Mobility is undergoing a huge shift – from the emergence of shared cars and bicycles to the impending self-driving cars – and we’re just starting to understand the full effect on cities. The revolution has implications for equity, accessibility and sustainability, and has caught many cities unawares, leading to court battles, unexpected impacts on congestion and lots of uncertainty.
A consortium of leading city and transport organizations, including WRI, developed the Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities to help cities make sense of these changes. Now, with 15 of the world’s leading transport and technology companies signing on, innovative players from the private sector have sent a powerful message of support around a common vision of the future for cities, and how we can get there.
By supporting the Principles, these companies, which include Didi, Lyft and Uber, as well as bike-sharing giants Ofo and Mobike, are throwing their heft behind a set of basic ideas about how mobility should work in cities.
- We plan our cities and mobility together
- We prioritize people over vehicles.
- We support the shared and efficient use of vehicles, lanes, curbs, and land.
- We engage with stakeholders
- We promote equity.
- We lead the transition towards a zero-emission future and renewable energy.
- We support fair user fees across all modes.
- We aim for public benefits via open data.
- We work towards integration and seamless connectivity.
- We support that autonomous vehicles (AVs) in dense urban areas should be operated only in shared fleets.
There are 10 principles (listed above), but let me highlight three of them, and elaborate on the ways they can help us solve urban mobility:
Public Benefits from Open Data
New mobility companies are generating stupendous amounts of data – everything from congestion and speeds in every segment of the city roads 24/7, to origins and destinations of trips, to traffic safety hotspots based on vehicle braking patterns. The standardization of open data allows cities a way to responsibly tap into these data streams to inform traffic management and transport planning. While this has become a common talking point, we haven’t yet seen much movement. Companies endorsing this principle (number eight in the list of 10) is a big deal.
When cities have access to anonymized transport data, they are able to make better decisions for public transport services; understand and respond to traffic speeds, lane and curb use; plan transport infrastructure with more accuracy; and respond to traffic accidents and other unexpected events, like disasters, much faster and more effectively.
Open data also enables entrepreneurs to innovate and compete – all way-finding apps rely on open data, for example – as well as make it easier for travelers to plan across multiple modes of transport.
Fair User Fees
Principle #7 encourages fair user fees across all modes of transport, a step that would level the playing field and let the market do its work.
Streets in cities are scarce and valuable resources, yet right now we enable use of that space today with hidden incentives, subsidies and priorities, often focused on the least efficient mode of travel, the individually used private automobile. On-street parking, the most convenient and valuable space to park, is paradoxically cheaper than off-street garage parking. In peak periods, buses carrying 60 passengers are caught up in streets congested by single-occupancy-vehicles. Fuel taxes in many countries do not cover the cost of building and maintaining road infrastructure. Electric vehicles don’t pay fuel taxes. All internal combustion engine vehicles get a free pass on the real costs of their emissions and traffic incidents on the health of city residents and the cleanliness of the buildings and air. Meanwhile, pedestrians and bicycles, which are both clean and space-efficient, must vie for space.
Fairer user fees can help iron these inconsistencies out. The cities, private sector companies, NGOs and advisors that endorse these principles are stating their belief that user fees should include the price of externalities such as congestion, pollution and traffic safety risks. Revenues from pricing externalities can then be redistributed to the society through better and more affordable public transport services and safer walking and bicycling infrastructure, for example.
Shared Autonomous Vehicles in Dense Areas
Autonomous vehicles are the next major disruptive technology on the horizon. Principle #10 encourages shared rather than individual ownership of autonomous vehicles in dense urban areas.
The decision to move a car today is made primarily based on its marginal costs – how much more is it going to cost me to take this trip? People usually think in terms of fuel, tolls and parking costs and ignore the single-largest marginal expense: your personal time (or that of a paid driver).
Freed of the driver, the marginal cost of moving a car will be insignificant. Researchers at UC Davis calculate this cost at 10 cents per kilometer (15 cents/mile). Rather than pay for parking, it will be cheaper to keep the vehicle flowing in traffic or return home to park for free. There’s a possible downside: Autonomous cars could become everyone’s personal courier for pickup and drop-off of any item, leading to more congestion and pollution, not less. Shared vehicles eliminate that danger.
Requiring that AVs be shared in dense metro areas also flows directly from earlier Principles. If we support Principle #5 (equity), shared means that the poor, too, will be able to enjoy the benefits of self-driving cars by purchasing just a seat rather than the whole vehicle. If we follow the guidance of Principle #3 (efficient use of city lanes, vehicles and curb access), these vehicles should be shared.
Shared fleets do not imply one type of vehicle. There would still be a diversity of vehicles and price/quality options, including what we call now mass transit. But sharing does maximize public safety and emissions benefits, and ensures that professionals manage maintenance and software upgrades.
The Shared Mobility Principles were written in 2017 by a founding coalition of nine NGOs, including WRI. The endorsement of these 15 companies, which account for 77 million passenger trips a day, signals that businesses are also buying in to the idea that sustainability is necessary for the health of cities. Most importantly, we need these companies to put their shoulders to the wheel. Each in their own way have changed mobility. Now we need their expertise in technology and innovation to improve it.
Robin Chase is co-founder of Zipcar and a WRI Board member.