The rise of autonomous vehicles has seized the media spotlight and for good reason: this technology will radically transform mobility in the coming decades. Yet another, quieter revolution also is underway in the transportation space as innovative transit agencies embrace advanced technology tools for delivering safe, cost-effective services to their communities.
The New Micro World
Transit agencies nationally have been implementing microtransit in the form of small vans for a long time, gleaning value from the ability to serve more people who are beyond the reach of fixed-route bus or train services. Over time, transit hubs made significant investments (in racks, crossing improvements, etc.) to accommodate bicyclists who were providing their own first/last-mile solutions. But now we are experiencing an even more “micro” form of micromobility that represents both a blessing and a curse to transit leaders — the electric scooter.
In just a few short years, the electric scooter has evolved from a novelty item to a national transportation phenomenon. Today, about four out of 10 of America's largest cities have e-scooter rental services, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials. There is a huge appetite for these scooters. According to a 2018 report by mobility research firm Populus, a majority of people (70 percent) in major U.S. cities view electric scooters positively, both because they present an alternative to cars or ride-sharing, and because they are a complement to public transit. What's more, renting an e-scooter is convenient and inexpensive. In many cities, e-scooters can be found near the most popular commercial hotspots or transit stations, and a renter can unlock one for about a dollar and pay only 15 cents a minute after that.
The blessing of these scooters is that they offer (able-bodied) individuals a new way to travel short distances to get from one transit mode to another. The curse, for transit agencies and pedestrians, is that the proliferation of e-scooters is raising safety concerns at stations and hubs as well as creating (in some cities) another layer of congestion, with scooters zipping around many jockeying taxis, ride-hailing cars, bikes, other vehicles and pedestrians.
Many cities have developed strategies to bring order to the chaos of the e-scooter phenomenon, but transit agencies will have to create their own policies and infrastructure to get the most value from e-scooters. By proactively engaging with e-scooter rental companies, agencies can find ways to enhance their facilities to safely accommodate scooters by providing incentives for the orderly use and storage of scooters around busy transit hubs — while ensuring that rental companies play ball, too.
All of these exciting public and private collaborations — and the technologies that underpin them — will make the concept of “mobility as a service” much more attainable in the years to come. Transit agencies are well positioned to play the lead role in ensuring their assets, intertwined with the assets of others, can provide safe, accessible, reliable and affordable mobility options to everyone in their service areas.
Additionally, they must ensure that they calibrate pricing carefully to ensure that economic vitality is preserved or enhanced in the community. Varying the cost of fares based on demand can help to spread usage more effectively across modes and times of day. But, if fare prices get too high, usage can decline and businesses in key locations can be hurt. In other words, congestion on some routes and vehicles is inevitable — the goal is to manage it effectively while preserving volume and ensuring affordable prices throughout the day.
The technology tools available for striking such a balance are getting better every day and transportation players are multiplying every year. This means that, with the right strategies, the opportunities to take transit to the next level of performance have never been richer.