A huge change in the nature of urban transportation is coming. You’ve encountered much of it: Light rail, enhanced buses, Uber, Lyft, Nice Ride, Bird, Lime. More is coming soon: Southwest and Bottineau light rail lines, enhanced bus lines, dockless bikes, more scooters. But the real change is just on the horizon: tying them all together with the “why,” as well as the “how,” a job for government at all levels.
A recent Urban Currents meeting hosted by the Cuningham Group brought some of these technical developments into sharper focus. Representatives from city of Minneapolis Public Works and the scooter company Lime detailed some of the near-future plans they’re considering for expanding personal and mass transportation, increasingly referred to as “multi-modal” transportation.
Some changes seem enlightened (more rational use of street lanes, parking spaces, and access points), and some seemed ominous (increased parking rates, possible shrinkage of pedestrian sidewalk space). But the dominant feeling in the presentations was one of inevitability. As the song goes, “A change is gonna come.”
Transportation planners use the term “first-mile/last-mile connectivity” — how you get to your first transit point. Dockless bikes and scooters can make that first transit point your front door. Your car probably now plays that role. Commuters use cars because they’re convenient and flexible, and because they already have them.
New transportation schemes attempt to reduce energy use and pollution, relieve congestion and make cities more livable. Most planners agree that automobile use in urban settings should be more heavily managed (some would suggest “discouraged”). Dockless bikes and scooters could contribute to that goal, because they offer almost the same convenience and flexibility as cars; they also lessen the need for parking. Even car drivers are complaining about congestion and road rage, but they need better pathways to give up the assumptions that come with owning cars.
Back to “tying them all together”: The Holy Grail for urban transportation planners in this alternative-rich environment is the single-platform app, an all-in-one web-based service that plans your trip from door to destination with whatever mix of modes makes the most sense. More importantly, it will distribute your payment for that single trip among the modes.
The virtually universal use and computing power of smartphones has made networking on this scale feasible. With the internet, distribution and transactions costs approach zero. People in Helsinki as well as Birmingham, England and Antwerp, Belgium have access to an app called Whim that gives travelers access to all the transportation modes in those cities with a single subscription fee.
Helsinki and Minneapolis are similar in population and climate. But Minneapolis is spending less than a million dollars this next year for alternative-use planning, while Helsinki has pledged $10 million per year for the next 10 years. In fairness, it should be noted that some of a $2.5 million Bloomberg grant Minneapolis just received will go to designing an all-in-one service.
Congestion pricing—charging more for road use in certain locations for certain types of vehicles at certain times of day—is used in London, Singapore and Stockholm. Lyft and Uber use a form of it in their own pricing models. Minneapolis planners say they aren’t there yet, partly because the city lacks taxing authority.
The city is rethinking the use of existing curb space, a finite resource. An inventory of metered curb spaces in the city is underway to see if “legacy” spaces, such as taxicab stands and loading zones, can be repurposed as multi-use spaces for bike, scooter and ride-sharing drop-offs. Further inventories are planned.
Planners and vehicle vendors see the introduction of dockless products as a step toward equitable distribution of personal transportation choices. Areas not well-served by fixed-mode transport (buses and light rail) can be offered alternative first-mile/last-mile transit options.
A thornier point to consider when seeking equitability: a phone app is easily downloaded; a subscription service that requires a credit card and/or an approval process may be a bigger obstacle. Nico Probst, Lime’s Midwest strategic development manager, said his company has partnerships with CVS, 7-11 and other stores where account payments can be made. He added that people who qualify for county or state assistance programs will receive substantial discounts.
The city and region must work with vendors on the front end, whether it’s to use current bike lanes as “flex-lanes” for scooters; ensure the safety of the expected influx of new riders by requiring mandatory helmets or safety courses; or regulate the parking, pickup and maintenance of the increasing numbers of bikes and scooters hitting the streets. Local planners must avoid the appearance of just chasing the latest cool thing, and adopt a comprehensive view of the implications of this new world of wheels.