinking of transportation as a set of discrete components (roads, buses, cars, bikes, traffic signals, etc.) the new idea is to view the system as a whole, keeping in mind its purpose, myriad interconnections and various elements. Without such a view, the promise of such technologies as ride-hailing -- and even autonomous vehicles -- won't ever be realized. Indeed, as the UC-Davis study illustrates, they may contribute to urban congestion.

It is the proper role of government to ensure that private-sector, technology-driven transportation options integrate with city and regional mobility goals and policies. The overall goal should be to improve mobility through the creation of a user-centric transportation system. That will be tough to achieve, but by focusing on mobility as the target, the quality of life for every person who lives in, works in or visits a city would be greatly enhanced.