Uber, Lyft: Public, CIvic?

Uber and Lyft are now publicly traded companies, but it is notable that neither of them signed on to the widely acclaimed  corporate governance pledge (Wall Street Journal, 8/19/2019). Rideshare CEO’s probably feel that corporate citizenship and community participation have always been core values, but the general public may not agree. Nearly two hundred CEO’s from America’s best known and largest companies, but not ride-hailing, endorsed a new code of corporate ethics from the Business Roundtable.

I recently participated in a civic panel that had to “convince” authorities in local governmental to view rideshare, namely Uber and Lyft, as the solution, not the enemy, for local transportation needs.  It was a hypothetical exercise, but we came away from it with a renewed appreciation for the civic role that rideshare companies could play. There were lessons for rideshare that support the goals of the governance pledge. 

Their naysayers entered our exercise with the view that rideshare was the progenitor of new  road congestion, curb disputes, and falling transit ridership. They also viewed rideshare as a potential threat to municipal coffers from reduced parking revenue and taxi medallions. That said, they came away from our exercise with a new appreciation for working cooperatively with Uber and Lyft. 

Shareholders or Stakeholders?

In our hypothetical exercise which took place in a real city hall, the panelists noted that Uber and Lyft should focus civic efforts on the next generation. They identified a need to collaborate with local high schools and job centers.  Noting that many kids will not go on to college, they identified the need to develop vocational skills. The civic minded panelists suggested that Uber and Lyft set up forward-looking training programs so that students learn about alternative fuels and energy. They could participate in sourcing bio-diesel  from local sources. The concept is that technical training will prepare kids for jobs ten and twenty years out, equipping them to work on electric and bio-diesel vehicles, not just gasoline cars. (note: in some communities, Uber already promotes electric vehicles)

Along the same line of thought, the panel recognized that Uber and Lyft have an ever increasing need for drivers. That is, until the roll out of autonomous vehicles. They thought that rideshare companies could provide outreach to the unemployed or underemployed and even help them procure vehicles to drive.  This might increase the supply of part and full time drivers. (again, uber and lyft encourage part-time drivers).

Support Mobility

The charge of our panel was to “convince” government authorities that rideshare companies, namely Uber and Lyft, were their partners when it came to improving local transportation. The panel seized upon the need to work with local government to enable, and improve, first and last mile trip taking. The goal, as you would expect, was not to put public transit out of business or cannibalize  service, but rather, to make it more accessible and practical for riders. Transit agencies cannot provide door-to-door service, and mass transit does not reach to the outer-ends of the sprawled city. So, the panel suggested that Uber and Lyft operate many different types and sizes of vehicles, and expand upon shared-ride and van-type services. In fact, Uber and Lyft do this in many cities today. 

Expand into Freight

Freight logistics also got a boost from the panel. While no one saw drone delivery as the immediate answer to congestion, rideshare algorithms were viewed as a potential solution for freight delivery. It was thought that smarter logistics could reduce the total number of delivery vehicles on the road, bundle loads, and juggle the time-slot for deliveries.  At the extreme, pallets could be off-loaded to designated Uber and Lyft owner- driven vans and deliver goods outside peak commuting hours. 

Taxing Efforts

The panel’s most far-reaching recommendation for local government was to impose a tax, but not just on rideshare. The tax would be levied on drivers who did SOV (single occupancy vehicle) commutes and single rideshare trips.  Many states, from California to Massachusetts, currently impose a tax on the transportation network companies. This ten to twenty cent fee per ride is typically turned back by city government into more transportation projects, or in the case of California, into subsidizing more wheelchair assisted vehicle (WAV)  rides. The panel’s intention with the tax was to end the privilege of being a single car owner and accelerate more shared (2+ rider) trips using rideshare.

Summing Up with ‘Surprise’ for Governance

The curious thing about rideshare is that Uber and Lyft have programs in place today that do serve underprivileged populations, expand first and last mile trip taking, and work alongside public transit. These individual programs are splattered across the country and receive occasional attention within individual communities and are known among transportation planners. However, the latter group has often been estranged by the reluctance of Uber and Lyft officials to share local rideshare data and numbers.

Now that Uber and Lyft have become public companies, sharing information may become more standard and routine. When they do so, there could be benefits. As rideshare companies continue to expand their transportation footprint and develop entirely new markets, they might find, surprise, that local governments are a close ally and new partner. Meanwhile, local government, surprise, might find that rideshare will be the solution to their many small but vexing mobility problems. 

The Provisional Phone IS A FIRST PHONE

Parents are reluctant to provide tweens with their first phone. They worry about the media content tweens will explore, the memes they will post, and their total time online. But, to withhold the phone for a few more years is to ‘face- down’ an angry tween. We all experience the larger social forces that push us to connect.

We allow kids to get their first phone with almost no training or instruction. Contrast this to the early days of automotives, when driver education was deemed to be a social and legal need. Around 1919, states began enacting laws to establish a minimum age for driving. European countries had stricter and later rules. Although teens mature at different rates teens must still wait until they are fifteen or sixteen to apply for a driver’s license (there are exceptions for farm kids).

Excerpt from Pennsulvania Drivers Manual
source: dot.state.pen.us

Smartphones are just ten years new, so our society has not had time to sort out the protocol and training for phones and tweens. This is an emerging need as the average age for acquiring a first phone is just ten years. There is a certain irony here, for children under eight, notes Common Sense Media, do not necessarily have the critical faculty to discern marketing messages in new media and understand and defend against their persuasive intent.

Beginner’s phones present a related issue: most ten year olds have just developed the skills to be good readers. Does screen time then displace reading time, so that kids don’t grow in their reading breadth and proficiency?

So, with the “tweens”  in mind: do novice phone users need to slow down and gain instruction, similar to beginning drivers?

Boring Phones Rock!

Recently, a group in New Zealand started a kickstarter campaign to develop a stripped down phone that they call aptly, “the boring phone”.  Here, from their web site, are the built-in Features on the Boring phone.

Calling/GPS/Messaging/GPS-Nav/Podcasts/Tethering/Music/Tools

And, here are the features MISSING on the Boring Phone:

Email/Browser/Social Media/AppStore

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1535153164/boringphone-the-minimalist-smartphone

The boring phone comes close to the provisional phone we have touted in previous posts. Socially, it is a phone that kids will be willing to carry; not an out-of-date relic their parents picked out.

Are there other enhancements for “boring”, provisional phones? What are additional lessons we can borrow from the 90 year tradition of educating and licensing new drivers on the road? 

Evening Curfew:


The evening curfew: The beginners driver’s license in California is called a provisional license. Drivers under age18, and for the first 12 months after permitting, cannot drive alone between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. Most states have similar laws that restrict driving after dark because it is harder to follow the road markings, and there are more impaired drivers to contend with.

Provisional phones should have similar rules: using smartphones before bedtime and immediately upon waking are not good habits. Sleeping with phones is not healthy, yet a study, again by Common Sense Media, reports that 29% of teens say they sleep with phones a in their bed and 68% report phones are within reach at night.  Provisional phone need to shut themselves down, say at 10 pm, and be left outside the bedroom at night. Every new provisional phone should come with a separate, stand-alone alarm clock and a stand-alone flashlight.

Classroom Time:

Classroom time is a vital component of learning to drive. It should also become an important, and funded, component of the provisional phone. Both schools and libraries have a big role to play- clearing time from other functions to create a new curriculum. The tween’s provisional phone might be activated when a librarian enrolls the new user in a series of on-line and in-person classes.

generic library poster

The curriculum is the equivalent of driver’s education: an age-appropriate intervention to teach online safety, search strategies, and an introduction to the code that powers the apps.

Road Time:

When teens learn to drive, road-time is required, even if the classroom sessions have moved to self-paced online modules. The white-knuckle- road time is never dull and becomes the responsibility of a driving school or parent/guardian.

Sadly, phones do not offer the same opportunity to sit together to learn. But, parents of tweens can participate if they follow the digital trail of their kids through the traffic on their home router. They can also insist on having access to the tween’s social media accounts (which, in theory, are for age 13 and above) and play online games together. 

Train the Parents Too:

 Parents may need to have their own classes: The Common Sense Media poll that found that teens sleep with phones also observed that 74 percent of parents- even more than children- are likely to have mobile devices within reach at night. A provocative Atlantic article ( 2018) argues that “technoference,” – parent’s use of screens is an under-appreciated issue.  The current generation of parents were raised with TV, not smartphones. They are themselves learners and may not understand the technology well enough to be good role-models and teachers.

The Vehicle:

Finally, we come to the vehicle itself. We put kids in safe cars, and require that they buckle up their seat-belts. If the license plate number is obscured, fines are levied. Can we a similar paradigm when we educate tweens on phones?

There should be consequences for kids whose device is found to have posted dangerous or inflammatory content- say sexting messages or cyberbullying. Can the provisional phone be flagged and disabled, taken off the road, so to speak? 

To do so, boring provisional phones should be equipped with provisional phone numbers like a special area code  e.g. (XXX-222-2222) in the prefix. These are trackable. As the tween matures, and demonstrate responsible cyber behavior, they graduate from a temporary number to a standard one.

In Sum-Safe Learning Years:

Tweens, who now get their first phones by age ten or earlier will have five to six years before they become eligible for a driver’s license. Libraries, schools, and parents can use those years to prepare them for a tech future. This training has double-benefit:  when they reach age sixteen the educational program will have prepared teens to the dangers of distraction, and the necessity of keeping eyes on the road, and phones safely stowed.

The ProvisionAL PHONE NEEDS TO SLOW US DOWN

"Why am I in your Hand?"  A screensaver photo showing the time, and this message.
Photo adapted by Jordan McQueen on Unsplash. Displayed by Medium, 11/16/17

The social speed of information is awesome…but it is also dangerous for beginners.

For most of history, messages traveled at about the same speed as a person or animal could walk. The pony express, courier pigeon, and smoke signal incrementally hastened delivery but it is the telegraph that truly disrupted the speed of travel.

Morses’ telegraph machine, invented in 1837, was the first time that messages moved faster than the sender. Communications sent via telegraph, and later via phone, sped from person to person. Today, the internet brings equal or faster speeds with an entirely new dimension. Accelerated messaging travels from a single sender to large groups or collectives; in other words, less person-to-person and more person-to-mass media.

The communications impact is momentous. In this article we consider the virtues of “speed control,”  a continuation of our discussion on phones and provisional learners.

A Cue from Driver’s Education:

First, we take a cue from driver’s education. We need to equip a beginner’s phone with software that encourages new users, usually tweens, to bring focus and attention. Useful software should discourage them from jerky, impulsive communications. It should function like a “parental voice” at the back of a tweens head, helping them to find balance between novelty and risk.

This is done for us when we drive on the road. Legal speed limits keep us in check and make the driving experience predictable. The posted speed sign anticipates the geometry of the road to prevent accidents. There is no analogous criterion for engaging with electronic media like Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr.

Software that slows down tweens has merit. Imagine if there was a ten second delay from the time that a tween posts something to the time that it gets sent out on social media. A pop up might say: “Are you sure that you need to post this? Would you post this if your parents or teachers could read it?  Will you want this post discovered five years from now?”

A ten second delay is not a long time, but would help overcome the impulsiveness of young people.

Cutting back the Multi-task:

A second way to slow down the phone is to design hardware that reduces the ability to multi-task. This is helpful, for while brains are fast, the cognitive ability to stay focused and alert is not. Teens and preteens would be well served if their phones could run only one app at a time. As an example, using GPS for navigation would then disable phone calls and texting. A slower phone is a safer one.

When we drive, there are external messages that prompt us about speed. Standardized road signs and electronic message boards post legal speed limits, but the speed limit changes with bad weather or road work. Electronic media need to have their own message board: perhaps not a weekly summary of our time online, but a countdown of when we started, and the elapsed time.

Niklas Goke, the writer, asks why phones can’t be designed like toothbrushes. While essential, phones should be simple and not trigger us to continually be picked up. He proposes a  number of useful tips that can be applied to provisional phones. One of them is the common-sense screensaver that displays the current time and the message “Why am I in your hand? (see image above). at School & Home:

Slowing it Down at School and Home:

A third way to slow down the phone, of course, is external: parents and educators can set time of day restrictions. Around the world, a number of school systems do this: among them, France, Israel, and Australia (NSW). Parents need to set their own standard, using apps that compile their time online, or require that that teens’ phones be placed face down on the kitchen table at bedtime.

We live in a time when speed, phones, and the ability to act are co-mingled.  Speed will increasingly be the key to manage the Internet of things and future autonomous vehicles but in person- to-person relations it can be a detriment.

We need distance from our phones to reflect on the message content, be kind to others, and make better decisions. So, slowing down the phone…a vital facet of the provisional phone…. is about matching the pace of technology to a young person’s moral and emotional development.  A provisional phone with speed settings is a useful stop.

Aging- in-Suburbia Made Better

This is an image of a car-share from Bremen, Germany.
www.eltis.org (car-share in Bremen)

One of the most vexing problems of “Aging in Suburbia”  is the need to drive…even when that puts the driver and bystanders at risk. Seniors in rural America and Canada continue to drive when it is no longer safe to do so because they lack alternatives.

The European Union is encouraging a new way that seniors can continue to be mobile…and participate in the share economy.

The UNECE reports that 33% of the elderly population live in rural areas, and younger generations have been moving further away into urban centers. However, an EU transportation alliance called the Shared North is operating a useful schema that can keep seniors in their homes even when there is no longer a household  car.

Historically- EU and Cars:

Households acquired cars at a slow pace after  WWII. After the devastation, rebuilding European cities and infrastructure took priority, not turning out cars in factories. The Netherlands and other countries came to favor bicycles out of necessity.  With fewer cars per household, train and tram lines were preserved. The station-car, a first-mile last -mile solution for train commuters emerged in the 1970s, possibly earlier. It was a small vehicle first used at Swiss train stations to complete first and last mile travel.  It preceded Zipcar.

A modern version of the station car is now helping seniors to age in place, even when they live away from  dense city centers. A 2018 presentation at the World Collaborative Mobility Congress describes a mobility schema  for the rural population.

Mobility Schema in Belgium:

The schema, currently operating in Belgium,  is a 4 part cooperation between the local government, a car share provider, a social services and a mobility provider  called autodelen.ne. Vehicles are located at a central point but can be reserved through the Internet. Rural residents go online to book the car and drive it themselves. Or, they can reserve the car and a volunteer driver who will come to them with the car.

There is a hint that households that can no longer drive might donate their personal car into  these car-clubs. Autodelen.ne notes that local governments could also share their fleet vehicle in the car-schema when they are parked after hours. However, it appears that is currently outsourced to Partago, a car-share provider.

The Belgium schema is also useful for recruiting more volunteer drivers. The software lets volunteers identify seniors who need rides. It’s only a short trip for a volunteer to  drop off the vehicle at the the home of a licensed senior who is then able to do their errands. On other occasions, the volunteer might pick up the senior in the share car, and complete the trip with them.

Elsewhere:

A more traditional car-share schema operates in Wales, the U.K. Their stated goal  is to reduce the “social exclusion” caused by the cost of car ownership and limited public transportation.

Members of a rural community in Denbighshire pay an annual fee of 50 pounds to join the car-club. It ‘owns’  two electric vehicles that seniors can rent by the hour or by the day. While this program seems to resemble ZipCar in the U.S., note that it is located in a rural area, and is intended for populations that do not own personal vehicles and have little access to public transport.

Learning from Europe:

There are at least three factors that distinguish these schemas from programs in the United States.

  1. The most critical factor  is that these schemas serve  rural populations with no cars, lower density and no public transportation. The rural senior can age-in-place.

Note that the shared car is not new to the U.S and Canada, and there are many different versions operating in the U.S., including this one in Sacramento, Ca., intended to serve disadvantaged communities .But, research on the elderly has tended to focus on places where seniors relocate i.e., retirement homes and age-friendly living communities. Susan Shaheen and her colleagues studied the desirability of carshare among residents of the RossMorr Senior Adult Community. There are applications in the field: e..g, a Kiwanis Society Housing Society collaboration with Modo to provide a single share car at a senior residence in West Vancouver.


2. A culture that favors bicycling and walking is active in Europe. Older people engage in these activities at a much higher rate than in the U.S.  This helps car-share because there is more familiarity with one-vehicle or no-vehicle households. Participants may expect to walk or ride bicycles to the car-share center.

3. The third and final difference is that the shared network, particularly the one in Belgium, seems to be designed from the ground-up to encourage volunteer drivers. In North America, there is a critical shortage of volunteer drivers for the elderly and disabled. The European car-share schema offers a better way to encourage volunteers to drive.

The European system make it easier because it reaches drivers who want to help, but who do not own a car. This opens the door to new volunteers,  such as older seniors with a license and younger Millennials. It’s a win-win for volunteers as they do not have to be concerned with car insurance, maintenance, and extra miles on their personal vehicle.

Summing Up:I

The EU promotes a useful schema for Aging- In-Place  without having a car in the garage. It keeps seniors in their homes, vehicles in the center, and volunteers in the mix. These European seniors engage in the share economy but with entirely new options.

Low density suburbs and rural locations are a problem that will plague Baby Boomers in the U.S. and Canada, as they  choose to age in place. Today, about 22% of those over age 70 do not have driver’s licenses. Yet, they will need to cobble together a means to stay at home and stay mobile.

Parking Lost- Customers Gained

It’s an anomaly but lost parking can find new customers.

It’s painful to tell a small business owner that the City will remove curb parking. It feels like an amputation.

But, a convergence of  factors are unhinging old parking paradigms. Novel travel habits and online shopping require, even demand, open, free-flowing curb space. The old-style metered parking spots are an impediment to modern business.

Here are some of  the factors:

1.It is difficult to drive to shop so we travel differently: There has been an increase in urban congestion-  e.g., One source says NYC experienced a 56% increase in congestion since 2006. It also takes an additional 15 minutes to search there for on-street parking.  Most cities have raised parking rates, making curb-side parking more expensive and also inconvenient for those without a parking app. These factors dial down the appeal of driving and shift some trips towards rideshare.

But, as Uber and Lyft become a more common mode for shopping trips  so grows the need for safe curbside boarding. The merchant who has two-hour parking out-front does not benefit.

2. Storefronts are meeting new needs:  Store-fronts go empty but there has been growth in new business categories. Dog care centers, gyms, child care centers and after-school facilities are new contenders. However, all of these, with the exception of the gym, require pick up and drop off. They accelerate the need for short-term, in-and-out parking spaces.

A conventional one or two hour parking space thwarts the comings and goings of the main customers.

3. There is  a change in buying habits. The Millennial generation outnumbers Baby Boomers, and younger people appear to have more utilitarian  expectations towards local travel. They do not find shopping to be an outing that co-mingles the opportunity to drive and spend. Younger people are more likely to buy their goods online, and say that they enjoy the freedom of home delivery.

The need to find a near-store parking space is less vital when bulky items, say the twenty pound bag of cat litter, is dropped off by a delivery service. While mega-shopping stores like Costco are likely to survive,  even they have found the need to offer same day grocery delivery. On weekdays, Costco aisles are filled with Instacart pickers, a personal home shopping service.

To be a commercial success, Instacart service, like the dog care or child-care center,  requires quick curb dropoffs.


4. Eating Habits are Changing Too: People eat three times a day yet sales at grocery stores, and even some restaurants, are on the decline. However, businesses like DoorDash and UberEats are growing rapidly. People prefer to eat at home or work, but do not cook there.

So, like the dog-care and child-care centers, these new food businesses depend on having end-to-end  curb space; both when they pick up the food and then, when it is dropped off. Restaurant patrons who prefer to drop-in become frustrated by the traffic tie-ups they encounter.

ROAD DIETING:

Businesses are in flux, and so are attitudes towards local transportation. There has been a rethink on two counts: how we transverse first-mile/last-mile trips and how we ration the allocation of public streets. Until recently, the built road system depended on cars for the first/last mile trips, and favored them at the expense of all other travel modes.

Recognizing that 42% of daily trips are 3 miles or less, there is a movement to claw back the amount of  road space dedicated to the car. Road diets narrow or reduce the lanes allocated to cars and trucks, and increase the surface area for  pedestrian, buses, and bicycles.

We noted that younger generations bring new attitudes towards mobility. They expect local trips to be healthier, favoring bikes and walking. When they travel in vehicles, there is a preference for trains, buses, and rideshare; these modes provide an efficiency bonus since riders multi-task en route.

Meanwhile, there is even more disruption on the horizon. Micro-mobility has accelerated the call for “road diets” since neither sidewalks or streets currently provide safe operations.

Micro-mobility  could emerge as  the game-changer for local business. If  the safety issues are satisfied through the road diet,  this mode addresses the requirements for first/last mile trips and make it far easier to navigate local neighborhoods. Micro-mobility could rejuvenate foot traffic for local store-fronts and restaurants. Crucially, it liberates users from the need for curb-space.

IN SUM:

The economy is changing…and so will be the shape of roads we travel. For small local businesses, the evolution might seem too fast. For those that work on travel planning, and want to encourage new bike lanes or rapid bus service, the pace may seem snaillike. But,  as Boomers drive less, and younger generations favor multiple modes and micro-mobility, different types of shopping and businesses will take root.

In the near future,  the metered, urban parking space is likely to go the way of drive-in movie theatre and full-service gas station. They once facilitated vehicle travel, but became functionally obsolete.

Rideshare Windfall

There’s a new reason to give five stars to Rideshare…at least in Massachusetts.

Local governments will receive a transportation windfall in Massachusetts. Nearly $6.5 million will be distributed in 2019, thanks to a bill that levied a 20 cent tax on each ride, of which ten cents returns to the municipality where the trip originated. The City of Boston will receive close to $3.5M from the tax, and Cambridge, Ma., next in ridership, will net about $678,000.

New revenues may require new thinking: will the public be well served if local governments plow the windfall from the TNC’s (Transportation Network Company) back into local Rideshare?  

Re: Re-thinking?

Windfalls speak loudly so pundits and policy makers might revisit how Rideshare serves their communities. Last year, local officials were surprised to learn  that Uber and Lyft served underprivileged neighborhoods with better service than taxi companies.

The TNCs are often decried to be a source of transportation woes from increased congestion to decreased transit ridership. But, for another point of view, see this article. It’s time to ask what other “common goods” might be furthered by expanding Rideshare.

Historically, proceeds from transportation taxes, like vehicle registration fees and parking fines, plow back into a wide array of municipal priorities. But, what if the 2019 Rideshare revenue is plowed back into Rideshare? Can the TNC windfall be allocated to improve Rideshare, and, coincidentally, elevate other transportation goals?

Rethinking: Drivers and Paratransit Vans

A problem that vexes public transportation officials is the high cost of providing paratransit service. An innovative paratransit trial between the TNCs and the Boston MBTA is said to have dropped the administrative cost per trip from around $45.00 to ~$21.00*, but it has also increased the demand from riders for more trips. The riders, who rely on this service for mobility, have a need to keep mobile, and prefer the new offering to the bulky paratransit vans and cars that require several days notice to schedule.

Uber and Lyft currently have some  Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles (WAV) but the fleet size cannot meet the demand.  As I write this blog, mid-day, Thursday, from Cambridge, Ma. it would take approximately 2 minutes and $12.00 for an Uber X vehicle to pick me up for a trip to the airport, but about 10 minutes (and same price) for a WAV.  This is an exception, as trips from Newton and the outer suburbs typically require a wait of 20 minutes or longer.

The obstacles to growing the system have been twofold: an insufficient number of WAV equipped vehicles and a lack of trained drivers. The business model has been evolving though, and in Washington, D.C. Uber  has subcontracted with MV Transportation , a privately owned transport carrier, for both drivers and vehicles. Drivers also receive a bonus for taking these trips.

Thinking back to the windfall: an additional bonus would be set-aside by policy makers,  either to reward the TNC driver, or assist their financial outlay to equip SUVs and vans to accomodate wheelchairs, walkers, and electric scooters.

Meanwhile, taxi providers, who currently receive 5 cents from the 20 cent per/trip tax in Massachusetts, might also restore their fleets and initiate new WAV service, if so-inclined.

Both Taxis and Rideshare vehicles with open seating, may do double purpose. A recent article cited how shared trips can ferry bikers and recreational hikers to out-of-range sites.

Rethinking: Air Quality

Rideshare does not have to be in competition with other transportation modes. In fact, it could significantly and positively impact goals to reduce carbon emissions and air pollution.

TNC revenues (aka, the windfall) could be put towards a vehicle rebate or credit for drivers who drive fully electric vehicles. The credit would be tiered to the number of miles or time that the Rideshare vehicle is in commercial use.

The idea is not novel:  This year London legislators begin a per mile surcharge on Rideshare trips to help drivers over multiple years, switch from diesel to cleaner vehicles.  In the U.S. Lyft announced initiatives to favor greener vehicles, such as adding more to their rental-fleet, and including hybrids in the rider’s choice of vehicle options.

Helping Uber and Lyft drivers acquire electric vehicles should be a win/win for municipalities and drivers. Governments are more likely to achieve their air quality goals and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Drivers favor them because of lower operating costs and fewer repairs.

Meanwhile, another externality, the impugned congestion from Rideshare vehicles, can be tackled. Public service ads need to promote shared Rideshare trips as the social, responsible and efficient choice when transit is not a feasible option.

Rethinking: Senior Training

On a much smaller scale, it happens that I volunteer and teach seniors how to access Rideshare using smartphones. My interest as a volunteer grew out of writing a book called “Aging in Suburbia,” which you can find on Amazon.  I like to tell the students that I developed this Rideshare class in lieu of going on a book tour.

As people choose to age in place, they need transportation alternatives, as their driving skills decline and the costs of keeping a car weigh in.  For older people, Uber and Lyft provide a means to travel safely on bad-weather days or after-dark. They can also be the first and last mile link to public transportation.

We currently teach the Rideshare class with a small army of volunteers and a stack of handouts. A small investment in expanding these classes, perhaps using video and on-line training, would greatly expand the offering. A small investment in education would greatly increase the number of Boomers and Seniors we can reach and keep mobile.

Rethinking: Mind the Curb

Finally, as we imagine what municipalities could fund we should not overlook the curb. To promote Rideshare, curb space needs to be inventoried, signed, and upgraded. These improvements will make Rideshare easier for passengers, and safer for drivers.

Curb-space is the tempest between public and private space. As often noted, the availability of parking meters, on-street parking, and cheap airport parking encourages people to own and drive their own vehicles.

Regulators face a personal challenge here. It is not in their financial interest to reduce on-street parking (e.g., in FY16 Boston collected ~$15.5 in meter fees and ~$57.8 million in parking fines).  But, to accommodate better traffic flow and reduce congestion, as well as make Rideshare safer, curb space needs to be reimagined. So, parking is at the crux of the issue. The good news is that improving Rideshare increases the revenue spun off from the per/trip fee.

Thinking Forward:

Summing up, policy makers and local government seem likely to put new transportation funds to old purposes. Their staffs have long lists of transportation projects that are unfilled and underfunded. So, it takes only a moment to redirect new revenue to existing endeavors.

But, it does not have to be a zero-sum game.

Transportation budgets almost always have allocations for programs that improve air quality, reduce carbon emissions, and increase access for seniors and the handicapped. These are imperatives.

Rideshare supports these initiatives, just in new ways.

The need is to acknowledge that Rideshare is a complement to existing transportation goals, grow it further, and discover better ways to link the resources.

*Pilot Financial Overview – Public Presentation to MAPC by MBTA . Based on 1,168 tides. October, 2018.

Smartphone Travel: Virtual and Veritable

I don’t travel far but my smartphone sends me far afield.”

A recent transportation paper suggests that younger people are wired at birth. The survey study by Boumjahed and Mahmassani, observes that ‘digital natives’ are more likely to engage in virtual activities as a substitute for trips done by private car.  This effect is more pronounced among those who say that they were technologically-engaged as kids.

It is a timely paper that reinforces the popular view that store-fronts and mall traffic are in decline as young people pivot to online activities. “The bottom line is that Americans are shifting from a society that prioritizes products to a society that prioritizes experiences”.  The net result is that spending behaviors, saving strategies, and most importantly, travel trips, are in flux.

Modifying Trends…

To some extent, this evolution of travel behavior was predicted. The earliest papers on transport/telecomm interactions doubted that electronic communication would displace trips Instead, Salomon, Mohktahrian, and others predicted that both the volume of communications and the volume of travel would be complementary and expand. Simply stated, more communications would make for more transport, and more transport would lead to more communications.

However, they also predicted a third interaction: while the entire system grows, technology modifies the type of travel taking. The nature of that travel is just beginning to take shape and form.

We recommend a recent paper in computational  science that used Instagram postings to illustrate the blending of tourist travel, local travel, and internet browsing. And, we cite two survey studies that suggest a new dyamic between long-distance trip taking and virtual communications.

The survey studies  are not academic, but both have fairly robust samples. Both are inspired by the travel industry. They are a worthwhile read because they hint that the demand for travel will continue to grow- but in a different way than previously imagined- Instagram and social media may take on new weight.  Keep in mind the op-cit remark that that, “… Americans are shifting from a society that prioritizes products to a society that prioritizes experience.”

Social Media Before and After Trip Taking

The first study, conducted by the AARP and aptly called “Travel Research: 2018 Travel Trends”  is based on interviews with 714 Baby Boomers, 403 GenXers, and 374 Millenials.

The study found that when compared with Boomers, the Millennials and GenX, were more likely to travel internationally. Why?  The stated reasons for travel were health, trying something new, and adventure. These younger groups were also more likely to say they would combine business travel and side trips.

The next part of the AARP study  is interesting: there is a tipoff that social media fuels the demand for international travel.  Eighty four percent of the Millennials and 67% of Gen X said they wanted to post their vacation pictures. GenX and Millennials were far more likely than Boomers to say that posting vacation pictures would be artistic, make them feel less alone, and provide boast and bragging rights.

Circling back to the original, more solid research by BouMjahed and Mahmassani, are younger people shunning routine and boring everyday travel because they can now travel further afield, and are social media and virtual networks seeding those adventures?

More Social Media and Trip Taking

The second long-distance travel study (op cit) was conducted in 2017 by the Center for Generational Kinetics and Expedia. It is also cohort based, with a total sample of 1,254.  Not surprisingly, given the study sponsors, social media was found to underpin trip making. Twenty seven percent of Millennials said they canvassed opinions on social media before booking a trip. More noteworthy is that thirty-six percent of Gen Z said they selected a destination ‘specifically because of postings they saw.’ Both groups said they were willing to sell furniture, take extra jobs, or do whatever it took to raise funds for their travel adventures.

It will take some time before we know whether these are just young people responding to a survey or actual sign- posts of change. However, as  Boumhahed and Mahmassani suggest digital natives may be wired differently when it comes to travel.

And More to Come…

Summing up, the internet and smartphone reduce the need for local, boring, and increasingly slow and congested everyday travel. Exercise, errands, and socializing are more  easily done from home or from a work place. So, it seems that store fronts will continue to close, and home deliveries will increase…. unless the autonomous vehicle changes preferences.

Meanwhile, more reliance on smartphones and social media could create their own demand for an entirely new category of trip taking. As predicted in the early studies of transportation/communication interaction there are modifications. One of them is the supersized, super-expansive, epic trip adventure generated by social media and posted on social media.



Micro-Mobility Tipping Point? 2020…

Micro-Mobility
Tipping Point for Micro-Mobility?

In 2018 micro-mobility takes place on Limes, Bonzos, and Birds.

In 2000 people travelled on Xebras, Kewet Buddies, and G-Wiz. The Human Transporter, otherwise known as the Segway, came to market in 2001 and  the Velib, the first generation of French bike-share, launched in 2007.

So, while micro-mobility is being reinvented in 2018, it retains a penchant for short perky brand names. And, that reinvention takes place in the shadow of previous start-ups.

This blog is informed by attendance at two Fall 2018 events: a micro-mobility street fair at Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass. followed by a sit-down conference with vendors, government officials, and academics.  I have worked on micro-mobility for over ten years in Los Angeles and based on that experience and the recent conference, make a few observations. It is noteworthy that Kendall Square, the location for these demos, was also the launching pad for a successful transportation technology, the ZipCar, launched in the year 2000.

2000-2018:

Specifically, what has changed since 2000, and will today’s crop of micro-mobility players achieve wider success?  Were the initial failures a function of the technology, the marketplace, regulations, or some combination of these factors? Will these factors repeat, or have there been significant changes in the transportation arena?  

First, we present the issues favoring new growth, and then, the counter arguments.  Note, we do not delve into the business practices or failures of individual companies, for example, Sidecar, which arguably preceded Uber but folded.

An Argument for Micro-Mobilty: What Has Changed in Two Decades

1. RIDESHARE: The most significant advancement for micro-mobility has taken place within  conventional automotives. Uber and Lyft have changed the dynamics of first and last mile travel, and uprooted taxi providers. They have also made it clear that private industry, not public agencies, stand at the forefront of leading change in the transportation field.

Although they only account for two percent of total trip taking today, Uber and Lyft have changed, practically overnight, the perception that it is OK to not have a personal vehicle and rely on your own car for every trip. Per conference speaker Assaf Biderman, a researcher and  founder of Superpedestrian, rideshare has set an important precedent for micro-mobility because 50 percent of trips are 5 miles or less.

2. NEW MARKET: GROWTH of the CHINESE/ INTERNATIONAL VEHICLE:

Tiny cars, like Bonzo, used to be called neighborhood electric vehicles, and have reached only niche markets in the U.S.. That has not been the case overseas. Sales of low-speed small electric cars experienced considerable growth in China due to their affordability and flexibility.  In 2016, China sold over 700,000 units in just ten months. In China these vehicles can be driven without a driver’s license. Demand for tiny electric cars incentivizes better battery technology and recharge options, but also spurs the need to reduce the width of residential zoned traffic lanes- a key issue for safe micro-mobility.

3. ZIPCAR & APPS:  While not a micro-transit service, per se, ZipCar was launched in 2000 and has arguably been the foundation for transportation ventures like rideshare. It has also helped legitimize spin-offs for short-term, on-demand car hire services. Most critically, ZipCar laid the groundwork for smartphone based, app-driven mobile services. There is currently no comprehensive Mobility As a Service  (MaaS) App in the U.S. that integrates the time and location of micro-mobility vehicles with traditional modes but it is under development. MaaS software will help micro-mobility reach new users and become more mainstream with door-to-door trip planning.

4. AUTONOMOUS/ELECTRIC: There has been growing recognition that rideshare was the first wave of disruption in the transportation industry, and the second wave will be even more extreme as autonomous vehicles enter the vehicle mix.  Meanwhile, advancements in electric batteries are making it more likely that the autonomous fleets will be electric, and an electric infrastructure benefits both bikes and scooters.

An Argument Against Micro-Mobility: What has Not Changed Over Two Decades

1. CAR CULTURE: At the Cambridge conference, Josh Westerhold from Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi made a compelling case that personal transportation (i.e. car ownership) is not driven by efficiency. Meanwhile, automotive marketing is the largest category of advertising and topped $47 billion worldwide in 2015. For the near future, the automobile industry will continue to promote the desirability of single vehicle ownership, and there will continue to be high levels of vehicle ownership, on the order of 8 cars for every 10 Americans.

2. REGULATION/RULE MAKING: Although Uber and Lyft have been disruptive to the taxi industry, state and local governments have been slow to react and resolve entirely new issues like curb space, driver screening, and sidewalk sharing. Curb space and public safety are also vital issues for micro mobility. At the Cambridge conference, Joseph Barr, the Cambridge Director of Traffic, Parking and Transportation, observed that cities will need to rebalance their budgets as micro mobility reduces revenue from traditional sources like road taxes and parking.

3. WEATHER:  While climate change has often been a rallying cry for micro mobility, more immediate climate issues have not been fully factored. While small cars, like  Bonzo, offer some protection from inclement weather, it is not clear that they will operate on ice or snow. We do not know if regular commuters will rethink taking a scooter or bicycle when the weather turns inclement or cold.

4. DELIVERIES: Although cars sit idle 95% of day, vehicle owners rationalize the need for one because  they are a necessity for moving packages, groceries, and shuttling children around. To reduce the need for cars and trip generation, alternative means for package delivery and family space need to spring up.

5. DEMOGRAPHICS:  Finally, the audience at the Cambridge conference seemed to rally around a particular problem:  today’s micro-mobility options favor younger people, and particularly those who are single and without families. The emphasis on electric scooters, dock-less bicycles, and repurposing sidewalks does not serve other age groups, and in particular the elderly.

Save Our Sidewalks” or SOS as the Bird speaker, Hannah Smith quipped, requires the company to place ‘bird watchers’ in the field and work with municipalities to achieve better, safe, shared streets. The promise of micro mobility is not so new, but the problems (and potential)  it brings are not necessarily ones that were anticipated by existing, on-the-shelf, transportation master plans.

Will Waze Carpool App Slow Down Uber?


Waze App for Carpools
Waze Carpool App   https://www.waze.com/carpool

Smartphones have accelerated travel information…notifications of real-time traffic, on-demand transit, and, of course, rideshare. But, can a smartphone app crack carpooling?  Waze, a Google subsidiary, developed a carpool app that will look familar to rideshare users, with features like driver name, cost, and arrival time.  Waze is now taking that app nationwide and providing incentives for new signups.

Carpooling has been the transportation “nut” that smartphones have not pried open.  In Los Angeles and most other US cities, only about eight or nine percent of commuters choose to carpool despite numerous campaigns.  I personally worked on TDM (transportation demand management) in Los Angeles and observed carpools to be the “high hanging fruit.”  (editorial  note:  nuts can be fruits)

CARPOOLS: THE HIGH HANGING FRUIT

Why?    First, the ‘real’ number of carpools is inflated and considerably less than the census numbers state. Today’s carpool count includes drivers who ride with a family member, or drop their children off at school. The drivers can legitimately say that they have a passenger, get counted in the surveys, and gain access to faster carpool lanes. But, they are not picking up a casual acquaintance or stranger.  

Carpooling can be inconvenient for a driver who might have to detour during peak-traffic to pick up or drop off passengers. It has been awkward for the driver and passenger to set a price and exchange fees.

HOW WAZE COULD HELP:

In principle, a Waze app could shift the balance.


The missing component for carpooling is the ability to establish trust between strangers.  Hitchhiking fails because strangers meet up with no prior information. An app can close the gap by providing a strongly enforced rating mechanism, like the one pushed to riders and driver after each trip on Uber or Lyft.

Prior to smartphones, there was no systematic, real-time way for riders and drivers to establish trust.  Taxi drivers were considered trustworthy because they were screened through livery boards and medallions. Limo drivers and mini-cabs in the U.K. were subject to similar checks. It is important to note that taxis, limos, and mini-cab drivers all have commercial insurance. Uber and Lyft drivers do too once they secure a passenger trip.

To establish similar levels of trust, a robust carpool app may need to certify that the driver’s DMV driving record and insurance information check-out. Then, passengers will know that they will be riding with a responsible driver in a safe vehicle.

TIME IS OF MATTER AND MORE:

Both time and distance matter for would-be carpools. Here, Waze travel information could play a crucial role. Although detouring to pick up a rider a few blocks away might seem simple there could be significant delays for the driver depending on the roads, time of day, and traffic. The algorithms used by Uber and Lyft account for these issues when they match a driver and passenger. Carpooling apps can use the same tools to minimize the inconvenience for the driver, and keep the passenger informed as the ride approaches.

Second, smartphones plus credit cards solve the monetary transaction that needs to take place between driver and passenger. The passenger does not have to “split the gas” or “share the tolls.” No cash needs to be exchanged. Having a pre-established billing system reduces the uncertainty between strangers and builds trust (#1).

Something that is exogenous,  future increase in gas prices, may serve as an incentive to carpool.  However, transportation researchers have found,  that the travel time saved by using HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes is also an incentive, and as more users carpool, these designated lanes became less productive.

PLUSES OR MINUSES?

That said, will the Waze app become as popular as Uber or Lyft, or will there be drawbacks?

  • Unless drivers arrange the carpool before they get in their vehicle, there will be even more reliance by  casual drivers using smartphones in traffic. Mobile phones are an increasing source of driver distraction, and there is mixed evidence, pro and con, of whether hands-free devices are safer.  Potentially, vehicle accidents could increase, but the app can help identify the safest drivers. 
  •  In a personal vehicle, the norms are fuzzy:  Some drivers may have difficulty speaking up about the house-rules and some passengers will flaunt them anyway. A carpool rating system may restore the balance, but because the rating system will be slower (a given driver makes only two or three trips a day) the driver might exit the entire system before there is an adequate feedback loop.  
  • Finally, this may be the most important reason why the carpool app will need time to grow:  “Drivers are turned inward”. The driver is transporting strangers in their personal car. For many, this vehicle is their largest purchase and most prized possession. Millions of dollars have been spent on advertising to remind car owners that “vehicles=freedom + identity + well-being.” 

So, until further notice, the decision to carpool could be overruled by the opportunity to make unannounced stops, do a drive-through for food, and have a sanctuary between the home and office.  It will just depend!

Curious why you see fewer posts here at GrayHomesGreenCars? Follow the  smartphone- centric blog at dearsmartphone.com and join in the discussion!

Rideshare As Niche Transit? (Nice!)

Rideshare and Transit Working Well
Rideshare and Transit as Partners

Can transit be a contender in the race for ‘first-mile last-mile’ and niche travel?  Transit doesn’t have a short, sexy name, like Lime or Bird, but transit does have room to grow if you pair it with rideshare. 

This past week I attended a short workshop held by the Massachusetts  Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) called a ‘Ride-Hailing Parternships Forum. The program showcased local  institutions that have partnered with Uber and Lyft .  It was an interesting weave of legacy  transportation and  the upstarts.  Here are observations, and in italics  my comments (JG).  While I have tried to be journalistically accurate, it is still a good idea to check with the workshop coordinator  before quoting.

Niche 1: Rideshare Goes Where Transit Does…But Faster

The Boston region has an older but extensive commuter-rail and bus network so in principle you don’t have to own a vehicle, even if you live in the outer suburbs. However, getting from one locale to another can be exceedingly slow if the travel trip requires connections or transfers. Northshore Community College had difficulty getting students to campus within a reasonable travel time as the classrooms, and campus services were spread over different locales (think of a triangle: public transit often had students traveling the right angle).

The Community College found a solution: they provide enrolled students with access to a rideshare business account. It has a cap of $10.00 per trip and travel is limited to commutes.  Northshore no longer operates a shuttle bus at an annual cost of nearly $100,000, and students seem to reach their classes with less travel time. This means that the campus can recruit from a larger area, retain students who have a family or work a second job, and not make car ownership seem like a prerequisite for getting an education.

JG: From a birds-eye view, rideshare is expanding the transit network in the greater Boston area. Over time, it may help to fine-tune it, and even reduce the number of low-performing bus routes (see Niche #4 below too). A larger question for land-user planners is how to locate future facilities, like a community college, closer to the main lines.

Niche 2: Rideshare Lowers the Cost of Paratransit and Makes Riders Happy

The Ride, which is the paratransit operation of the MBTA, had a purported annual budget in 2016 of  ~ $100 million.  Around 2016  they partnered with Uber and Lyft, and encouraged ambulatory passengers to take rideshare instead of the usual paratransit trip. Each rideshare trip trip would be subsidized, but could not exceed a cap.  What began as a pilot proved to be a win-win for passengers: they said they preferred arriving in Uber or Lyft instead of big, lumbering vans or Ride branded vehicles; they did not have to pre-book for travel often three or four days in advance; and they seemed to enjoy participating in high-tech mobility.

The  travel outcomes are surprising and important.  According to a RIDE spokesman: the pilot reduced the RIDE’s cost the per cost trip from $41.00  to just $17.00. That is a 59 percent decrease. However, it also fueled the number of trips “ordered” by eligible customers by nearly 46 percent.

There have been a few other bumps on the service road. Many  passengers resist taking pooled trips. And, a few Uber and Lyft drivers have been resistant to accommodating  service dogs. The stickiest and most challenging issue seems to be providing a sufficient supply of WAV  (wheel chair accessible vehicles).

JG: Perhaps one of the most vital aspects, still to be measured, is whether both the mental and physical health of RIDE passengers is improved. Does new- found mobility improve the quality of life and are their benefits from the opportunity to be more socially, culturally, and physically active?

Niche 3: Rideshare is the New Link to Medical Care:

It is often cited that 30 percent of patients miss their medical appointments because they cannot get to the doctor . Whether that percentage is too large is debatable (patients might want to cancel for other reasons), but the no-show numbers are staggering.

The Needham Community Council, a private non-profit social service agency tackled the issue several years ago when their Executive Director saw a decline in the number of volunteer drivers. She was the first to identify Rideshare as a back-stop for patients who had difficulty reaching medical services, and went on to negotiate business contracts with both Uber and Lyft (she currently uses only Lyft).  Since her older office staff lacked the facility to dispatch rides with smartphones, the council reverted to summoning rideshare trips via voice calls like the Go Go Grandparent  service.

The Needham service currently averages about thirty-five trips a month at an average cost of $8.00 per ride.  Although each trip is completely subsidized, the council discovered a soft touch so that about 25% of the riders to contribute to the cost of travel. Meanwhile, local hospitals and charities also make small financial contributions.

JG: The Needham program is noteworthy, not only because it was a first in health-care travel, but because it continues to be sustainable. Although many larger corporate players are moving into this space this is an example of how a small grassroots program can do the job well, and make up for the lack of volunteer drivers.

Niche 4: Rideshare is the Missing Link in the Transit Schedule

Bus service is not 24/7 but the needs of riders can be,  particularly on weekends, holidays, and after 6 pm.  With limited service evening riders are stranded along with those working night shifts and low paying service jobs.  In fact, to work a low paying job at night or weekends, you might need have to own a car. The problem is particularly acute in low-density, sprawling suburbs, where workers are more likely to be able to afford to live.

The Greater Attleboro-Taunton Regional Transit Authority (GATRA) operates fixed bus route service from  6 am to 6:30 pm weekdays, and Saturdays, 9 am to 5 pm. To meet the needs of their ‘under resourced’ riders,  community leaders  banded together to provide an alternative. They tapped into an existing transit grant of $30,000 and used the local YMCA as a lead. Now, riders who are opted-in by any of the community leaders (there are currently ten of them) get access to rideshare  outside of the narrow transit service window.

Other regional transit agencies are beginning to investigate the feasibility of this niche service, particularly for routes where headways are long and ridership is sparse (often a confounding problem).

JG: In an interesting twist of data analysis, origin/destination/ and time of day data from Uber and Lyft  might reveal where future bus service is warranted. It has generally been observed in other cities that the highest level of rideshare growth has been in the evenings and on weekends. 

—–

In our earlier blog, we observed that regulators are quick to jump on the bandwagon to tax the rideshare companies and blame them for increased traffic congestion and reduced transit ridership. In fact, an earlier publication by MAPC, whether correctly interpreted or not, led to the headline that Uber and Lyft were pulling people off public transit and putting them in traffic .

The MAPC workshop, yet organized by regulators, suggests there might be a softening and second look at entirely new and niche travel behaviors.