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Experts: Mobility Hubs Can Provide Much More Than Mobility

At a recent Urbanism Next panel discussion, city officials from Boston and Minneapolis discussed mobility hub pilot projects, underscoring how hub locations can also serve as crucial community gathering spots.

A mobility hub in Minneapolis.
Transportation nodes are not just places to grab an e-scooter or jump onto an express bus. They can also be community gathering spots with information related to jobs or social services.

“There’s a lot of opportunity here ... There’s community space. We talked about delivery lockers, composting bins, elements that connect more with the local community,” remarked Matthew Warfield, a new mobility planner with the Boston Transportation Department, during a recent Urbanism Next panel discussion about “mobility hubs.”

Mobility hubs, nodes carved out of the urban landscape as places to locate multiple forms of transportation (like buses, bikes, scooters and car-shares), have been evolving and sprouting in numerous cities, sparking conversations around their planning and design.

Transportation officials launched a mobility hub pilot program in East Boston at eight locations in June to run through the summer of 2022. The hubs, which vary in size and offerings, include transportation options like bikes, scooters and car-share operations, along with things such as “smart benches,” which can charge mobile devices and provide Wi-Fi, community information and other features.

“They really are for residents,” said Warfield. “They’re not for visitors or tourists. It really is about getting around the city you live in and the neighborhood you live in.”

As cities reimagine transportation and transit, they’re turning toward innovative attempts to bring multiple modes together, with the essential aim of making it easier for residents and others to choose a mode of travel other than the single-occupancy car.

Aside from community development, mode shifting has been a central goal of the mobility hub pilot in Boston.

Mobility hubs are “really about improving access and mobility, and making it easier for people to get around the city, taking multimodal trips, and not having to rely upon a personal vehicle,” said Warfield. “The idea is we’re making it easier to make that trip.”

In Minneapolis, a mobility hub pilot helped grow transit ridership, as well as ridership across other modes, said Danielle Elkins, a mobility manager with the city of Minneapolis. The city developed its first pilot in 2019 and increased its number of hubs from four to roughly 25 locations in 2020.

“What we’re seeing is that every kind of additional thing that we do has a positive impact at increasing ridership at these locations,” said Elkins during the Urbanism Next panel.

Some of those additional things include community outreach such as a pilot with the county library system. The hubs were places where riders could pick up “kits” with job and human services information, maps, hand sanitizer and masks.

In conversations with the different communities in Minneapolis, residents also expressed a desire for public gathering spots. The design and evolution of mobility hubs in the Twin Cities reflected the community's need for reckoning and healing following the death of George Floyd by police and the widespread civil unrest that followed

“The overwhelming feedback from the community is, ‘I need a place to feel a part of my community. I need a place to heal. I need a place to mourn. I need a place to remember,’” Elkins said.

Mobility hubs have proven their ability to provide more than transportation, say officials. They are part of the place-making so important to communities. In Minneapolis, the hubs are being eyed as a place to locate other community assets like locker systems to facilitate package pickups.

But as a cautionary hint to others planning a mobility hub, Elkins advised cities to never lose sight of the central ingredient: transportation.

“This only works if you already have consistent, reliable transit service ... that you can know that when you go there, there’s always going to be a bike or a scooter there,” said Elkins.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.