Bringing the Shared Economy Revolution to America's Medium Size Cities

I’ve been thinking a lot about mobility choices lately and this week I find myself in Chicago at the National Move Together Summit sponsored by the Shared Use Mobility Center. Look around and you can’t help but notice that personal mobility is being revolutionized. In part this is due to the massive technology changes happening around us that are literally transforming how we get, analyze and use data to make real-time decisions.

The change also reflects a slower evolution happening within the transportation and planning professions as emphasis has shifted from mobility simply defined as “getting from point A to point B quickly”, to “how much can I get to at each point and along the way?” This shift is referred to as transportation access, and is increasingly viewed as a fundamental transportation goal.

Divvy bike share is spreading from Chicago to Oak Park and Evanston bringing shared use mobility to urban and suburban residents. (Photo: M. Zimmerman, Sept 2015).

Divvy bike share is spreading from Chicago to Oak Park and Evanston bringing shared use mobility to urban and suburban residents. (Photo: M. Zimmerman, Sept 2015).

Gathered this week in Chicago are private and public sector planners, business entrepreneurs and researchers who are very much in the midst of the shared mobility revolution. Experimentation, innovation and risk taking are fundamental to the change that is happening. And as has been noted throughout the conference, risk taking is hard for public agencies. The public is unforgiving when mistakes are made. Yet the public also demands transparency, safety, and fairness which make it hard to adopt new innovations even if they are cheaper, provide better mobility options for all, and increase access to low-income and communities of color.

We cannot assume the private market will provide for all of this, especially during a time of experimentation and start-up. But cities and transit agencies can set a common policy table which explicitly includes equity and return on investment goals, work towards common standards to make data sharing easier, and find ways to fund experimentation that especially benefits under-served communities.

I’ve been struck this summer as my family adjusts to our recent move from Arlington to Richmond, Virginia at how far we still have to go with the mobility revolution, especially in smaller cities. I recognized the unique and privileged perspective I had living in one of America’s best transit oriented communities where my husband could take Metro to work, my boys walked or biked to school, and I took advantage of bike share and my mixed use neighborhood for many daily needs. Much of my career, in fact, has been to quantify and communicate these benefits in economic terms whether it was the impact to transit adjacent property values, the reduced tax burden that density and mixed use can provide, or the health benefits of more walkable communities.

Richmond’s population is just under 220,000 while the larger metro area is roughly 1.1. million. Like many cities its size, Richmond is making progress but it is still first and foremost an auto-dominated community. Racism and cheap land have led to urban sprawl. Most county roads not only lack sidewalks but also a shoulder or curb and gutter. Mayor Jones deserves credit for creating 12 new miles of bike lanes, yet the majority are merely bike symbols painted on an existing street where everything else is oriented towards the car.

The chorus we’ve heard again and again from our new neighbors is how lucky we are to escape the horrible traffic of Washington DC and how we must enjoy having more freedom to get around in a place with very little congestion. In fact, our entire family feels quite the opposite. Our car insurance went up by several hundred dollars. Our sons now take the bus, though many of their friends are driven to school by their parents, and my husband is asked several times a week if he wants a ride on his 15 minute walk to work because the roads are too dangerous for walking. Without much competition from transit, taxi fares are steep.

All this gives us few choices other than driving. For everything. It also costs us, and society a lot of money. Yet, clearly most of our neighbors think the opposite is true. Getting them to shift to embracing shared mobility options seems a distant future.

While I hold out hope that the shared use revolution will make its way to Richmond, (where there is a modest bike share program within the universities, the region is trying to build a bus rapid transit line, and Uber is somewhat available), it still is not clear that America’s medium-size cities will share in the mobility revolution. The lower densities and smaller market size may impede larger adoption. Perhaps we’ll see more experimentation as entrepreneurs work to adapt technologies to meet these different types of markets. We may need to revise outcomes of success for mid-size cities and suburbs to better reflect their scale and needs. Whether shared mobility will revolutionize all cities or grow the divide between large and smaller metros is yet to be determined. Let's hope that we can work together to support innovation in cities large and small to expand mobility for all.