The pandemic has upended public and private mobility services. Public transit is "hemorrhaging money" due to plummeting ridership while micromobility companies have pulled scooters and bikes from a number of cities, leaving some residents and essential workers to scramble for transportation options.
On a Tuesday webinar hosted by the Knight Foundation, mobility and smart city experts discussed the many transportation challenges spurred by the pandemic — as well as the wins and failures of cities and technology companies working to address those issues.
Cities have gotten creative in devising effective mobility solutions during the pandemic, with many becoming risk-takers, City of Oakland, CA Policy Director Warren Logan said on the webinar.
"I've been really encouraged by the fact that people are finally looking at the ways in which we use our rights of ways — our streets, our sidewalks, our parks — flexibly," he said. In Oakland, some of those decisions have been reflected in the city's "Slow Streets" initiative, which opened 74 miles of streets — almost 10% of the city’s roadways — to pedestrians for safely distanced foot and cycling traffic.
That creative, flexible solution was accompanied by a number of innovative efforts globally, launched since the onset of the pandemic in early March. Examples include:
- The City of Miami partnered with DHL Express and mobility logistics hub Reef Technology in May to pilot four low-powered e-assist cargo bikes to be used for deliveries throughout the city. And although the cargo bikes weren’t in direct response to the pandemic, they can be used to help mitigate curbside competition and pollution as more city residents turn to online shopping due to COVID-19.
- After years of controversy and debate, the New York City Council voted in favor of legalizing e-scooters and e-bikes, something delivery workers have been penalized for using in the past.
- New Zealand became the first country to fund tactical urbanism solutions as a government policy to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety. Transportation Minister Julie Anne Genter invited cities to apply for 90% funding to carve out more space for cyclists with solutions as simple as widened sidewalks or pop-up bike lanes.
Despite many of these experiments seeing success, some decisions made by public and private entities have fallen short of serving residents' transportation needs. For instance, the cities that saw micromobility fleets completely removed or reduced on city streets may have benefited from those shared mobility options.
"This would have been a really great time to double down on those types of technologies," Logan said, "But unfortunately, we’re seeing just the opposite."
Uber is one mobility company that received heavy criticism from the micromobility community for scrapping hundreds of JUMP e-bikes in May, during a time when many cities were experiencing a shortage of bike supplies amid a national cycling surge.
The delivery landscape has also posed new challenges. Companies within the venture-backed tech sector have made quick moves to scale up their food and grocery delivery services since January, according to Star City Group Founder Anthony Townsend. Amazon bought automated driving company Zoox in late June, while Uber acquired Postmates in early July in a move to rebalance its business.
While Townsend touted many of these companies' initiatives as "remarkable," particularly those to deliver medicine or education materials during stay-at-home orders, he warned of the potential consequences of such consolidation.
"At the same time, it’s been horrifying because you can see a lot of moves to...eventually take the whole 'Walmartification' of Main Street to a whole other level," he said. "As we see all these small businesses falling apart, we see these big players backed with big pockets, moving in to take over big parts of local economies and I don’t think that’s a good thing for cities over the long-run."
Stable, lasting partnerships needed
As residents increasingly depend on new technologies and initiatives to aid in times of emergency, partnerships have proven to be key in maintaining service for continued reliability.
The City of Oakland has had a collaborative, open approach to working with tech companies, allowing them to provide the "pieces of the puzzle" that government and public agencies aren’t able to offer in terms of mobility, according to Logan.
"[We] need to ensure that whatever is in the marketplace — whether its public, whether its private, whether its a partnership — that it’s stable and will last into the future no matter what changes may occur," he said.