Modernizing Mobility

Modernizing Mobility

The Future of Mobility, a joint project of CommonWealth and Meeting of the Minds, a San Francisco-based organization that seeks to build alliances around urban sustainability.

Putting multiple transport options at your fingertips

Putting multiple transport options at your fingertips

With Mobility as a Service, usership could replace ownership

IT’S OFTEN DUBBED the Netflix of transport by its advocates for bringing together multiple transport and mobility choices into a single, digital platform which users can either purchase via subscription packages or on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Its supporters herald it as the solution to a host of transport challenges within our cities. But can Mobility as a Service, often nicknamed MaaS, ever be as popular as on-demand video streaming? Will it be a MaaS movement or is it simply a MaaS delusion?

MaaS has emerged not in isolation, but as part of the wider transition to a smart mobility future, defined by some as autonomous, connected, electric, and shared. The shared element within this is key, with the growth of car- and ride-sharing often forming an essential component of any MaaS offer.

By incorporating multiple transport modes into a single application, users can benefit from personalized services which recognize individual mobility needs, easier transactions and payments, and dynamic journey management and planning. [The MBTA is currently developing a new fare collection system that is expected to incorporate some elements of MaaS.]

A fully comprehensive MaaS offering could mean the ownership of private vehicles is no longer necessary for people. As mobility needs begin to be provided by a range of services through a single platform, usership could replace ownership.

The potential of MaaS has been recognised around the world. In the United Kingdom, the government has included MaaS within its transport strategy. An expert committee of members of parliament concluded that MaaS has the “potential to transform how people travel” by boosting public transport, reducing congestion, and improving air quality.

The private sector has also backed a number of MaaS schemes. MaaS Global, a Finnish company, is perhaps one of the best known. It currently operates the MaaS platform, Whim, in the West Midlands, the UK, Helsinki, and Antwerp.

Companies like Uber are getting in on the act, too, and with good reason. Research from 2016 suggested that global MaaS revenues will exceed $1trillion (US) by 2030.

There have also been a number of publicly operated or joint private-public pilots that have demonstrated the promise of MaaS schemes. Some examples are UbiGo in Gothenburg, Sweden, and Smile in Vienna, Austria. Participating projects have seen increased public transport use and reduction in use of private vehicles.

Like any fledgling mobility solution, from dockless bikes to on-demand bus services;  MaaS is subject to the same market pressures. In our new report, MaaS movement?, we’ve identified the three key factors that will determine whether it is a success or a failure.

First, the economic models which underpin MaaS schemes will impact how competitively priced and popular the schemes are. MaaS must provide an offer that customers find appealing. It must create an integrated platform which brings together competitor transport operators. And it must deliver all this at a price which competes with car ownership. If MaaS is not commercially viable, it will require some form of subsidy either from the private or public sector.

Data is the second factor. The Uber data breach in 2016 demonstrates just how important (and sensitive) privacy of customer information is. Rightly, there are other concerns around the ownership, sharing, and resourcing of data. What’s certain is the power of data itself. A comprehensive MaaS system could generate huge amounts of information about travellers’ behaviour, which would be an extremely valuable resource for transport planners in public bodies who could enable better management of travel demand and planning for future projects.

Finally, the way in which MaaS schemes contribute to the wider public policy goals of cities, from public health and air quality, to increased public transport use and social inclusion, will be key. There is potential danger that MaaS could actually increase private car use, contributing to poor air quality and congestion. Without proper planning, MaaS could exclude poorer, marginalized communities by favoring tech-savvy, middle income city dwellers. For MaaS to truly succeed, it must help cities become greener, healthier, and more inclusive places in which people want to live, work, and spend time.

Cities (and their transport bodies), therefore, have tough choices to make on the role they should play when it comes to shaping MaaS schemes in their areas. These choices could make or break MaaS success. We see a sliding scale of potential engagement:

  • At one end of the scale, cities could either be the MaaS operator or a pro-active participant in it. This would allow cities to ensure that MaaS schemes work for both consumers and wider public policy goals. But this level of involvement can present commercial risks and liabilities around the costs of developing, managing, and administering such an offer. These risks will be a key consideration, particularly for city transport bodies with challenging budgetary constraints.
  • A midway, stepped approach could see cities starting with their existing resources such as smart ticketing, journey planning, and real-time information. These cities could then build a platform for either public sector-led or private sector third parties to integrate new transport modes or new ticketing products. This option risks uncertain and fragmented outcomes which may not meet wider public policy goals or customer needs.
  • At the opposite end of the scale is for city regions to opt-out and take no involvement in MaaS. They would instead allow the private sector to lead, which could result in a more innovative and competitive market of MaaS products with no direct commercial risk to the city transport bodies. Yet, once again, it could risk fragmented outcomes or exploitation by private sector monopolies.

It will, of course, be up to cities and their transport bodies to decide which option to take and just how big a role they wish to play in determining the evolution of MaaS, depending on local circumstances and aspirations.

This will undoubtedly be influenced by the regulatory framework that exists in different cities and countries. For example, in the UK, the deregulation of the bus sector outside London and privatization of rail can be a limiting factor as the transport body does not have full control over the pricing of public transport.

But when it comes to making these decisions, cities should follow five tests for good MaaS:

1.    Does it incentivize use of public transport?
2.    Does it reduce congestion and pollution?
3.    Is there a culture of openness and data sharing?
4.    Is it socially inclusive?
5.    Does it encourage active lifestyles?

The future of MaaS is yet to be decided, and there are many potential outcomes. It could be a private or public sector monopoly or a competitive market; a system that steers people towards using cars or away from them; a concept which makes traveling easier for all (despite their income, disability, or location); or it could make mobility easier for rich urbanites and harder for those who are already excluded and marginalized.

Ultimately, it could be a great concept that takes off at scale, or one that people don’t actually need or want in practice. The difference between these will determine whether it becomes a truly MaaS movement or is just a MaaS delusion.

Jonathan Bray is director of the Urban Transport Group, the UK’s network of city region transport authorities. He is also a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics’ cities programme, a commissioner on the Commission on Travel Demand, and a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation

Gen Z changing the transportation dynamic

Gen Z changing the transportation dynamic

For this generation, cars are more like appliances

A SHORT TIME AGO, the auto industry viewed millennials as the lost generation. Automakers expected car sales to plummet and prepared for change. But that didn’t happen. Instead, millennials delayed their adoption of cars until they started getting married, having children and discovering the suburbs.

Simultaneously, the growth of the smart mobility movement with the introduction of rideshare, car share, e-bikes, high-speed rail, scooters, and automaker-backed subscription models have transformed how we define transportation. This dramatic change has birthed a mobility culture. The “me” foundation of car culture – where a car takes “me,” how it makes “me” feel about myself, and how it represents my values – has been replaced by a “we” perspective.

Allison+Partners’ latest US study, called “The Birth of Mobility Culture,” found Generation Z (those under the age of 24) will drive this new culture forward in part due to an inherent comfort with connected technology. Gen Z has grown up hand-in-hand with new technology: it is not scary or intimidating to them and they welcome rapid change as the norm.

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The tipping point for mobility innovation won’t be determined by how quickly the technology arrives. The true tipping point will be when Gen Z arrives at a life stage when their consumer spending behaviors (and ability to spend) match values synonymous with mobility culture.

The Allison+Partners study revealed Gen Z consumers view cars more like appliances and nearly 56 percent agree a car represents essentially no more than a means of transportation. Some 70 percent of Gen Z consumers do not have their driver’s licenses and 30 percent of this group has no intention or desire to get one. In fact, Gen Z survey respondents actually ranked alternate reality, VR, and smart homes higher in interest than autonomous vehicles.

However, those who make up Gen Z do see autonomous vehicles as an eventual reality. Some 60 percent of those we surveyed believe they will use autonomous vehicles by 2029.

The implications of these insights are far reaching. We need to immediately rethink how we excite Gen Z consumers about transportation options. Automakers should complement or replace attributes of car coolness, such as horsepower, tow capacity, and even fuel economy, with new features such as productivity, shared time, or total experience.

Gen Z has shown an early willingness to invest money and loyalty in brands that demonstrate an ability to align marketing with these new values synonymous with mobility culture. The latest example is in Madrid, with more than 5,000 electric scooters – the largest fleet globally – available for on-demand use as a means to cut down on traffic, noise, emissions pollution, and parking issues. Younger Spaniards flock to these options, with companies increasing the size of the fleet more than fivefold in the past year.

Inverse to this lack of interest in driving comes the acceptance of autonomous technologies. With its high trust level of technology, Gen Z will fuel the adoption of autonomous vehicles.

The combination of autonomous transportation with “we” values core to mobility culture suggests a reimagined way to use time while on the road. In fact, data from Allison+Partners’ The Birth of Mobility Culture report shows nearly half of Gen Z consumers (45.5 percent) are comfortable with shared ride experiences in an autonomous vehicle.

This new mobility culture also calls into question the commute and opens new options for city planning and commute patterns. Our study found almost two-thirds of Gen Z consumers would be willing to accept a longer commute in a self-driving vehicle. While the single driver commuter experience is generally perceived as bad, unhealthy, and stressful, the “we” commute of mobility culture could be a positive and healthy experience similar to today’s train commutes.

This is where it gets really exciting. The combination of being open to longer commutes and shared experiences allows us to reimagine the urban-to-suburban relationship, broaden access to affordable housing, offer solutions for a work-life balance, and improve relationships with each other.

Case in point: researchers at the UK’s University of East Anglia found British workers who commute to work by bus, train, or bicycle were happier compared with those who drive their personal car each day. So, if those who make up Gen Z view cars as little more than appliances, treating a self-driving vehicle experience as a form of alternative transportation might have the same effect.

A new forecast released in June 2019 from the International Data Corporation (IDC) indicated that global spending on smart cities initiatives will reach roughly $190 billion over the next four years.

Three of the top five areas that will experience the most spending by 2023 will include smart grid (given the rise of electric vehicles), advanced public transportation systems, and intelligent traffic management.

The output of these investments made by forward-thinking city planners – cleaner forms of personal vehicle transportation, improved transportation usage, and reduced traffic congestion – directly addresses “we” values expressed by emerging mobility consumers.

It may also be easy to forget that less than a decade ago, ridesharing did not even exist. In 2019, Lyft went public with more than $25 billion in market cap, as has Uber with a market cap of just under $80 billion. All despite historically disappointing earnings reports.

Our study found one-third of American consumers report regular use of rideshare services (31 percemt) as an alternative to using their own vehicle – an astounding market penetration for such a relatively young service within the marketplace. And Gen Z is only a relatively small portion of the rideshare market. As they age and enter new life stages, the potential for rideshare service growth is massive. The same is true for all new mobility technologies, which are expected to change massively as autonomous options begin to come to market.

If the dramatic and rapid growth of ridesharing is an indicator, mobility culture will accelerate the transition of how cities and denser suburban areas get designed, particularly space allocated for traditional vehicle parking.

Commercial real estate and larger residential housing are expected to convert existing parking spaces to pick up and drop off areas, solar facilities (to enhance vehicle charging options), or even micro green spaces for local communities which could decrease urban heat-island effects in densely populated areas. Similarly, new construction developments will take these smaller footprint opportunities into consideration.

While streets will continue to play a critical role advancing most mobility options, there will be opportunities to narrow them. A decrease in personal transportation won’t require the wide boulevards seen in many cities today, and those that exist can be converted to accommodate cars, micro-mobility solutions, charging infrastructure, pedestrians, and safer dedicated bikeways.

Developers and city planners will see opportunities to convert larger parking structures into infrastructure that can positively impact urban areas. This will include housing options (condos) to address reported shortages or even indoor growing facilities – with the growth of vertical, indoor growing methods – to bring fresh, affordable produce and healthy food options to communities.

The birth of mobility culture and the rise of “we” values suggest future journeys will not be quiet and alone, but ambient rides that are shared with others.

Marus Gamo is senior vice president and global mobility specialty lead at Allison+Partners. He oversees strategic communications programs for Toyota and Lexus and the EV smart-charge brand Enel X.

Moving toward one card to pay for all transport options

Moving toward one card to pay for all transport options

It’s possible to integrate MBTA, bikes, scooters, rideshares into one system

MOBILITY AS A SERVICE (MaaS) has now offered a vision for the future of transportation for several years. The ideas are ambitious:

  1. Providing travelers with the services they need to get from point A to point B under a single payment account.
  2. Integrating disparate modes of mobility under one customer experience to better serve the travelers in a city or region.
  3. Creating the most efficient possible transportation ecosystem with an economic model that promotes journey choices that ease congestion, whether fulfilled by public or private service providers.

MaaS is often referred to as the future of urban mobility, and after years of strategizing and advocacy, MaaS has reached a turning point. Incremental progress has brought us to a position where we can now make MaaS a present reality rather than a future goal.

The keys to pressing fast-forward on this progress are held by public officials and regional governments. Local leaders must take concrete steps to bring MaaS to the residents of their urban areas. Here are some of the strongest actions to help make it happen:

 Turn competitors into partners

 Competition between innovative companies is undoubtedly an asset in developing a fine-tuned transportation ecosystem. But without guidance from local governments, an abundance of ride-sharing or bike-sharing services can flood the market to the point of unproductivity. We must develop a system of best practices for cities and transport agencies to establish partnerships that better serve travelers.

The private sector plays a critical role in MaaS visions, and solutions exist that offer both financial benefit for private companies and social benefit for the city and its residents. Proactive leadership by local governments and transit agencies can ensure that private companies are engaged as partners rather than competitors, leveraging the strengths of each mobility service to enhance one another rather than fight for customers.

 Establish trust

 One of the thorniest sticking points in achieving MaaS is the last-mile question – how to serve travelers in the final stretch between a transit stop and their home or office. In practice, ride-sharing, bike-sharing, and scooter-sharing have offered an appealing answer to that question, and the popularity of these services among travelers is unquestionable. However, the rise of autonomous vehicles offers further complications: will travelers be willing to share an autonomous vehicle with other commuters? Can they trust the strangers with whom they’ll be sharing a driverless car?

Therefore, trust will become a key currency in the future of mobility – not just between public and private service providers but in an autonomous world also between travelers with the service providers and travelers with each other. Service providers will need to be able to evaluate trustworthiness to ensure the safety of their passengers. This will require further collaboration between local governments and industry partners, combining institutional data (in the form of driver’s licenses, passports, and other methods of identification) with peer-to-peer data like the feedback collected after a ride-sharing journey. As we plan for an autonomous future, this is a question, like so many others, that requires attention and we must get in front of the challenges to ensure that travelers are able to access and use these services with confidence when they arrive.

 Jump the data hurdles

 Data is a hot topic, with personal user data serving as both a tool for forward

progress and also as a potential means for malicious activity. The public is understandably weary of attempts to leverage their personal data. But to deliver MaaS—a social and technological achievement that would truly empower the end user and improve our cities—we’ll have to convince the public of the need to use some level of their data to offer better services.

Data is an indispensable aspect of MaaS, with passenger data helping to inform travelers of their ideal travel routes and to streamline services to better meet demand. Local governments have an inherent opportunity to speak to their constituents and make the case for the benefits of MaaS. Elected officials, those who will ostensibly guide the development of MaaS and its component services, have the opportunity (and responsibility) to deliver a real quality-of-life improvement to their citizens. I hope that everyone involved—government leaders, industry partners, and the traveling public—will see the potential benefit of using our collective data to improve both journeys for us as individuals, and also to optimize the city and the region as a whole.

Follow the frontrunners

Has the future of mobility arrived yet? Of course, we haven’t reached our final destination, but there are reasons to feel good about our overall progress. A couple cities have made great strides toward the end goal of MaaS, and their successes should serve as examples to other urban areas and regions considering their own next steps.

In Los Angeles the TAP Card system already integrates over 20 public transit operators through a common payment system. Working in partnership with LA Metro, we will soon implement a suite of APIs and a mobile app which will integrate the payment for other modes (scooter-share, ride-share, bike-share, parking, etc.) together with a truly multi-modal trip planner that will allow travelers to plan their trips across all combinations of mobility services. This implementation will essentially deliver the enabling technology for the first two ideas for MaaS outlined at the beginning of this article.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the long-standing Clipper Card has also been put to work as the region’s unified transit payment system. In addition to serving the dozens of public transit options available to Bay Area travelers, the Clipper Card also allows you to access bike-share and some parking facilities. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the Bay Area has recently contracted with us to upgrade the Clipper to next-generation technology. This upgrade will enable the future integration of other private bike- and scooter-sharing companies, as well as ride-sharing companies, to deliver a first- and last-mile solution to commuters. And until autonomous vehicles are able to transport passengers to their local transit station, the next-generation Clipper system will also be able to integrate payment for the remaining parking at bus and train stations and other parking facilities in the region. The single payment account is vital to delivering the streamlined user experience of MaaS – leaders like Los Angeles and San Francisco are helping to lead the way for other ambitious local governments.

When we talk about the future of MaaS, we have to keep in mind that this progress won’t take place on its own. Thought leaders are doing their part to move the conversation, but public officials hold the keys to our progress. Initiative and innovation, not to mention some difficult conversations around establishing trust, are needed to fast-forward MaaS from the future to the present for urban travelers around the world.

Matt Cole is the president of Cubic Transportation Systems and senior vice president of Cubic Corporation, which is working to develop the MBTA’s next-generation fare collection system.

Keolis exec: T commuter rail shows progress

Keolis exec: T commuter rail shows progress

Ridership and revenue are up; on-time performance improving

WHETHER YOU LIVE in the Worcester area or the North Shore, in Walpole or Weymouth, we tend to have the same thing in mind when thinking about the MBTA’s commuter rail: going to work in Boston, with trains feeding into two urban hubs at North and South Stations. Many still prefer driving, but for a growing number of people in the traffic-dense Boston area, riding the commuter rail certainly beats the bumper-to-bumper trek and $40 daily price tag to park.

But even with commuter rail providing more service than ever before, we at Keolis, which began operating the network for the MBTA in 2014, believe it will become so much more. More than an alternative to getting to work, commuter rail can become an interconnected transit option that is a core service for the residents of the Greater Boston area.

The catastrophic winter of 2015 dropped a record 108 inches of snow on the ground and revealed infrastructure, investment, and maintenance vulnerabilities in Boston’s rail systems. The network’s history of under-investment and neglect was exposed, and served as the impetus for an injection of capital by newly-elected Gov. Charlie Baker and the MBTA. This work continues today, but we have seen progress in key measurable areas.

A decade ago, ridership was in decline at a time when it was increasing in other regions of the country, whereas today the commuter rail is expanding into new communities and performance is trending up. Service levels and revenues are at an all-time high, and approximately 9 out of 10 trains arrive within five minutes of their scheduled time. This was made possible by close collaboration between Keolis and the MBTA to jointly identify areas in need of improvement and execute on strategic investments, all while continuing to deliver service.

Since the winter of 2015, 10 track miles of rail and 200,000 rail ties in critical areas of the network have been replaced, making service more reliable and resilient in varying weather. For instance, these investments have significantly reduced the impact of heat-related speed restrictions during the summer, which delay our passengers. From 2015 to 2017, the network has seen a 97 percent decrease in these heat-related speed restrictions. Further, trains tended to bottleneck in locations with single track. In many of these areas, we have added a second track to allow for more efficient train movements and better on-time performance.

The MBTA invested tens of millions of dollars of capital to refurbish nearly half of the locomotive fleet and grow coach availability. Combined with organizational improvements, such as a shift from a five-day maintenance work week to a seven-day operation, fleet availability for locomotives and coaches is higher than it has ever been. On-time performance for 2016, 2017, and year-to-date 2018 is at 89 percent, 2 points ahead of the 10-year average. These investments also allow for expanded train service. Keolis operated 10,000 more trains in 2017 compared to when we took over operations in 2014.

To match our growth in service, we’re investing in the workforce. In early 2015, commuter rail had approximately 368 conductors and assistant conductors. Today, we have approximately 407. By working collaboratively and toward a mutual goal of investing into the network for our passengers, we’re best able to improve service.

While many transit agencies struggle in the age of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, MBTA commuter rail offers a bright spot and the potential for continued revenue growth for Massachusetts taxpayers. But we need to re-double our efforts to encourage residents to think about commuter rail as an increasingly reliable, convenient, and affordable option to get around the region.

Officials at the MBTA and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation have already taken major positive steps toward changing this mindset. The agency is actively considering, testing, and expanding successful new ideas. Dedicated bus lanes, increased bike-share opportunities, major investments in the nation’s oldest subway system, and other mobility advancements are regularly being advanced.

Keolis and commuter rail are certainly not excluded in this process, especially considering the role we expect it to play in a future with increasing home prices and opportunities to work remotely. This includes significant investments into what Gov. Baker refers to as the core of the system, such as rail, rail ties, switches, and other critical infrastructure. These investments are important. But another component of his administration’s vision is changing the mindset about how we think about travel, specifically commuter rail travel.

As a step in the right direction, the MBTA and Keolis expanded their partnership in July 2017 to include the first-ever revenue-sharing agreement between a transit agency and a private operator in the United States. A concept borrowed from successful Keolis transit systems in Europe, we have seen this serve as a major driver of positive mobility advancement. It helped turn many European cities, such as Bordeaux, France, from yesterday’s transit to today’s era of interconnected transit.

There are many benefits to this new partnership in Boston. One of the most noticeable benefits is the creation of marketing initiatives designed to increase ridership on trains with extra capacity, particularly those operating on weekends and at off-peak times. Never before has commuter rail deployed demand-creation activities, never mind a dynamic program that targets potential riders for trains with available seats. While this program is still in its early stages, passengers have shown enthusiasm about several of the initiative’s programs.

For instance, we’re testing a pilot program this summer that reduces weekend fares to $10 for unlimited travel with children 11 and under riding for free. In Quebec, Keolis rolled out similar marketing initiatives along with dynamic pricing; the new approach led to 31 percent ridership growth over three years. Quebec’s Orleans Express busses, managed by Keolis, are helping to keep people moving, off the roads and connected to the places they want to go, and throughout Boston we’re seeing similar excitement with this weekend fare pilot.

Our expanded partnership is also improving and transforming the rider experience itself, which helps to encourage people to think differently about commuter rail as the service moves toward interconnected mobility.

At a time in our lives when we expect to conduct almost any transaction seamlessly and electronically, commuter rail conductors process a high number of cash transactions. This year, Keolis deployed a new handheld ticketing device that accepts for the first time onboard payment with a credit card, a feature requested by passengers.

Another critical step forward is the MBTA’s automated fare collection vision. Known as AFC 2.0, this will move the network toward a more digitized, tap-in tap-out system. Easier for passengers, this interconnected vision is similar to a Keolis operation in Lyon, France, that includes bike-sharing, autonomous vehicles, and trains connected via one system that encourages multi-modal transit and helps to solve first mile-last mile challenges.

“There are very few people who are just Hubway [now Blue Bikes], or who are just train riders,” said Chris Osgood, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s chief of streets. He’s right, and we’re proud to help the MBTA advance this vision that encourages more door-to-door mobility and customizable transit solutions.

Another visible enhancement for passengers is our updated Keolis commuter rail app, which, similar to AFC 2.0, helps advance toward an interconnected system. It includes real-time train updates and information on typical seat availability to help riders make choices that fit their schedules and – in some cases – alleviate crowding by understanding train-specific ridership levels.

When we think about commuter rail differently, we think about living differently. Places such as Manchester-by-the-Sea, Framingham, and the vibrant city of Providence come to life in new ways. Whether we shift our transit mindset because of increasing housing prices or a new job in the growing cities around Boston, we will also help to reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, both pillars of Keolis’ corporate values. As access increases and the experience continues to improve, we hope more people will consider swapping a day or two of their weekday driving for trains.

Several years ago, we faced similar challenges in Bordeaux, France. Home to 760,000 people, Bordeaux’s transit agency advanced the relationship between a private operator and a public transit authority by delegating the design and operation of the region’s transportation network to Keolis.

The relationship began when Bordeaux was looking for a more innovative and effective approach to its bus services. Keolis won this bid with a proposal to significantly modify the bus routes across 90 percent of the network, a necessity to improve service and access. In 2009, Keolis began this reconfiguration and, following its success, Bordeaux in 2014 awarded Keolis additional services.

 This is a progressive relationship focused on outputs with goals established by the authority and implemented through the brain power of the best and brightest in specific fields – fleet management, IT, marketing, and passenger experience. This allows for both accountability and an entrepreneurial approach by the private operator to improve and increase service, while transforming toward interconnecting mobility.

The Bordeaux results: fare box revenue doubled from 2009 to 2017, light rail on-time performance increased to 95 percent, ridership grew by 60 percent, and ticketless travel was significantly reduced. The approach transformed Bordeaux into a more livable city. Car usage declined from 62 percent to 49 percent and parking spaces were replaced by parks and multi-modal transport hubs. Four-lane streets gave way to pedestrian zones and bike paths, and historic buildings blackened by car emissions retained a healthier shine.

Even while MBTA commuter rail revenue has grown 25 percent over the last three years, there is more work to do to improve service and modernize the experience, and as a result attract more passengers.

It’s worth emphasizing that the Bordeaux example is not a suggestion for the way Boston can or should be modeled, but there may be elements from Bordeaux and other Keolis operations that can inspire and help to further improve the MBTA commuter rail service for current passengers, future passengers, and our 2,400 employees who live here in Boston.

David Scorey is chief executive officer for Keolis Commuter Services, the operator of the MBTA commuter rail and a subsidiary of Keolis Group, a global leader in mobility solutions and interconnected transit.

Transportation equity: Is it a good thing?

Transportation equity: Is it a good thing?

Those who fear displacement don't see it that way

What do we think about when we think about transportation equity?   

There is regional equity – the question whether every region in a state, or every neighborhood in a city, is equitably treated from a funding perspective. There is modal funding equity, which goes to whether public sector decision makers treat each mode fairly when it comes to the allocation of limited public funding resources. Then there is ridership equity – are users of the transportation system being provided reasonably equal, meaningful modal choices, enabling access to jobs, healthcare, education, and opportunity? Social equity, which builds the bonds that knit together the durable fabric of a healthy moral society, has a broader meaning. Fundamentally, social equity relates not simply to treating all people fairly, but also recognizing, acknowledging, and acting on righting historical wrongs. Often that means stepping up investment in neighborhoods and communities that have historically been shortchanged when it comes to transportation funding.  

 These forms of transportation equity are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, in many circumstances an initiative to improve transit service or create a new transit service (like bus rapid transit) touch upon several of these forms of transportation equity. 

Many of us who care deeply about transportation equity often take as a given that people in underserved neighborhoods will applaud and welcome increased investment in local transit improvements. Yet that is not always the case, and in the drive to advance transportation equity, we often run into barriers we did not expect.  

At the core of the problem is the poisonous atmosphere created by decades of neglect and disenfranchisement. While there are many planners and policymakers who genuinely want to be responsive to rider needs, the reality is that inequities remain ingrained in large part because of habitual neglect, often of benign intent but always of pernicious effect. Skepticism about new projects or innovations proposed as being “good for the community” is the predictable reaction of those who have experienced years of false promises and disinvestment in urban transit.  

Beyond this understandable skepticism, there are those who prefer to maintain inferior mobility systems out of fear that improvements will undermine their beloved status quo or that it will bring displacement and gentrification. Rather than embrace improvements to mobility they resist, or fail to engage, and lose the opportunity. This reaction may seem inexplicable: how could people deliberately reject improvement and modernity in favor of maintaining the poor-performing status quo?  Yet transit advocates are increasingly compelled to respond to a deeply felt fear of displacement and gentrification that often is associated with transit improvements. These fears of displacement, and the reluctance (particularly among older long-time residents) to accept new ways of doing things, pose often impenetrable barriers to advancing transit improvements in underserved communities.  

A report released earlier this year by Boston’s A Better City noted that a disproportionate amount of development within metropolitan Boston was occurring within areas labeled transit growth clusters. Those growth clusters shared certain characteristics where “state economic policy, local land use policy, and market interest converge around rail and bus transit.”  One characteristic of the transit growth clusters was high housing costs. As the report noted, this dynamic is not unique to metro Boston, citing a “quantitative analysis of the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County [that] found a clear correlation between transit investment and gentrification . . . often with the loss of low-income households.”  

That analysis comes from research undertaken as part of a joint UC Berkeley, UCLA, and Portland State University “urban displacement project.” The project undertook a detailed analysis of scholarly literature on the topic of displacement, pointing out that gentrification does not arise from any single cause, but emerges when there is a supply of available housing and a pool of gentrifiers seeking to live in urban neighborhoods (typically close to transit). Flows of people and private sector capital are the forces that alter existing neighborhoods and begin to push housing costs higher. Specifically, there often is a link between land/housing values where location is in proximity to labor markets.  

The A Better City report took solace in the balancing effect of location efficiency — the notion that lower transportation costs can offset higher housing costs. The cost savings to commuters associated with location efficiency are not trivial, but it is not a like-to-like offset. The bottom line is this: if a person or family cannot afford to remain in a gentrifying neighborhood, or cannot afford to rent or buy in (or in reasonable proximity to) a transit-oriented development, the egalitarian and social cohesion benefits of a sustainable mobility system are being lost.  

Transit planners and advocates may not be able to meaningfully control market forces when improvements encourage or trigger gentrification, but they ought to be duty-bound to collaborate with transit agencies and municipalities and craft approaches to maintain housing affordability in underserved neighborhoods and communities where transit improvements are being proposed.  

This is uncharted territory for most transportation advocates and planners. A strategy that couples transit investments with upzoning, affordable housing creation, tax incentives, and tenant protections requires collaboration among transit advocates and planners with housing experts, and municipal and metropolitan planning agency staff. This can be a messy process of discussing trade-offs and compromises, but ultimately this is an effective way to allay a community’s well-deserved fears about displacement.  

Upzoning is an important tool to help manage the additional demand for housing that new transit stations and services can create. For example, building and encouraging housing density next to or near a low or zero emissions mode of transportation can help a community achieve lower carbon emission goals.  Upzoning can create affordable housing through proven methods such as inclusionary zoning and density bonuses.  

Tenant protections can and should be one of the first things transportation planners talk about ahead of a major investment. The recent Nashville transit ballot initiative (one of the few large-scale transit ballot initiative failures in recent years) fell victim to an alliance of car-loving suburban interests and low-income and minority residents. The low-income and minority residents were rightfully anxious about gentrification and displacement, and Let’s Move Nashville, the official group convened by the mayor and the transit agency, didn’t effectively assuage their concerns.   

Transit agencies should work with municipalities to model anticipated increased demand, and use that data to make informed decisions. Establishing a fund to purchase the existing affordable housing stock, and working with housing advocates to stop no fault-evictions and create tenant “first-right-of-refusal” protections, can go a long way in repairing the reputation transit agencies have in many low-income communities.   

In addition to these forms of collaboration, we propose a six-point approach to guide planners and advocates as they face the challenges of introducing transit improvements in underserved neighborhoods that are skeptical of change or fearful of displacement (or both):  

  1. Ensure that the transit rider is heard. This means taking all steps necessary to ensure that the transit rider has an equal voice with the resident who lives near transit but does not take transit. Public meetings are disproportionately represented by older, less transit-oriented residents who do not use transit and who resist change to the public realm that may be required to introduce transit services and projects. All voices must be heard, respected, and responded to, but advocates and policymakers must be vigilant that they are receiving a broad cross section of input.  
  2. Remember the unbanked. Equity in a time of innovation means many things, but specifically it requires sensitivity to those who are unbanked, or for whom use of smartphones and apps is challenging. This is particularly relevant as systems transition to “cashless” boarding systems, and the use of real-time schedule alerts become the norm to help improve the transit experience. 
  3. Clean the power sources. One of the pernicious effects of mid-20th century “transportation progress” in urban areas is the prevalence of disease associated with emissions. Higher rates of asthma and respiratory and cardiac illness have unfortunate roots in a mobility system still dependent in large part on fossil fuels. Transit improvements and new services should be based on a zero or low emission standard that utilizes all-electric buses, electric locomotives, and electric multiple unit trains or rail systems. 
  4. Educate, train, and fund transit riders. An informed citizenry better serves the public sector than one that lacks accurate information and knowledge; otherwise citizen input will be more emotional and reactive rather than thoughtful and productive. Impacted communities should be engaged as problem-solvers, and the best way to do that is to ensure they are prepared with the facts and data that enable them to craft and propose viable solutions or alternatives. Public sector agencies should set aside modest but reasonable sums for grants to citizen groups directed to the exclusive use of hiring independent legal, engineering, and design professionals who can demystify proposed projects, educate citizens about opportunities or constraints under applicable legal and regulatory frameworks, and provide competent advice on design and engineering alternatives. 
  5. Attract and keep transit “riders of choice. In a time when there are new business models designed to provide on-demand vehicular mobility to people (through companies such as Uber and Lyft), public transportation needs to be competitive in order to maintain a strong egalitarian approach to transit. Being competitive will require advocates to work with public agencies to develop new business models for public transportation services, and take strategic steps to improve transit service in ways that will attract riders of choice. Without those riders, the public transportation system will become almost exclusively the mobility service of necessity, and that is a recipe for decline and worse. The best transit systems are, and will be, those where everyone, regardless of income or class, share the ride, have a stake in the ride, and support the proper operation and maintenance of the system.
  6. Deal with the displacement issue head-on. Transit planners proposing improvements in traditionally disadvantaged communities should be required to develop a thorough analysis of the potential impacts on housing, and recommendations for action that will have the tendency to stabilize costs. Such an analysis would outline historic and contemporary housing trends and conditions within one-third of a mile radius of the transit improvement. It would also require, at a minimum, identifying potential opportunities to build new housing in the designated area, including zoning and other changes that may be required to develop affordable housing and mixed income housing density.

Achieving equity in a way that embraces all of its forms – regional, modal, ridership, social – requires hard work, a self-effacing attitude, a keen understanding of history, forethought, and compassion. The conditions that led to the distrust of proposed transit improvements didn’t happen overnight, and they certainly won’t be remedied in an instant. Transportation advocates, planners, and experts might have to face some tough words and strong pushback from communities that have been historically wronged, even if those wrongs were committed by previous generations. However, once you listen, and truly listen to those concerns, you’ll often find a community willing to contribute to the project in meaningful ways. The stories of Boston’s Orange Line project in the Southwest Corridor or the TOD project at Oakland’s Fruitvale Station are stories of tense battles and trade-offs, but stories that concluded in community building, affordable housing creation, green space, and public realms the community could be proud of.   

Addressing transportation equity in all of its forms and manifestations is not easy, but it is vitally important to achieving the overarching goal of sustainable mobility: providing better access to jobs, education and healthcare, and the improved quality of life all people aspire to, and indeed deserve.   

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation and a principal at Trimount Consulting. Jarred Johnson is a project manager at Codman Square NDC and a YIMBY activist. They both serve on the board of TransitMatters.  

For walkers, the last six inches are important

For walkers, the last six inches are important

Linking bus and walking networks critical to transit improvements

WALKBOSTON HAS BEEN TALKING about transit as the middle leg of a walking trip for many years. We understand that even the most avid walker or walking advocate knows that many trips are too long to make a single-mode-walk trip possible. Now, the transit and active transportation worlds have become more attuned to the facts that buses serve the broadest network of transit riders, are often the transit mode that serves low-income riders, and are the transit mode that can be modified most easily. For American communities – urban, suburban, and rural – to become truly walkable, they must also be served by transit. Understanding how the bus and walking networks must be linked is critical to shaping investments in transit and the built environment.

While many big city downtowns are making progress on walkability and high-density development, many big city neighborhoods along with rural and suburban communities are being left behind. A new study from the University of Utah Department of City & Metropolitan Planning analyzes Salt Lake City bus stops using 18 variables and then reports on the differences between stops that were made fully accessible and linked to neighborhood sidewalk networks with those that were not improved. Three years later, the analysis showed that, “the improved bus stops are associated with a statistically significant increase in overall ridership and a decrease in para-transit demand, compared to the control group stops.”

It is no surprise to those of us in the walking advocacy world that making bus stops accessible and linked to neighborhood sidewalks can increase bus ridership and reduce the number of para-transit trips that are called for. This is a logical outcome of thinking about how people make real life choices about how to get around. What this research demonstrates is an amazing win-win-win for walking and transit advocates. It shows how we can shift trips from autos to transit; give more people more independence by making it possible for them to use regular bus service rather than setting up special, scheduled para-transit trips (some of which require appointments to be made at least 24 hours in advance and only for specified purposes); and save money for transit systems over the long run.

WalkBoston has been a member of the advisory committee working with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s systemwide accessibility department on their plan for accessible transit infrastructure (PATI) over the last several years. More than 30 percent of the MBTA’s customers use the bus system for some or all of their daily commute – or about 350,000 trips/day.

The PATI team undertook a detailed audit of the system’s 7,600 bus stops and found significant accessibility problems at thousands of the stops, including 31 percent without crosswalks. Many more were missing curb ramps and other elements of accessibility. Happily, the MBTA is starting to undertake improvements at the most egregious locations. Starting this summer, the MBTA will be engaging in a yearlong project to construct improvements at over 140 bus stops located in 20 different communities. These bus stops were identified in the recently completed audit as being the worst bus stops in the system in terms of accessibility.

In addition to our work with the MBTA in the Boston metro area, WalkBoston has partnered with community advocates and municipal staff in many of Massachusetts’ small towns and rural villages. Safe walking routes and bus stop accessibility are critical issues in communities where a high percentage of transit users are people with no other transportation choices. Local participants in walk audits and community transportation efforts have been especially receptive to seizing opportunities to improve accessibility to transit and add ways for people to walk safely between schools, municipal buildings, local shops, and senior housing.

A strong case can now be made that investment in many more of the stops will serve the needs of bus riders with disabilities, make the bus system more attractive to all riders, and potentially save money over the long term by reducing the fastest growing part of the MBTA’s (and many transit systems’) budget – para-transit service.The walking movement has built strong ties with environmental advocates, community development organizations, and the public health world over the last decade. We are now working hard to join forces with transit advocates and the disability community to create communities that are truly inclusive and accessible to all.

“If you’re trying to get across the street and there are no curb cuts, six inches might as well be Mount Everest,” said Lawrence Carter Long of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund on the 99 Percent Invisible Podcast. “Six inches makes all the difference in the world if you can’t get over that curb.”

Fixing the “last mile” has long been the mantra of transit and walking advocates. While difficult to achieve, it has been taken up as an important goal by many transportation agencies and transit providers. Now is the time to take up the “last six inches,” too, ensuring Americans with Disability Act-compliant curb ramps and crosswalks are present. These last six inches are critical elements of age and disability-friendly communities, growing bus ridership, and improving mobility for all community members.

Wendy Landman is executive director ande Brendan Kearney is communications director of WalkBoston.

Regulatory reset needed on Uber, self-driving cars

Impose a series of fees and use the funds for public transit

Second of two parts (First part can be found here.) 

MASSACHUSETTS STATE AND MUNICIPAL DECISION MAKERS must push a reset button and develop a template for a more comprehensive and robust regulatory framework that will guide the operation of Transportation Network Company and autonomous vehicle business models. It’s a necessary first step in the process of harnessing the power of innovative business models to serve the needs of sustainable mobility. The TNC train may have left the station, but it can be called back. With respect to autonomous vehicles, let’s get ahead of the curve. We have a generational responsibility to get this right.

What would such a reset accomplish? First, it would ensure that we are leveraging the economic power of the disruptive business model to ensure maintenance of a level playing field between its essential auto-centric nature and public transportation.  A statutory and regulatory framework that advances sustainable mobility would insist on migration of all TNCs to electric vehicles by a date certain, and require all autonomous vehicles to be all-electric as a requirement of admission into the marketplace.  While the transition of TNCs to electric power takes place (something that realistically would take a decade or more to achieve), a carbon impact fee would be imposed on every ride provided by a TNC vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine.  If you think such a fee is punitive, remember that as many as half of the vehicle miles travelled by Uber and Lyft drivers are so-called “deadhead” miles – in other words, miles without a passenger.  These empty vehicles are roaming and congesting city streets, and we as a society need to step up and say clearly: that is not the kind of mobility behavior we want to encourage, there are serious negative consequences to that behavior, and we will regulate it by imposing a cost that helps compensate for those negative impacts.

In addition to a carbon fee, TNCs should be required to pay separate fees for all single passenger rides and all peak hour rides. Finally, all electric-powered TNCs and all autonomous vehicles would be required to pay a “road impact fee” as a way to compensate the public for their increased vehicle miles traveled and general impacts on road surfaces. These fees would be dedicated exclusively to public transportation, providing transit with a stable and robust source of revenue that will enable it to invest in equipment and strategic initiatives that will help make it competitive with TNCs.

Transforming how we provide transit services is of equal import to regulating TNCs. We cannot settle for simply putting a shine on the status quo.  The status quo is static, by definition incapable of keeping pace with or adapting to change. We can lose no time moving forward with specific initiatives that will enable transit to provide most or all of the service that most people want and need in an affordable and egalitarian way. Three approaches offer the most promise: regional rail, better bus transit, and municipal empowerment. Each of these represents a new business model for delivering more reliable transit service.

First, an important consensus has recently developed on the topic of regional rail. Three respected advocacy groups, A Better City, TransitMatters (disclosure: I am a board member), and MassINC each published a report that addresses the urgent need to move way from the inadequate current commuter rail system, a failing approach to regional mobility based on mid-20th century thinking and an obsolete business model.  A modern regional rail system would provide true regional equity in mobility by offering frequent all-day service to and from the Boston urban hub. Regional rail would improve service by offering fully accessible high-level boarding throughout the system, electrifying the rail and equipment  (thereby enabling a cleaner, lower-cost, and speedier service) and ultimately connecting people across all regions of the Commonwealth via the Grand Junction Line and a link between North and South Stations.

Our region’s chronic and worsening traffic congestion will end up doing great damage to our economy unless we confront it with effective tools.  In part, that means understanding that demand management (e.g. encouraging modal shift) must overtake increasing supply (e.g. expanding highways) as the only sensible and responsible approach to responding to changing mobility needs and preferences. Regional rail effectively responds to that goal.

Second, the desire for better bus transit in Greater Boston is palpable, as recent experiments with dedicated bus lanes and traffic signal priority in a number of inner core communities are being enthusiastically received by transit riders and supported by local residents who understand that better bus transit also means safer streets, better accessibility for students and seniors, and an improved public realm.  Bus transit, because it is inherently agile, can adapt and respond to changing mobility preferences, demographics, and displacement – the realities of a metro Boston inner core that is experiencing a generational shift in population growth, rising housing costs, and mobility patterns.

The MBTA’s automated fare collection initiative will accomplish one major improvement goal by enabling all-door boarding of T buses.  This will improve service by speeding it up.  Recent pilots showcasing the advantages of dedicated bus lanes in Everett and Boston (and others soon to take place in Cambridge and Arlington), if they become permanent features, will also significantly improve the speed and reliability of bus transit service.

Perhaps the most important improvement in bus transit can come with a new business model. There is no reason why MBTA bus transit must always and only be bus service along a fixed route.  Imagine a new business model that supplements the fixed route service with a more agile on-demand service in locations outside a reasonable walking distance of the fixed route, say within three-quarters of a mile of bus stops or T stations in areas of threshold density.  Imagine a public shuttle system that enabled you to reserve a seat on and be taken to a specific subway station or designated mobility hub.  The MBTA cannot and should not abandon this playing field to the private sector.  Instead, it ought to adopt a new business model that enables it to effectively compete with TNC and private shuttles, or risk losing significant ridership – an outcome that will have dire consequences for its future viability.

The barriers to better bus transit are largely rooted in misconceptions.  Many people have been accustomed to view the bus as the least desirable mode of transit, because for too long public agencies at the state and municipal levels treated it that way.  Many are also concerned that better bus practices, including designated bus lanes, will reduce or eliminate travel lanes or parking spaces in dense urban neighborhoods. This need not be the case, and most locations where dedicated lanes or bus rapid transit would work effectively are ample enough in size to be able to accommodate all modes without meaningfully diminishing any existing uses.  All modes can coexist in a fair and functional mobility ecosystem.

Municipal empowerment – devolving real decision-making power to leaders at the municipal level – is the third approach to reimagining and revitalizing transit in Massachusetts.  We have to remove ourselves from the constraints of old-think that assumes every mobility decision must fit into a statewide priority. The various regions of the Commonwealth have many shared values when it comes to transportation, and those shared values often converge on more sustainable forms of mobility, particularly rail. However, each region has unique needs and projects, and these should not have to compete against one another for state funding attention. Taking a more regional approach to funding transportation needs means reforming our funding system to empower municipalities to act – giving them the tools to raise net new revenue for specific transportation projects and initiatives.

The efficacy of this approach was demonstrated recently in California, where voters passed a ballot question posed across nine counties that raised highway tolls over six years in order to collect and invest $4.5 billion for regional transportation improvements. We ought to be doing this in Massachusetts, enabling voters to have a larger measure of control over transportation policymaking, funding, and expenditure as it impacts their communities and regions. The current system, which forces urban, suburban, and rural legislators to compete against one another for a piece of a shrinking funding pie, consistently fails to address important mobility needs in a timely and effective way.

It is at the municipal level that political and civic leaders really know and understand their mobility needs, and they appear to be ready to act and innovate.  You see this happening all over the inner core region – Everett, Arlington, Watertown, Cambridge, and Boston all advancing dedicated bus lane pilots. You see it in Boston with the mayor’s recent initiative to raise penalties on scofflaws in order to fund sustainable mobility initiatives. You see this in the support of mayors across the region for investment in modal alternatives ranging from improved bus service to intercity rail connections to ferries. Let’s harness this energy and enthusiasm in a manner that has a more direct impact on how transit policies and priorities are set.

In 1966, Robert Kennedy spoke in Utica, New York, about the imperative to redirect government action and spending in ways that were more responsive to the needs of the times.  His words carry force today:

“Money by itself is no answer. Programs that are misdirected accomplish nothing. There are things more important than spending.  Their names are imagination, courage, and determination.” 

Advocates for better public transportation and sustainable mobility need to bring imagination, courage, and determination to our work every day.  Technology and business model innovation disruptions will not cease. Those who think that, like King Canute, they can hold back the tide will soon find themselves washed away by the relentless advance of modernity. The question for sustainable mobility advocates is whether that tide will also erode public transportation ridership to dangerously low levels, and whether 20th century auto-centric models that pass for 21st century mobility innovation will ultimately degrade, or at least frustrate our ability to improve, our quality of life. We are challenged as never before to think and act creatively. Given how rapidly change is taking place, advocates must seize the moment because tomorrow may be too late.

James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, is a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group. He serves on the board of TransitMatters.

TNCs existential threat to public transportation

TNCs existential threat to public transportation

Ride-hailing apps are a disruptive auto-centric technology

First of two parts

ADVOCACY IS WHAT LIKE-MINDED people do, usually in an organized fashion, to effect change in the way government or public policy impacts their lives. Advocacy can take many forms and approaches, from energizing and activating people at the grassroots, to persuading decision makers at the grasstops, to knocking on doors in the corridors of power, or digging deep in the weeds of data analysis. Whatever form it takes, effective advocacy must be guided by clarity of mission, coherence of message and cogency of thought.

Effective advocacy also has to be agile, and by that I mean it must be able to adhere to its principles without being stuck in old-think or blind to fundamental changes in the landscape it is trying to influence. This has particular resonance for transit advocates in 2018, as we must squarely acknowledge, understand, and respond to profound changes in the way people think about their personal mobility, and anticipate fast-approaching disruptions that will upend the automobile industry and threaten public transportation as we know it.

What’s at stake is nothing less than our quality of life – a state of mind and a temporal condition influenced by many factors, including the viability of sustainable mobility choices which influence the use of finite land resources, the quality of the air we breathe, and the fairness and cohesion of the society we live in. Advocates whose mission is the advancement of sustainable mobility (and in particular better public transportation) face an unprecedented challenge with the emergence of new approaches to personal mobility that respond to the expectations of a population accustomed to service delivery as an on-demand, interactive, cashless, and convenient experience. The stunning reality is that these new approaches, which on the surface appear to embody the ethos of a modern techno-centric era, are based unapologetically upon a 20th Century auto-centric mindset.

It is more than ironic that well into the 21st Century, the one great disruptive change in personal mobility is built upon the increased use of the internal combustion engine.  Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft have become major players in the provision of personal mobility, primarily in urban areas. The problem with TNCs – and I say “problem” because it relates to what I perceive as their most negative impacts – is the essential auto-centric nature of the industry. There is nothing innovative about a person driving a car with a passenger in it. TNCs may have disrupted the taxi industry, but they did so because of what Stanford University futurist Tony Seba would call a “business model innovation” based upon the convergence of smartphone technology and the cloud. Seba makes his living (at least some of it) developing models to explain the factors that cause massive marketplace disruptions. He persuasively argues that what we think of as innovation is, to some degree, the skillful leveraging of technologies, but it also is the emergence of better business models designed to respond to customer/consumer demand.

The disruptive TNC business model poses an existential threat to public transportation. Think I’m exaggerating? Think again. The data we have (and it is not all the data we need because companies like Uber and Lyft jealously guard what they consider “proprietary”) indicates that the use of TNCs is widespread, growing, and unlikely to recede. Last year, 41.7 million TNC rides originated in Boston and Cambridge. More than 80 percent of all TNC trips in Massachusetts originated in Suffolk and Middlesex counties. With the single exception of Worcester, the top 10 Massachusetts municipalities where TNC trips originated last year were in the transit-rich metro Boston inner core.

A report last year by the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies found that well over half of all TNC users would either not have made the trip, or would have travelled sustainably (using transit, cycling, or walking) but for the availability of a TNC alternative. More locally, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council reported this February that an astounding 42 percent of 1,000 TNC users it surveyed would have taken transit but for the availability of TNCs and the real or perceived poor performance record of the T. If nearly half of potential transit users are being siphoned off by TNCs, the future of an egalitarian transit system is in grave peril.

TNCs are not egalitarian. Yes, they are theoretically available to all, but “all” in this instance does not include the unbanked or people with lower incomes. The UC Davis study reported that use of TNCs by college-educated riders was double that of non-college educated riders, a dichotomy that was also reflected when the study looked at income disparities among users. What does it mean for the future of our public transportation system if it is used not by a broad spectrum of people as a matter of choice, but only or primarily by those who use it out of necessity?

What’s worse, TNCs have taken root in Massachusetts without the benefit of a thoughtful regulatory framework. Such a framework should be designed to protect the public from a variety of potential downsides that inevitably will occur in an unconstrained environment.  But Massachusetts has been slow to respond in an effective way to these market force changes, and the law enacted in 2016 stands as a “too little, too late” approach to harnessing and regulating the power of innovation for the public good.

Lurking like a troll under the bridge is the emerging autonomous vehicle industry. Like TNCs, autonomous vehicles are rooted in a 20th century auto-centric mindset that makes no apology for increasing vehicle miles traveled while utilizing internal combustion engines. Recent setbacks based upon safety concerns do not seem to have taken much of the wind out of the sails of the transportation futurists who promote autonomous vehicles as tomorrow’s inevitable “next new thing.” There is absolutely no clarity with regard to the “how, when, or where” of ubiquitous autonomous vehicle mobility, nor is there a clear and convincing business model that makes sense – yet. But we would be foolhardy to assume that autonomous vehicles, like TNCs, won’t quickly become a part of the new mobility landscape, and autonomous vehicles, unlike TNCs, may take the form of shuttle vans that provide a form of micro-transit, and hence a direct competitive threat to public transportation.

Faced squarely by the real-time reality of disruptive change in the mobility sector that is decidedly auto-centric and proven to both increase vehicle miles traveled and reduce transit use, we must act decisively to protect, rebuild, and renew our public transit system. This requires engaging the difficult but necessary work of developing a better regulatory framework for TNCs and autonomous vehicles, one that is appropriately responsive to all stakeholders and structured to support competitive sustainable mobility alternatives. It also requires much more than bringing the system into a “state-of-good-repair.” It means reimagining the underlying business and service delivery models, and transforming public transportation into a 21st century mobility service.

James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, is a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group. He serves on the board of TransitMatters.

A question of access: Shifting the transportation conversation

A question of access: Shifting the transportation conversation

Equity, climate, and choice are keys to developing a workable plan for the future

TRANSPORTATION AND MOBILITY matters to everyone who commutes, travels, or runs errands on a daily basis, and these everyday trips create a sense that we are all experts on transportation. For creative problem solvers, every traffic jam, transit delay, confusing intersection, or missing bike lane connection provides an opportunity to brainstorm possible solutions.

But what criteria should be used to evaluate new ideas for improving transportation? What collective future of mobility are we trying to achieve?

Historically, transportation modelling was designed around accommodating automotive trips and national data gathering from the US Census and the American Community Survey focused primarily on journey-to-work data. At the largest scales, questions of capital expenditures and fare box recovery govern infrastructure and operations investments. At the smallest scales, decisions are made based on the vehicle delays and congestion at intersections. Is this the best way to measure mobility? Do these traditional tools provide the right framework for building a better mobility future?

In Boston, a two-and-a-half year planning process resulted in a multi-modal citywide mobility plan called Go Boston 2030, which was designed to answer those questions and to prioritize the projects, policies, and programs that will shape the future of how people travel in the city. The process involved thousands of interactions with residents through digital and in person outreach balanced by fresh data analysis. The overarching goal of the process was to design a future transportation system for Boston that would make the city more equitable, more climate responsive, and better connected to economic opportunity.

Despite the geographic specificity of the plan, the three pillars of the plan provide useful criteria for creating more inclusive, sustainable, and livable urban areas as new transportation ideas are being evaluated. Whether the idea takes the form of a new transit option, a policy on autonomous vehicles, the development of a new mobility app, or the design of a traffic signal, it should be considered in light of the following:

 

  • Does it improve equity? Is it addressing racial and economic disparities that too many legacies transportation systems have perpetuated?
  • Does it minimize climate impacts? Is it improving local air quality and reducing the carbon emission levels that affect the planet as a whole?
  • Does it expand choice? Is it providing people with multiple options for different kinds of trips at different times of day and in different weather conditions?

Relative to most U.S. cities, Boston and the core municipalities that surround it have a rich eco-system of transit options: four subway lines more than 150 bus routes, an extensive commuter rail system, ferry service, a growing network of bike lanes and paths, and a multi-jurisdictional bike share with more than 200 docking stations. Yet these resources are spread unevenly across the area with previously red-lined neighborhoods still lacking the services that other parts of the city rely on. Meanwhile, traffic on the highways that lead into the city is legendarily congested, proving not that we need more roadways but that more transit capacity and reliability is needed to provide people with transportation choices that they can rely on in lieu of their personal cars, and particularly if switching away from private vehicles leads to lower emissions.

Go Boston 2030 established a comprehensive set of goals and targets across nine themes with a particular emphasis on expanding access to multiple travel options, improving safety, and ensuring reliable travel times. These goals and the projects selected will make the overall transportation system more robust, though individuals tend to want greater efficiency and easy access to information in addition to the goals being addressed. The present contrast between the world at our fingertips on a smart phone and the constraints and limitations of our analog transportation systems heightens this tension between a digital world where we can navigate quickly, if not instantaneously, and a physical world where we are accommodating the needs of others and the distances that must be overcome.

Efficiency and reliability are reasonable requests for a transportation system but are challenging to realize in rapidly growing cities and are especially hard to achieve if people expect that they will be able to drive with little congestion, few stops, and readily available parking. Meanwhile, the digital world also seems to provide us with endless sources of information, but many tools do not currently link the information we need to where we are in the physical world.

Finding the information we need on signs can be particularly reassuring; even as we increasingly rely on GPS for travel directions, we use roadway signage to confirm our navigation. Incorporating real-time information into signage has been very effective, but many digital-only tools are underutilized because people are unaware of their existence.

There are three particularly promising ways in which new technological solutions for transportation challenges have the potential to address equity, climate, and choice as well as the desire for efficiency and information.

TRANSPORTATION APPS

Today, smartphone applications such as Waze show drivers when there is congestion ahead and provide alternate routes to avoid it; other apps identify the nearest bike share docking station, show the number of available bikes, and allow users to unlock a bike; and apps such as Transit show the exact time of the next bus allowing people to leave their house just in time to catch it.

The next generation of apps should have an expanded sense of what a multi-modal trip could entail (a bike ride to a train to a walk perhaps) and do a better job of accounting for weather, time of day, price constraints, and other factors. While smartphones have spread, not everyone has equal access to data plans and they are far from universal among older adults, so it is incredibly important this kind of information be shared in other ways. Finally, these apps are not reaching all of the users who need them; people are regularly making inconvenient travel decisions because they never thought of using an app to look at their options.

CONSOLIDATED FARE MEDIA

The ability to pay for bus and train tickets with a single pre-paid tap card has been a major improvement for 21st century transit users. Creating a card that works across multiple platforms and transit authorities has been a significant recent advancement. The ORCA card allows for travel on bus, ferry, rail or train in the Seattle area with either a monthly pass or a stored value. The Clipper card allows users to pay fares across 27 transit agencies in the San Francisco area and offers discounted versions for seniors and students. Starting in October of 2017, the ConnectCard began allowing transit passengers to access Pittsburgh’s Healthy Ride bike share program for free to complete the last two miles of their trip.

In the future, cities and their surrounding regions should continue to improve policies around fare media (how people pay for transit) in order to expand people’s ability to transfer between modes and service providers more easily, create systems that allow people without credit cards to access these cards conveniently, and ideally develop a program of subsidies that work like housing vouchers or food stamps to allow low-income residents to better access a range of transportation options and make their own transportation choices.

In Boston, the MBTA will be improving their fare payment systems with the anticipated rollout of Automated Fare Collection 2.0 in 2020. The local Hubway bike share program already serves a model for addressing equity by offering very reduced-cost memberships for low income residents since it launched in 2011.

AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES

This evolving technology promises to change how we get around in the future. As testing continues and policy decisions are made, it is important to remember that they will have to be shared and electric in order to lessen the climate impacts of the nation’s current vehicles. Additionally, the pricing structures must be worked out carefully in order to ensure access to transportation choice for people across the income spectrum. Also, given the density of cities that seems to foster innovation, placemaking, and diverse human interaction, there will still need to be a wide array of transportation choices available. Although a ride in an autonomous vehicle may give an individual time to work or relax, there will still be waiting involved both in mixed traffic and when a shared vehicle is on its way.

All of these innovations create another layer of concerns for transportation officials at every level of government especially as they develop partnerships with the private and non-profit sectors.

SHARING DATA

Everything from long term planning and policy-making to traffic signal timing adjustments can benefit from additional data, and city and state departments of transportation should leverage these tools to improve mobility when they can access the data being collected on their sidewalks and streets. Transportation related apps, whether they provide digital maps and directions, or physical cars and drivers, should be sharing their data with municipalities who can use it to improve transportation system operations. Waze formed a data sharing partnership with the City of Boston that has helped to measure the congestion impacts of pilot projects around the city and went on to forge a similar relationship with MassDOT. Zipcar and Enterprise car share also agreed to share data with the City in exchange for on-street parking spaces. Advocacy groups can also contribute data by surveying users, conducting counts, or monitoring pilots.

SUPPORTING DENSITY

Transportation innovations have the potential to support dense urban environments, which in turn support walkability and transit ridership and can foster innovation with job clustering. This same density can also increase congestion if individuals are travelling in separate vehicles, and there are concerns that autonomous vehicles will encourage people to live even farther apart. Policies should continue to support denser development while also ensuring that innovation is serving people in less dense areas who do not have access to a personal car.

FINANCING INFRASTRUCTURE

Shared, electric, autonomous vehicles in particular will require a radical rethinking about how cities and states will supplement their funding if current sources disappear. Without gas taxes, parking meters, speeding and parking tickets, and possibly vehicle registrations, there must be new revenues to supplement local construction and maintenance costs for roadways and other infrastructure. Charging for vehicle miles traveled may be one way to overcome the deficit, congestion charging may be another. As creative transportation solutions to today’s problems emerge, the need for connectivity that works across a range of incomes, multiple modal choices, and with a reduced carbon footprint should be emphasized and prioritized in our investments and implementation decisions.

Alice Brown was the project manager for Go Boston 2030 and is now the director of water transportation at Boston Harbor Now.

Bus stops and the future of digital placemaking

Bus stops and the future of digital placemaking

We have to remember public transit is public space

THE TYPICAL URBAN BUS STOP is a miserable thing: a piece of metal attached to a pole; a strip of colored paint on a curb; a beaten-up shelter. Such bad design is often compounded by locations only a vehicle could love: on lonely medians; next to terrifying off-ramps; along deserted and dimly lit blocks; and in all manner of beaten-down, neglected, and ignored scraps of urban space. As representatives of the MBTA, we feel particular shame at the egregious example pictured above, which nearly won an award for America’s Sorriest Bus Stop back in 2016.

Some agencies don’t care because it’s not their assigned role: most agencies just operate transit services and have no requirement to take care of the streets as well. Or perhaps they believe their job ends at the door of the transit vehicle, so they shouldn’t need to care about the places nearby. Other agencies feel they simply can’t care: their efforts and budgets are consumed by pulling together halfway-decent transit service. To them, the idea of thinking deeply about the transit agencies’ role in the public realm is an impossible luxury. Either way, this is tragic: agencies have more discrete points of potential influence on public space than almost any other city, state, or federal entity. Not making use of that influence is a luxury few cities can afford.

We believe there is much agencies can do, once they realize that placemaking is something they should and can care about. 

Should, because otherwise agencies are leaving their accessibility mission half done; there are no great places, and indeed places have no value to us, without a way to access them. Transit agencies must acknowledge they are already inextricably tied to place. Public transit itself is public space. Every origin and destination of any transit network exists in physical space, in or connected to communities of people. Even the vehicles themselves are public spaces. Transit agencies, as part of the public realm, have an obligation to make that space better. Better, meaning friendlier and more useful to people. A sad bus pole with an unreadable sign isn’t just a bad architectural feature, it’s anti-placemaking.

Can, because we believe that even the lightest touch can be effective. Real placemaking is more about shared values than fancy paving treatments. We’re taking this to heart at the MBTA, using lightweight digital tools as a bridge to more physical and enduring investment in transit agency placemaking. Our agency has over 8,000 individual bus stops, and we hope to ultimately touch every single one to help make the public spaces around them into better places for people.

As two officials of a distressed public agency facing down the consequences of a long history of underinvestment, we are acutely sensitive to the need to get things done on a budget. We are also technologists, which brings us to the idea and potential of digital placemaking for mobility infrastructure: the repurposing of web, mobile, and other software and hardware tools to bring new value to the places around the physical nodes and artifacts of the transit system.

Digital tools are often limited to a public engagement role in placemaking. We believe that they can play an important role in transit agency efforts to make its physical infrastructure work better for people. Here’s why:

Digital placemaking is lightweight: You can digitally placemake with the tools your agency already has. A website or mobile app, a data feed, digital signage, third party apps, all can be repurposed to placemake.

Digital placemaking is fast: You can prototype a placemaking initiative in a web app in a day. With digital mapping or augmented reality, there may even be no direct physical connection to any hardware.

Digital placemaking is cheap: Physical things and top-down planning cost time and money to prepare and install. Software isn’t free to develop either, but it’s certainly faster and easier and therefore cheaper to experiment with a digital product. We already work in a beta-first, prototyping mindset: doing so for placemaking purposes is a natural extension.

Digital placemaking is versatile: There’s an app for almost every conceivable need on the world’s app stores. We can turn a digital tool to almost any placemaking need: creating community, providing access to activities, provide opportunities for fun and rest, and giving a unique digital badge to every neighborhood.

Digital placemaking is what we already do: While we’re working on mostly software products, all our software is focused on making the experience of the physical system better. It’s a short step from there to thinking about the experience of place that our riders have.

Perhaps most importantly, digital placemaking for mobility is an easy entry point for transit agencies that are uncomfortable with or unwilling to extend investment into the physical environments and communities around their infrastructure. For a transit agency without the budget, it’s impossible to argue for hundreds of thousands of dollars to revamp a bus stop, waiting area, and curb as part of a placemaking initiative. It’s a lot more possible to deploy a digital presence at that bus stop, such as through an augmented reality app, in a way that meets an important service need. Perhaps the app is primarily about orienting the rider to which services are coming next, but it could also work harder to placemake by communicating directions to the nearest barber shop, how to get to City Hall, or even layer on historical context to a view of the street.

As technology specialists at the MBTA, it’s not strictly in our remit to get involved in traditional placemaking. Nonetheless, that’s exactly what we’re doing with some of our ongoing projects.

PATI: Before our time, our System Wide Accessibility group, led by Laura Brelsford, initiated the Plan for Accessible Transportation Infrastructure (affectionately known as PATI).  PATI involves the intense surveying of all the MBTA bus stops and nearby places, including measurement, pictures, and professional judgement on the accessibility of stops to the public, and particularly to those of our customers with additional accessibility needs. The effort has been mammoth, and is leading to all sorts of projects, from reinvesting in the physical infrastructure of key stops, to removing stops that are unused and unusable, to updating the locations of our stops in our open data platforms for where they actually are, to collecting contextual clues for Blindways to help people with visual impairments find a bus stop.

Beacons: In Watertown and Cambridge, we’re partnering with the Perkins School for the Blind to augment the Perkins Blindways app. We’ve installed bluetooth beacons on two bus lines, and are integrating them with BlindWays, which is already a fantastic tool for layering on rich contextual directions to app-based navigation. This integration lets the user know how close they are to a bus stop. Not only is this good for transit ridership (more accessible stops means more riders carried), it also makes the street environment around our bus stops a little bit more friendly, a little bit safer, and a good deal more useful for people. If it works the way we hope it will, we’ll be able to expand this initiative across the system. And we’re building it as an open platform first; once we get traction, we plan to open up the SDK so that all developers can use these beacons.

What might digitally connected citizens do with them? We imagine that they’ll:

  • Make accessibility the default standard in all apps
  • Improve geolocation and findability of bus stops
  • Trigger local notifications about community meetings or block parties
  • Send back estimates of how many people are waiting and for how long
  • Find uses that we haven’t even thought of yet

Digital signs: We’re exploring the deployment of e-Ink displays at outlying Green Line stations and bus stops around the network. While we can install real-time displays of bus arrivals information in some larger shelters, the ubiquitous pole-and-sign combo presents more challenges. The cost of installing digital signage is not in the signs themselves, it is in the civil work to get power and communications to a far flung site. e-Ink is lower cost and potentially more durable than other screen technologies, and can open up a world of displayable content for a bus stop. Remember, we have 8,000 bus stops: imagine a screen at your stop, providing not only useful onward journey information but also community-generated content to make you look up, around, and into the local neighborhood.

We’re just getting started. For us, placemaking is not our core objective, but we’ve come to see that placemaking is as much the point of what we do as our broader efforts to improve the transportation experience. We can’t pour as much concrete as our city partners who own the streets and most of the bus stops, or even other departments at the T. But with the right tools, we can offer a digital presence almost everywhere, at very low cost, to help make our cities places worth living in.

How can you help? Spread the word in your city.  Tell your elected officials and all your friends that we need to invest in infrastructure and technology at the same time,  And, if you’re a technologist, come join our team.

David Block-Schachter is the chief technology officer and Beaudry Kock is head of product at the MBTA.