The Need to Manage Mobility From the Ground Up

A top-down view of transportation is important, but it's crucial to focus on the needs of individuals and underserved communities.

Woman in a wheelchair getting lifted into a paratransit van.
Last September, Boston announced that it would subsidize up to $13 of the cost of paratransit trips provided by ride-share companies.
(AP/Steven Senne)
In my last column in this space, I argued for government to approach mobility as a system rather than simply as a set of discrete transportation-related services or agencies. A handful of pioneering cities have appointed mobility managers who are, for the first time, addressing the many modes of transportation -- buses, trains, bikes, ride-sharing and more -- holistically.

In an ideal world, these mobility managers will be able to consider the city from a birds-eye view and employ data-driven insights to provide better information to customers as well as financial and regulatory nudges that utilize taxis and ride-share companies in conjunction with publicly owned services to eliminate transit deserts. Using smart cards and intelligent information sharing agreements, they will make data-informed decisions about price and frequency of service that will eventually come to redefine neighborhoods and the way we get around cities.

However, mobility managers will also need to consider transportation from the perspective of the individual. One way to accomplish the many objectives of the mobility manager, addressed in my previous column, involves supply, or how to coordinate various modes of transportation from the top down. But we must also look at demand -- how to meet the needs of individuals from the bottom up.

Demand-side solutions to mobility problems involve the use of regulatory tools, pricing and better market information. By listening directly to individuals, government has the capacity to uncover new approaches to service delivery that represent significant improvements. Take Boston, for example. In 2016 the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) considered its paratransit service from the consumer perspective and saw that "The Ride," as the service for the disabled is known, wasn't keeping pace with ride-sharing companies that were doing the job far more efficiently.

Unlike ride-share customers, users of The Ride would have to book their trips days in advance and lacked state-of-the-art user interfaces with real-time mapping features that private companies provide. And The Ride didn't make financial sense: According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the average cost of a paratransit trip in 2010 was $29.30.

Last September, the MBTA announced that it would subsidize up to $13 of the cost of paratransit trips provided by ride-share companies. From the user's perspective, trips could be scheduled much more quickly with a dramatically increased supply of drivers. And each ride would reportedly be 70 percent cheaper for the MBTA than existing services.

This a great first step and one that shows an orientation around the needs of the individual. Of course, the disabled community is just one of many groups suffering from inadequate mobility options, and government will need to expand its scope and look at other underserved populations. We now have better data with which to identify places where transit does not suffice and where people cannot affordably get to work in a reasonable amount of time. Clearly there are cost-effective ways to improve the physical mobility that can enable economic mobility.

We know, for example, that some low-income communities have long used jitney services, typically in the form of shared rides with unlicensed taxi services, to get to work when public transit fails them. An effort that focuses on the consumer would involve organizing similar services at scale by collecting data on where transit-isolated individuals need to get to and by helping organize connector routes. Government could consider subsidizing rides for the economically disadvantaged to foster trip-sharing and further bring down costs.

This approach illustrates one of the greatest powers of government: to provide individuals with high-quality information that will lead to better decision-making and more efficient markets. A user-based approach is critical, especially in the context of mobility, because the transportation wants and needs of individuals are so diverse and the number of transportation modes available to them are so numerous.

Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program