Forget New York City’s crumbling subway system—the flood of dockless electric scooters is shaping up to be the key urban transportation story of 2018 as citizens in San Francisco and elsewhere become enraged over another example of tech companies barging in and begging for forgiveness instead of asking for permission (or simply waiting for regulations).
In just the past week, local leaders in both Santa Monica, California, the market where billion-dollar startup Bird first launched, and San Francisco, introduced ordinances to restrict and regulate scooter usage. Both initially proposed capping the number dockless vehicles these companies can place on the road, and have been met with pushback by the startups. A Bird spokesperson initially told Curbed the proposed regulations “will severely undercut our ability to serve all of the neighborhoods and residents of Santa Monica.”
The debate over restricting scooters may be a sign cities are finally beginning to catch up with transit startups, which often entered markets before any regulations were in place. But read the Santa Monica regulations, which were just approved, more closely, and signs of a more profound and important shift may be evident. Cities and planners are, more and more, seeing the immense value of controlling the curb.
With more options that ever for getting around cities, and finite space, the question of how we use this infrastructure, and who controls it, is more important than ever. By regulating how these new transportation options evolve, cities can potentially bring about a more sustainable, multimodal, and less car-centric transit future.
“The curb is an increasingly contested piece of urban real estate,” according to “The Shared-Use City: Managing the Curb,” a new report by the International Transport Forum. It’s where companies, citizens, and the government are jockeying for space for transportation, commerce, and delivery. Cities built and maintain the curb, and need to reassert ownership.
The curb, an increasingly contested piece of urban real estate
Venture capitalists and startups see a convergence around different mobility options in cities. Scooters and dockless bikes have arrived just as this larger transportation transition, started by ridehailing, is beginning to pick up momentum. There’s value in providing simpler, cost-effective, and car-free ways to get around. The new flock of transit startups seems poised to make a lot of money, if all these rosy valuations and the ridership projections behind them add up.
The tech world certainly sees a lot of dollar signs when it comes to dockless mobility and bikeshare. After scooter startup Bird became a unicorn two weeks ago, announcing a new round of funding that would give it a $1 billion valuation, it recently announced plans to seek a $2 billion valuation. Competitors Lime and Spin are also flush with cash, especially after Google Ventures just invested $250 million in Lime. After reports suggested Lyft wanted to acquire Motivate, the national bikeshare operator that runs New York’s CitiBike system, other stories suggested Uber, which already purchased the electric bikeshare company Jump, is also interested in Motivate.
What’s left out of these billion-dollar deals? Cities.
Most of these transit companies don’t have plans to pay for street maintenance, enforce safety rules, or share the ridership data that cities could use to plan better and more efficient transportation systems. Yet cities are paying for and providing the public infrastructure—roads, sidewalks, and curbs—underpinning this private gain. Last year, many of the country’s biggest cities passed measures worth hundreds of millions of dollars to update and fix streets and sidewalks.
But with the widespread adoption of mobile technology and GPS, the possibilities of a “self-adjusting curb” allow cities even more potential to shape and direct this rise in curbside traffic. Some cities have already had success with tests and trials that regulate access.
“Santa Monica is a multi-modal city focused on carbon reduction,” a Santa Monica city spokerperson told Curbed. “We’re supportive of...the concept of Bird. They just need to operate lawfully and safely.”
Washington, D.C., launched a successful trial in 2017 to regulate pick-up and drop-offs around the busy DuPont Circle area. San Francisco has used geo-fencing tools to “nudge” riders of Uber and Lyft to request pick-ups and drop-offs in designated zones to reduce congestion.
These concepts, referred to as “flex-zones” by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) or Shared-Use Mobility Zones by the Eno Transportation Foundation, envision cities using rules and technology to give different transit options priority.
For example, Seattle has adopted proposed guidelines for design that follows a flex zone framework. First, designate transit stops, transit lanes, and bikeways. Then, find spaces for bike share stations, commercials loading, perhaps geo-fenced areas for dockless vehicles. Then, fill in the blanks with parklets and pick-up and drop-off spaces for ridehailing and private vehicles. Finally, include an array of short-term car storage options via parking regulations.
Why Santa Monica scooter regulations may be about more than scooters
By laying out criteria for dockless mobility partners, and introducing user fees for fleet operators, Santa Monica’s pilot program show that transportation planners there are thinking about the quid pro quo of this new transit world. The document detailing the arrangement repeatedly underscores that the city wants an “open and productive partnership,” recognizing that scooters and other dockless vehicles can help the city achieve sustainability goals and offer a highly desired option for shorter trips.
Companies vying for a spot in Santa Monica’s 16-month pilot program for shared mobility devices will be evaluated on a number of criteria, including safety, operations requirements, and data sharing. Each of the seven categories has minimum and recommended benchmarks.
Taken as a whole, the recommended benchmarks read like a model for the kind of partnership that could allow technology to evolve while giving public transit officials the ability to oversee, analyze, and regulate. Operators are encouraged to offer low-income and multilingual options, create a system that recognizes geo-fenced parking areas dedicated to decreasing vehicle clutter, and provide real-time fleet info to the city. After some debate, the city approved a dynamic model for capping scooters based on vehicle utilization; both Bird and Lime issued statements praising the new framework.
Other cities, looking to control traffic and fund the infrastructure used by these companies, have started to levy fees and rules on tech companies. A new fee Chicago officials added to Uber and Lyft rides will direct millions of dollars towards public transit investment, while designated drop-off spots are being tested in other cities to help avoid congestion.
As these new mobility companies invest in larger fleets—and make private car ownership, a massive municipal revenue source, less attractive—cities will find more and more financial reasons to take control of the curb. The “Managing the Curb” report says cities need to prepare for the shift, and figure out how to price curb use to both control traffic and make up for any lost parking revenue (the top 25 U.S. cities made $2.8 billion on parking fines and fees in 2016).
“Curb use will resemble dynamic, highly flexible, self-solving puzzles,” says the report, as our urban areas move from what it calls “parking cities” to “pick-up and drop-off cities”.
Creating incentives creates a better system for all
Regulations that stifle and kill these mobility innovations would be tragic. But wise rules that recognize the potential and pitfalls of these new forms of transit, and how they can make existing systems better, would be a huge benefit.
Take two recent studies analyzing how ridehailing companies like Uber and Lyft impact urban traffic. The first report, released last October by University of California Davis transportation researcher Dr. Regina Clewlow, found that while widespread usage of these services may be decreasing the number of miles users drive themselves, it appears to increase the total miles driven in cities. The research found that 49 to 61 percent of ride-hailing trips “would not have been made at all, or made by walking, biking, or transit.”
Last month, a study by Masabi, a mobile ticketing service that works with transit systems as well as companies such as Uber and Lyft, found that more than one-third of respondents said they were combining ridesharing with public transit on an occasional basis.
Better coordination between public and private, and added incentives to steer riders towards this kind of shared system, can potentially work wonders when it comes to reducing congestion and decreasing car travel. When Chicago introduced its proposed tax increase on ridehailing companies, an Uber spokesperson said that the “future of urban transportation will be a mix of public transit and ride-sharing.”
Many cities are already subsidizing Uber and Lyft rides, testing to see if the service can function as a first/last mile connection to existing transit systems. And scores of new planning apps have made it easier to plot trips that bounce between different modes, including dockless bikes.
In addition, a shift in fees towards curb-access, as opposed to parking, can help cities monitor and control traffic. New York City and others have struggled to introduce congestion pricing. Why not just update existing parking laws to account to all the new mobility options on the road right now?
To paraphrase the Santa Monica regulations, cities need to find good partners. In a healthy relationship, that usually means being upfront about boundaries and not being afraid to ask for what you need.
Cities need to own the curb
With so many new and developing transit options, it may seem like city streets are flooded with choices, as well as vehicles. There are extensive regulatory and safety issues at play to get all of these different ways of getting around to work together in a more cohesive manner. And while it may seem overwhelming, there is evidence that, if introduced with proper investment and oversight, these new options can work wonders.
Just look at the success of traditional bikesharing, which in five years, went from unknown to a backbone of the transit system in New York City. The system racked up impressive ridership and safety stats because, according to a recent NACTO report, “as these systems were implemented, they were accompanied by policy decisions from city leaders and transportation engineers to ensure that cycling infrastructure improved to match their investments.”
Dockless systems, for all the complaints that they’re unruly or disorderly, can work if properly regulated. According to an Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) report that analyzed both station-based and dockless bike systems, dockless bikeshare isn’t always the “disruptor” people make it out to be.
“The best transit innovations—especially those that are privately operated—offer riders convenient, affordable options for getting where they need to go,” the report reads. “Local governments that have viewed dockless bikeshare as an extension of their transit systems and introduced some form of regulation have seen ridership flourish as a result.”
Cities have a chance to do the same with the current influx of scooters and dockless systems and invest in more car-free travel lanes while regulating curb access.
Many companies seem at least willing to work with cities toward these goals. Uber, Lyft, and many dockless bike companies signed a Livable Cities Pledge, promising to support the shared and efficient use of “vehicles, lanes, curbed, and land,” as well as push for open data and fair user fees. Bird promoted a Save Our Sidewalks pledge that even suggested the companies should pay a per-vehicle fee to fund infrastructure improvements, and after the recent Santa Monica vote, Lime spokeswoman Mary Caroline Pruitt said the company remains “committed to partnering together to promote safe riding, proper parking etiquette, and accessible sidewalks.” A recent app redesign from Lyft seeks to promote shared rides, and the company’s new goal to have shared rides account for half of all trips on the platform by 2020.
These pledges and plans move in the right direction. But cities shouldn’t wait for transit companies. As urban mobility continues to rapidly evolve, it’s an asset that should be firmly in public hands, and used for the public good.