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Want to Improve Urban Mobility? Improve Coordination First

A new report by the Transportation Research Board points toward more seamless and coordinated connections among all forms of shared mobility, such as buses, bikes, trains, scooters and more.

parked scooters
Improved coordination among the many modes of transportation could improve the access and ridership across all modes, according to a new report by the Transportation Research Board. 

The study is seen as particularly prescient as regions and transit organizations emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has reshaped lives and jobs across all communities. 

“If cities and communities could take a more proactive approach to mobility in their cities, and keep transit – and all the other new modes coordinated – I think that would be a huge step,” said Gary Thomas, chair of the team who authored the report and president and CEO of Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART)

“Rather than having these individual silos that forces the consumer, at the end of the day, to really pick a bus, a train, a scooter, a bike, a ride-hailing type vehicle; but if you could come up with a platform where everybody was coordinated and working together, and really working toward the benefit of the consumer … how can we make this work best,” he added.  

A central goal ought to be furthering the use of shared mobility as part of a larger mission to reduce single-occupancy car trips, if the nation is to have any sizable impact on traffic congestion, air quality and climate change, Thomas and others argue.

“We’ve got to continue to think about shared-use mobility,” said Thomas.  

As the country emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, now is the time to press the reset button, and put the nation’s transportation policymaking and thinking on a more sustainable, shared and less car-intensive trajectory, say experts. 

“I spent 40 years of my life trying to get people out of cars, and onto public transportation. And in the last year, we just gave it all back. And the last thing we possibly want is a car-led recovery,” said Leon Daniels, the former director of Surface Transport at the Transport for London, which manages public transit in the British capital.    

“We have to work doubly, triply hard to get people back out of their cars, and onto public transportation,” Daniels said during a recent panel discussion about reshaping the transportation industry in 2021, organized by transit and transportation technology firm Optibus.

In the U.S., transportation, planning and other officials — as well as residents — marveled at how quickly the highways emptied out nearly a year ago when the country hunkered down to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Today, traffic has mostly returned in many cities, although the patterns are different. The morning peak is not so busy. However, the challenge to reduce congestion remains a top goal among policymakers, because any declines in traffic congestion last year will be short-lived without concerted efforts to curb it. 

“The cars didn’t disappear,” Thomas remarked. “They’re maybe parked in driveways now, or wherever they are. But they didn’t go away. So all of those cars that caused all of that congestion and air-quality issues, they’re still there.” 

To ensure transit riders of the past do not take to their cars in the future, transit needs to double down and do the work it has always done, said Chris Van Eyken, a senior program associate at the TransitCenter, a transit think tank.  

“We have to provide high-quality service so that people who want to ride can ride, and get where they want to go safely, fast and comfortably,” said Van Eyken, a panelist on the Optibus webinar. 

If the message among transportation planners points toward enhanced coordination among all forms of shared mobility, it may help to know how much of the total transportation pie it makes up and how much it could stand to increase with improved interoperability through tech or policy developments like mobility-as-a-service (MaaS).

Public transit only makes up 2.5 percent of trips nationwide. That number climbs to 5 percent in the largest metro regions. And as much as micro-mobility has grown in use — increasing 60 percent from 2018 to 2019 — it still only makes up a tiny percentage of total trips, according to the TRB report. 

Just how much have devices like scooters cut into personal car use?

A survey of scooter users in 18 metro regions found that 41 percent of those trips would have been made via car had the scooters not been available. Which is why improved coordination and interoperability among these modes and others — particularly public transit — has the potential to further push this needle away from personal car use, said Thomas. 

“If we’re all working together, this is how we can all benefit, rather than each of us doing our own thing,” he offered. 

It should be public transit, said Thomas, to take the lead on how transportation should evolve, post-COVID.  

“We felt that public transit would best be suited to be the convener,” said Thomas, adding, public policy needs to be driven with a central mission “where we’re strongly encouraged to all work together.”

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.