Last month Investing in Place was fortunate to attend a transportation conference in gorgeous Lake Arrowhead. The conference theme was disruption in the transportation market, and particularly how shared mobility options and companies are changing the face of a traditionally public sector field. Practitioners and academics from all over the U.S. and abroad attended to listen to peer experts and talk about transportation for hours.
It gave us the opportunity to take a break from the daily grind to think about private disruption and its impact on public transportation. Ride hail companies have changed individuals’ lives but are they good for the collective system? 2018 was the summer of e-scooters and subsequent fiery backlash. Even Metro is prioritizing public-private partnership (P3) projects, such as the West Santa Ana Branch Transit Corridor.
At Investing in Place we also talk about the private sector’s influence on our sidewalks. This summer was record-breaking hot and we hosted a City of LA Right of Way work group meeting about the need for shade—and how one corporate advertising agency is the only source of bus shelters for the entire City.
Change isn’t coming, it’s here
Of course any disruption comes with controversy. Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) have been criticized for previously not sharing their data with cities and public agencies. And of course this disruption has not yielded great results for reducing vehicle trips or even traffic safety. And despite efforts from some companies to implement an equitable model of shared mobility, how does the private sector meet the needs of low-income and disenfranchised travelers?
And let’s not forget, with all this disruption and private sector gains, what is the public sector doing to keep up?
It is pretty obvious that the public sector that runs transportation agencies and maintains our streets and sidewalks are tasked with looking at a large-scale transportation network. They are often housed in local governments or authorities, and in the LA region these jurisdictions can be huge. Our agencies often fall into a trap of transportation planning from a birds-eye view and serving the region through the lens of a map. But specific needs that vary widely from person to person can get lost in this broad overview.
On the other hand, private mobility companies are market-driven, consumer-driven, and equate trips as customers. Unique experiences are catered to for profit. What does it matter if a rideshare car adds to traffic congestion or an underground tunnel to Dodger stadium disrupts thousands of neighborhood residents for a fraction of fans? If one person’s trip needs are met they will likely return to that company for more individual customer service. Especially if that company is nimble enough to respond to their shifting needs, behaviors, and general trends. The same can rarely be said of public agencies.
Remember who we are doing this for
This is the easy part. You may feel that private tech companies are evil, undervaluing the hard labor of gig workers and looking to profit off a public right-of-way in which they don’t bother to invest. You may welcome market options into an antiquated and slow transportation system that has been inefficiently run by a local government in which you have little faith. Maybe you’re somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.
But we aren’t as interested in picking teams or brand loyalty as much as ensuring we serve the end user. How does our transportation system work for those with the fewest options?
We say it all the time: if a transportation system can work for moms with small children, older adults, people living with disabilities, and the working poor and unemployed, it will work for everyone. We have consistently asked of these three things of public sector:
1) Commit to equity
It is no secret that transit ridership is falling, not only in Los Angeles, but statewide. In Los Angeles, the average income of a bus rider is less than $16,000 but that does not somehow make these trips less valuable. If anything, transportation becomes that much more critical for those who may be toeing the line of unemployment, homelessness or chronic health conditions. We need our public sector to value all trips.
2) Use data to prioritize need
It is also not a secret that Los Angeles, like many large metropolitan areas, is plagued with health and resource disparities and we have heard many times that your zip code is a better indicator of life expectancy than genetic code. Investing in Place has always spoken about the need to prioritize policies and investments based on need. Let’s get there.
3) Invest based on data and need
We need to see the public sector make smart investment decisions with the goal of increasing ridership. And agencies need to show their math to justify growth projections. How did Seattle add almost 5 million new transit trips in one year? They invested in dedicated lanes, bus prioritization signals, shelters, and travel information. They invested in service.
And now how do we hold the disruptors accountable? Without the same responsibility to the public that agencies and government have, what can we ask of private companies when they see customers, not constituents?
To start, here are three things we want to see from the private sector:
1) Commit to 4 E’s (equity, engagement, education and fair employment)
Tech mobility companies are able to move fast. But moving too fast means leaving some of us behind. We’d like to see meaningful equity strategies from private companies that look at assets and needs of historically underinvested communities and genuinely try to identify how their products can serve these needs. We want to see authentic engagement and education, including funding local organizations to conduct this outreach, to learn about how they can serve these needs. And we want to see these products made and marketed for all communities, not just outreaching to certain communities for low-wage, volatile, and unsafe gigs.
2) Provide data
One of the advantages of tech companies clearly have is their user data and ability to track trip patterns. We are excited to see the start of private and public sectors sharing data to best serve the end-user. How can we replicate and scale this to identify gaps in services from both private and public providers? Where are mobility needs not being met?
3) Invest in the right of way
You wouldn’t serve a fancy meal on cracked plates. What good are scooters and shared bikes on streets with auto-centric designs and broken infrastructure? How are rideshare vehicles contributing to an investment in the very roads that allow them to turn a profit? Let’s find new ways for private and shared mobility companies to directly invest in the public right-of-way or leverage public funding in high-need neighborhoods.
Shared mobility is here to stay and we at Investing in Place welcome a diversity of transportation options in the hopes that they will increase access for our most vulnerable Angelenos. But we need our private companies held just as accountable as our public sector to see this happen.