One year into a "groundbreaking" partnership between ride-hailing giant Uber and the city of Cincinnati, OH, officials on both sides say a spirit of collaboration is alive and well, and already bearing results.
Known as the Cincinnati Mobility Lab, the three-year partnership aims to study the impact of shared mobility on public transit and has already yielded results on assessing the city’s curbside. Its main objective is to help leaders understand more about how public transit agencies can work with Uber to provide better service across the city.
The lab brings together representatives from Uber, the city, the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Council of Governments (OKI), as well as the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) and the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK), two transit agencies that function in the city.
“I think all the other partners would say that Uber has been really great to work with, and I think that's one of the reasons we're much further along than what I anticipated,” Mark Policinski, CEO and executive director of OKI, told Smart Cities Dive. “It seems that everybody is really working well together ... This is a rocket shot so far, we just have to finish it up the next two years.”
Curb your enthusiasm
A major tenet of the partnership’s first year has been a study of curb space in Cincinnati, an issue that hinders cities around the world as they deal with an influx of shared mobility options while balancing the need to maintain on-street parking and space for deliveries.
To begin this process, Uber commissioned a study with Fehr & Peers Transportation Consultants, a transportation planning firm. In a Medium post, Allison Wylie of Uber’s transportation and mobility policy team said the study "analyzed a combination of ride-share pick-up and drop-off activity data, traffic count data, video documentation, and in-person observations."
"The goal of the study was to identify potential improvements to curb space allocation and traffic management in some of the City’s busiest downtown corridors," Wylie continued. Those corridors included a stretch of Walnut Street, a major street in downtown Cincinnati, as well as arterials near the Great American Ball Park, the city’s baseball stadium. All three locations have high demands placed on their curbs, including passenger loading and unloading from ride-hailing vehicles.
The full report has a series of recommendations for the city, including freeing up space by removing on-street parking and replacing it with a passenger pick-up and drop-off area, better enforcing loading zones and improving wayfinding and traffic control for motorists. Those recommendations are now with city officials, who will decide on next steps as they wrestle with how curb needs have changed.
"That's the basic idea [of the report]: how do we think about where and how we can enhance curb productivity as new technology comes in and then in Cincinnati drill down to a couple of sites and make some specific recommendations that we have passed on to the city and look forward to working with them on,” Andrew Salzberg, Uber’s head of transportation policy and research, told Smart Cities Dive.
“Fifteen years ago, who cared about the curb? Ten years ago, who cared about the curb? Now, the curb is the Holy Grail."
CEO and Executive Director, OKI
Joe Vogel, director of the Cincinnati Department of Transportation and Engineering (DOTE), said the city is reviewing the recommendations, but feels positive about them at this stage.
"They validate many of the same concerns we’ve had but the study provides us with more in-depth data and analysis as documentation," Vogel told Smart Cities Dive. "If the changes produce the positive results we expect once implemented, we would look to replicate some of the same changes in other parts of downtown and across the city."
As the city examines recommendations that include removing on-street parking — something that would have been unthinkable in the past but has increasingly gained ground as cities wrestle with congestion — Policinski said it shows how things have changed.
“Fifteen years ago, who cared about the curb? Ten years ago, who cared about the curb? Now, the curb is the Holy Grail,” he said. “It's who controls it and how is it controlled and how do you allow for efficiencies. In a city like Cincinnati, where one of the reasons it's beautiful is the very narrow streets, how do you share a curb when you have deliveries, parking, residents and things like that?”
A new kind of Movement
Trip planning has also received a boost under the partnership between Uber and Cincinnati thanks to integration of the ride-hailing company’s Uber Movement platform, which helps the partners analyze and implement transportation changes in the area. Uber has been rolling out Movement to cities nationwide and adding features to it like the ability to view data for its bike-share arm, Jump.
In Cincinnati, Uber Movement is being used to augment OKI’s travel demand model, which keeps track of congestion and trip times. And where OKI’s only keeps track of main streets and highways, Uber Movement allows it to go into greater detail.
“Our model tends to look at the major roads, the major arteries and things like that,” Policinski said. "Uber Movement is tracking a whole different set of streets that are in our region, and a different way of using those streets with ride-hailing. It's providing a layer of information that could be useful in the future.”
That model should get even more data as Uber grows in use in the Cincinnati region. As well as helping transportation planners, it should also help city leaders when it comes to attracting new businesses as they can see choke-points and places for investment. The need for reliable transit and transportation options was a key part of Amazon’s decision-making process when awarding its second headquarters (HQ2), and is something that cities see as an economic development tool.
“Ultimately, the type of transportation system we have impacts how we attract talent to the region, how we attract and retain businesses in our region, so everything fundamentally comes back to the economic development impact of it,” Pete Metz, transportation policy and coalition manager at the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, told Smart Cities Dive.
Year two: Transit study and more
As the partnership enters its second year, high on the list of priorities is a study of the city’s transit offerings, analysis of where people get on and off, and the volume of ridership. Combined with Uber’s data on rider drop-off and pick-up locations, Salzberg said there should be plenty to learn, both for ride-hailing companies and transit agencies, which he said should not view each other as rivals but as allies instead.
TANK spokeswoman Gina Douthat told Smart Cities Dive the agency is still “very early on in our partnership with Uber and the mobility lab,” and that by late spring should have a better idea of future projects. SORTA spokeswoman Heather Norris-Garcia said it is a similar story for that agency, too.
And as Uber grows in stature across the region, Policinski said he could foresee a greater role for the Uber Pool ride-sharing service to help solve the first-mile, last-mile issue of getting people to and from transit stations as they travel to work and to their homes. He said making use of pooled transportation, either through Uber or a similar company, could make a real difference.
“We are of the belief that something like Uber Pool or some ride-sharing that is technologically grounded is going to be the way to solve first-mile, last-mile,” Policinski said. “[That] type of information as Uber grows, these are powerful tools that can be added to cracking this and not only make our model better but also cracking first-mile, last-mile.”
It all represents a major sea change for Uber’s relationships with cities, which have had a checkered history but appear to have turned a corner. And for cities like Cincinnati, ride-hailing companies are being increasingly viewed as partners for collaboration rather than competition.
“I think Uber and Lyft and ride-share is so ubiquitous at this point in urban culture that I don't think the question is should we or shouldn't we have them,” Metz said. “The question is how do we best work in this new transportation environment.”
As for future initiatives, Metz said the Cincinnati Mobility Lab will continue to be a good forum to try new ideas.
“Let's try some things. Let's put some pilots out there, let's give it a go,” Metz said. “The beauty of this here in Cincinnati is that we've all agreed that not all these things are going to be 100% resounding successes. We hope they are, but let's try some things and then let's assess how those things went and go back to the drawing board where we need to or turbo-charge it where it makes sense based on what we see in a more action-oriented year.”