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Transportation Agencies, Industry Find Opportunity in Crisis

The novel coronavirus and resultant stay-at-home orders have ground cities across the U.S. to a halt. But, transit agencies and their industry counterparts are seeing a chance to re-evaluate and plan for a post-virus world.

by / April 24, 2020
Micro-mobility and transit officials discuss the future of urban mobility as the country slogs through the coronavirus crisis. Shutterstock/Gorlov-KV

The coronavirus crisis that has all but shut down cities across the U.S., emptying streets of traffic and slowing commerce, should serve as a moment to reset urban transportation, better prepared for future disruptions and more committed to partnerships throughout the ecosystem.

That's the thinking at least among some transportation experts who are looking at the ongoing disruption with a critical and opportunistic eye.

“It is in our hands — both public policy folks, and private sector — to determine how things are going to happen,” said Joshua Schank, chief innovation officer and head of the Office of Extraordinary Innovation at L.A. Metro. “And we should look at it that way. Not, 'What’s going to happen, and how do we react to it?' But how do we create the future that we kind of desire. And I think that’s the opportunity presented by this crisis.”

Schank joined other experts – most specializing in micro-mobility technology like sharable e-scooters — in a webinar on Wednesday hosted by CoMotion, an organizer of various events to discuss transportation issues.

Much is being discussed about the future of micro-mobility — all of those rent-to-ride, app-based fleets of bikes and scooters — an industry that had been riding an enthusiastic wave of venture capital cash and a strong economy. With the U.S. economy rapidly slowing, micro-mobility and other forms of transportation are facing an uncertain future clouded with concerns about safety and hygiene. In the post-coronavirus world, whether the riding public will have the same appetite for in-city travel remains to be seen.

“Things are not dead. It is not a nuclear winter,” said Greg Lindsay, director of strategy at CoMotion, seeming to offer words of encouragement and reassurance.  

Euwyn Poon, president and co-founder of Spin, an operator of e-scooters in markets across the country, is optimistic about business returning toward the end of the second quarter of this year.

“Certainly, we won’t recapture all of the lost demand through the next few months … I don’t see why we couldn’t get back to the same levels that we were projecting, and we were at, last year,” Poon said during the webinar.

“We get a real opportunity to figure out a way how to move forward,” he added. “In every crisis, there’s always some opportunity.”

For the most part, this is the time to reimagine how scooters and e-bikes — and yet-to-be introduced shared mobility — become part of the transportation system, officials said, urging the development of expanded partnerships with transit and even employers, focused on a common goal to reduce single-occupancy car trips.

“The future of private mobility providers in cities is that they have to be partnered with public agencies. I think that was true before. And it’s more true now,” said Schank. “The real question that needs to be asked, which types of private mobility providers provide the best benefits from a public policy standpoint for transportation? And therefore, where do we focus the partnerships?"

“I would argue that a partnership with a private bike-share company, or an e-bike company, there’s a very obvious public-sector benefit to that. Because you’re helping to provide a means of transportation that isn’t a single-occupancy vehicle, that has a real transportation and mobility benefit, can improve equity,” he continued, adding that where the public sector does not need to be involved is say, subsidizing someone’s Uber ride to the airport.

For their part, scooter operators are already envisioning a world where efforts are made to improve public infrastructure for micro-mobility, as well as loosening rules around equity, data sharing and other requirements in exchange for doing business on city streets.

“I don’t think subsidies are necessarily required to make sure micro-mobility works. But I think cities should embrace a do-no-harm approach. Don’t put in place fines. Don’t put in place regulatory obligations that make it really hard for private-scooter operators to turn a profit during this more challenging environment,” said Dmitry Shevelenko, co-founder and president of Tortoise, a maker of technology to allow the remote operation of scooters, in his comments with CoMotion. “And do everything possible to let this opportunity to dramatically expand safe dedicated infrastructure.”

Poon, in language slightly more nuanced, expressed concerns about “constraints and other designs put around our operations in working with cities,” urging regulations that allow businesses to scale and operate in a sustainable way.

Schank is leading a recovery task force within L.A. Metro to examine “all the things we can do to try to make sure we don’t turn back to the state we were in before.”

One of those areas being explored aims to work with other cities in L.A. County, to keep streets friendlier to pedestrians and micro-mobility “the way that they are now,” said Schank, recalling strangely empty streets in Los Angeles since the COVID-19 crisis forced the county of 10 million residents into lockdown. 

“Some of that is infrastructure. Some of that is just policy. But we have to start now, in order to get those agreements in place, so that we can not return to where we were before,” he added. “It’s such a great opportunity. We have to make the most of it.”

Skip Descant Staff Writer

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 Sacramento.

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