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The Argument for a Single-Fare System in a Multimodal World

A seamless transition from a scooter to a bus — covered by a single payment — is part of what the future in multimodal transportation should look like, transportation leaders and experts argue.

LOS ANGELES — Better partnerships between public-sector transit agencies and private-sector mobility providers will be part of what it takes to improve transportation for all riders, and begin the wholesale shift away from single-occupancy vehicle trips.

The way some of those partnerships can be improved, according to city officials, lies in making the transition from a private-sector mobility option to a publicly run bus or train more seamless.

“We need to provide an integrated transportation system, that takes all the different service levels that are available to us, and offer it so that you can get the right mobility choice, at the right time,” remarked Karina Ricks, director of mobility and infrastructure in Pittsburgh, at the CoMotion LA conference last week. Part of this integration is a single-fare payment that doesn’t nickel-and-dime riders with added costs when switching say, from a scooter to a train, said Ricks.

“If there’s a penalty to transfer between a privately provided mobility option, and a publicly provided mobility option, that does then become a real problem for transit. You’ll stick with whatever mode you get first, rather than pay twice for a single trip,” she explained.

Seamlessly moving from one transportation mode to another is often seen as an essential milestone in urban mobility. In various ways, cities have achieved at least part of this goal. For example, riders of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro) can transition seamlessly onto agency's bike-share network.

In Seattle, a pilot project between King County Metro and Via provided on-demand first-mile-last-mile service to link riders with bus or light-rail train service. Riders can use their ORCA Card — an account-based fare payment system — to pay once when boarding a Via vehicle.

“I think that’s been really critical because customers then aren’t paying twice. They’re not paying for the Via trip and then for transit,” said Casey Gifford, innovative mobility project manager for King County Metro, during one CoMotion LA panel discussion.

The idea of partnering with a private provider to provide on-demand, door-to-door service, somewhat like Uber or Lyft, is a growing trend in many cities. King County Metro no longer sees itself as a transit agency, and instead views itself as a “mobility agency,” Gifford said.

“We know that a 40-foot bus is not going to be the right solution for every neighborhood, at every time. So this is one way that we are piloting a new type of mobility option to complement our fixed-route system,” said Gifford, speaking during one of the conference sessions. “Again, in neighborhoods that don’t have great local service, and don’t have great walking and biking infrastructure. And we’re trying to figure out how we can be friends with transportation network companies, and how we can complement one another.”

Offering a range of mobility options — whether these include bike, scooter or car shares — all need to be on the table, say city officials. Because otherwise, there will be “mobility gaps.”

“We need some solutions that are really broader than — with all due respect — the white, 26-year-old guy,” said Ricks.

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.