Cities grapple with 'white hot' pace of change in mobility
On the first day of LA CoMotion in Los Angeles, speakers reflected on how quickly innovations have come about, but continued to find the dockless issue a sticky one.
LOS ANGELES — An open mindset is needed both among city leaders and their residents to help new mobility options take hold, even as the pace of change remains astonishingly high.
Those were some of the key takeaways from the first day of LA CoMotion, a two-day conference in Los Angeles celebrating changes in mobility and transportation and looking ahead to the future.
The event kicked off with the host city signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the City of Montreal, Quebec to share data on mobility and transportation, so that the two cities can learn from each other and collaborate on best practices. In a speech to begin the conference, John Rossant, founder and chief curator of LA CoMotion and the chairman of nonprofit NewCities, described it as an "unprecedented agreement to cooperate in the field of mobility."
LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante sign an MOU for the two cities to work together to improve mobility. "I don't know much, but I know a photo op," Garcetti jokes #LACOMO18 pic.twitter.com/latGR21bye— Chris Teale (@chris_teale) November 15, 2018
The MOU brings together two cities that have differing relationships with transit. Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said during a panel discussion that she has never owned a car, and she ran for office with the promise of expanding options in what she described as a “mobility cocktail” that includes bike-sharing, ride-hailing and other modes.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles is making moves to expand its mobility options, having been built around car usage but now struggling with crippling traffic congestion and looking for ways to alleviate it. In recent times, the city has partnered with dockless bike- and scooter-sharing companies Lime and Spin to share data on usage, while new ride-hailing pilot programs have launched and the Metro transit system is the subject of higher investment.
"Everything you want to try in transportation, you can try here," Garcetti said. But both have similar issues they need to solve — in particular how to bring housing and transportation closer together as part of urban planning. Both said there needs to be a shift in how the cities approach the issue, and by working together they can help each other move forward and serve as an example to others in a similar position.
"It is our responsibility as cities, it is us,” Plante said. “We are dealing with all the problems like population, so we need to bring it to a level, and if it means forcing bigger governments to take us seriously, we've got to do it."
'The pace of change is white hot'
Things are changing fast in the mobility space, and it has city leaders scrambling to keep up as innovations like dockless bikes and scooters, ride-hailing and autonomous vehicles (AVs) promise to transform how people get around and create what Rossant described as a "new global ecosystem of mobility players."
Some of those innovations have happened in the last few years, while others are sure to be more widespread soon, showing just how quickly things are moving forward. “The pace of change is white hot,” Rossant said.
Garcetti compared new transportation technologies to other seminal moments in history such as the invention and wide use of the steam engine, the Wright brothers pioneering aviation and the advent of space flight. Those new technologies and innovations changed how people thought about getting around, and he said something similar is afoot now, albeit with a difference in how quickly they come to bear in the marketplace.
"I truly believe we're in one of those same moments now," Garcetti said. "The next generation of transformative transportation is here in front of us ... And we're bringing these innovations to market faster than ever in human history. This is the age of acceleration."
But that can mean cities feel powerless to get things under control. Dockless bikes and scooters have been a major pain point for some cities, with the likes of Seattle having banned them outright while others have struggled to write and approve regulations quickly enough to keep up.
Meanwhile, ride-hailing company Uber has faced difficult relationships with some cities and has had to walk a long road to recovery for offenses like failing to be transparent on data breaches, violating lobbying rules and trying to skirt city regulators.
Larry De Shon, CEO of the Avis Budget Group car rental company, said the slew of new options has created something of a "wild, wild west" for cities to deal with, and that there is a long way to go before urban leaders can say they have things truly under control.
"Mobility solutions and technology are advancing so fast that the cities aren't really ready for it,” De Shon said. “I do think it can't be the wild, wild west. It has to be organized, it has to have the right partnerships and everyone working to the right objectives."
With AVs set to roll out more on public roads despite some difficult moments in the testing phase, San Jose, CA Mayor Sam Liccardo said there is an "imperative to innovate" for cities; otherwise they risk being left behind.
Liccardo said while city leaders may be reluctant to ruffle too many feathers and won’t want to be the first to try something new, he said someone has to stand up and embrace AV technology. "The city that's going to get this done first is going to be brave,” he said.
This idea that cities do not want test new technologies and fail has led many people to say that there must be a new mindset around mobility and infrastructure — one that embraces a different way of doing things.
"Oftentimes, the incentive in cities is for local leaders to let someone else go first,” Garcetti said. “You don't want to fail forward."
But that changing mindset has already paid dividends. Kadri Simson, Estonia’s Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure, said since the country made public transportation free to all riders, there has been a massive uptick in ridership. She said some counties have seen 92% passenger growth, which she attributes to people realizing transit is a good option and the government is now truly embracing the environmental benefits.
"Oftentimes, the incentive in cities is for local leaders to let someone else go first. You don't want to fail forward."
Mayor, Los Angeles
"This is a possibility to change the mindset,” she said. “For residents, it’s ‘I can save money if I use public transport,’ and for us, it's very important for us because we have an ambitious plan that by 2030, we will use the same amount of fossil fuels in transport that were used in 2011."
For cities that have been dominated by single-occupancy vehicles, a similar mindset shift is underway. Los Angeles is one city that has been designed with the car in mind, but it is catching on to the idea that areas like surface parking lots can be repurposed as more people become reliant on transit and ride-sharing.
And for ordinary citizens, that shift is underway too. During a panel discussion, Lyft’s Chief Strategy Officer Raj Kapoor reflected on the company’s Ditch Your Car initiative, which has been expanded nationwide after a successful trial.
He said that initially, participants in the scheme only thought to use ride-hailing. And while getting them away from car reliance was a tough task at times, the initiative eventually pushed them toward other transportation modes such as bike-sharing.
"There was definitely a habit they had to break, but once they broke it they felt great about it," Kapoor said.
That shift in personal preferences has impacted companies like Avis, which now is looking toward mobility that is both on-demand and convenient, something De Shon said has been driven in part by millennials not wanting to own a car. "We're no longer thinking about rental cars as car-sharing,” he said. “We're thinking about how consumers want to consume mobility in the future."
Los Angeles is driving forward the next generation of transformative transportation — building a culture of innovation and expanding job opportunities for Angelenos as we create a greener and more sustainable city. #LACOMO18 pic.twitter.com/8QMeTcGz5x— Mayor Eric Garcetti (@MayorOfLA) November 15, 2018
A final mindset shift that speakers called for is on infrastructure, which has been recognized as needing more investment but mired in political differences in Congress and stalled. Rudy Salo, a partner at the Nixon Peabody law firm, said more people are realizing the importance of investing in infrastructure, but more must be done.
"If we can make infrastructure sexy, I think it'll make our lives a lot easier,” Salo said during a panel discussion. "Then you'll have voters willing to pay extra taxes, private companies that say, 'Hey voters want it, let's go for it.' Getting the people involved and having people have their say is how you're going to be able to address infrastructure."
Scooters remain a hot-button issue
While there is great progress being made in mobility, dockless bikes and scooters continue to cause issues for some cities, which struggle to control the influx of dockless vehicles and ensure the safety of their residents and visitors, especially on sidewalks.
Liccardo said he sent a joint letter to the CEOs of various dockless companies alongside Santa Monica, CA Mayor Ted Winterer, calling on them to be partners and "innovate with us," including on technology like geofencing to help enforce bans on sidewalk riding.
"The great challenge for mayors and city officials who worry about things like collisions, harm and liability, is that these scooters are not terribly well managed,” Liccardo said. “Especially when we think about all the collisions that are increasingly happening on sidewalks throughout the state and throughout the country, this is a serious issue."
Companies like Bird are learning for themselves the types of regulations that make sense for them, something the company’s senior director for global partnerships YJ Fischer said is an ongoing process. She said proposals like dynamic utilization caps, which allow cities to add more or less depending on usage, are interesting and need further study to see if they are effective.
"I think what we're beginning to see across the country is a patchwork of really interesting regulations that could work,” Fischer said. “I think one of the things we're trying to say to cities everywhere is let's take the best of what exists. Let's really create a race to the top here, not a race to the bottom."
Bird has had a strained relationship with some cities, however, including with Washington, DC. Earlier this month, Bird’s head of government partnerships David Estrada sent Mayor Muriel Bowser a letter saying that it will be “impossible” to operate under a 600-vehicle cap, which new regulations stipulate.
“I think one of the things we're trying to say to cities everywhere is let's take the best of what exists. Let's really create a race to the top here, not a race to the bottom."
Senior Director for Global Partnerships, Bird
But Jeff Marootian, director of the District Department of Transportation, said the 600-vehicle cap is dynamic, and the onus will be on cities and companies to work together to figure out if demand is higher than the supply of vehicles.
Scooters being ridden on sidewalks remains a major issue, one that Fischer said “keeps us up at night.” Jeff Russakow, CEO of electric skateboard company Boosted, said there can be simple solutions like painting designated parking areas for bikes and scooters, while Liccardo said geofencing technology can be adapted to keep them off sidewalks and out of the public right-of-way.
Fischer said changing riders’ behavior is a priority for Bird, and she said that the company wants to be held to a high standard on issues such as these.
"It drives us crazy. It drives all our non-users crazy, and I would argue it drives some of our users crazy when they are not on a scooter,” she said. “Scooters are not meant to be ridden on sidewalks.”
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