By Patrick Sisson
Earlier today, Uber announced big changes to its app. Now, when users open it, instead of just seeing potential ride-hailing drivers circling their neighborhood for fares, they’ll be presented with additional options, including bike share and public transit.
It’s part of what you might call a multimodal revolution for the ride-hailing giant. Just a few days ago, Uber acquired the San Francisco dockless electric bike-share startup Jump, which will allow users to seamlessly move between two types of transportation—and perhaps even elect to take the bike over the vehicle. It suggests shifting priorities, and changes in the transit tech landscape.
The acquitision was about “championing smart technology for smart cities,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrohshahi said in a statement, as well as bringing together a variety of transit options and reducing private car ownership.
While that all may be true, it’s also a clear sign that Uber and other new transit technology companies are engaged in a battle to control the curb. And as tech companies continue to jockey for market share on streets and sidewalks, local governments need to lead on critical issues—including congestion, pedestrian safety, infrastructure funding—with a cohesive agenda that favors the public good. Studies already show that increased Uber and Lyft usage have increased traffic and vehicle-miles traveled.
The future of urban transit is increasingly multimodal and less reliant on personal car ownership—and it’s one that cities need to take a larger role in shaping.
Considering how much city governments rely on parking revenue—Governing magazine found that the top 25 cities collected nearly $5 billion a year in auto-related revenue in 2016—it’s not only a question of safety, it’s a question of financial stability
“Cities have started to rethink how their streets are designed from curb from curb,” Matthew Roe, designing cities director for the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), told Wired. “It’s the most valuable space that a city owns and one of the most underutilized.”
Why are there so many scooters on my sidewalk?
If the options offered from transportation startups haven’t clogged your city yet, just wait. Plenty of companies are prepared to flood streets and sidewalks with new vehicles, trying to solve the last-mile problem at a time when city populations are growing along with traffic congestion.
Potential passengers need to navigate a diverse array of transportation choices, from traditional public transit to ride-hailing, bike share, microtransit services, and even electric scooters. Just as dockless bike have begun to flourish, dockless electric scooters have begun to slowly roll across the nation.
Based in Venice, California, Bird Scooters launched on the Westside of LA last September and after securing $100 million in funding seeks to expand to 50 cities by the end of 2018. San Francisco, the capital of tech, is now inundated with several different scooter companies, as both Bird and competitor LimeBike have recently launched service.
Scooters may seem harmless and amusing. But these companies will add thousands of new vehicles to the road, joining a growing, and confusing, array of new transit methods to regulate. Many cities have worked hard to expand bike infrastructure to meet the growing demand from traditional cyclists. Now, they have to factor in electric bikes, pedal-assist bikes, electric scooters, dockless bikes, and whatever arrives next.
The challenges of curbside pickup
Cities are already redesigning their physical realms for the expanding ride-hailing industry, from designating pickup/dropoff zones to eliminating parking garages. As the Uber app update suggests, ride-hailing will become more and more embedded in everyday transit decisions.
But that’s not the only curbside challenge confronting tech firms. Even the growing ecommerce sector is placing congestion pressure on cities. As more and more deliveries pile up, and firms continue to test new methods of delivery and drop off, freight is still rarely factored into the transit planning conversation, according to Anne Goodchild, who runs the Urban Freight Lab at the University of Washington in Seattle.
“It’s like a transit system where you didn’t plan for the bus stops,” she told Curbed. “We all know we’re bringing more and more goods into the city, but there’s no programmatic way to account for what they’re delivering and when. We need scientific, data-driven, systematic views of urban freight analysis and planning.”
Street management will only become more complicated as autonomous vehicles enter the picture, for both passengers and deliveries. The California Public Utilities Commission recently signaled that it’s considering proposed rule changes to allow companies to start curbside pickup of riders using autonomous vehicles. Waymo plans to start testing an autonomous rideshare service in Phoenix later this year.
“Curbside loading will become more and more critical,” Zabe Bent, a principal at transportation consulting firm NelsonNygaard, told Curbed. “We need to understand how to manage that curb, since it’ll be important for loading, unloading, cyclists, and transit. It’s an increasingly important place for cities, and we need to learn how to use it better.”
Cities need to get ahead of changing technology
As cities struggle to adjust and adjudicate this new transit reality, they’ve also been charged with passing local laws that protect citizens and prioritize road safety in a rapidly changing environment. At the dawn of ride-hailing, companies like Uber and Lyft tended to introduce new services first, and worry about regulations later. In fact, that’s been the model for many transit technologies.
New tech companies haven’t inspired much confidence by neglecting to take existing transportation issues into account. After many cities banned or regulated dockless bikes, fearing the “bike graveyards” found in Chinese cities, the startups simply focused on cities such as Dallas, which didn’t have laws on the books. The city has since struggled to rein in the surplus of cycles on its streets. The new wave of scooter companies has gone through similar cycles. Bird paid $300,000 as part of a settlement with Santa Monica, which had accused the company of operating without permits and owing $6,000 in fines.
Some cities have tried different strategies to get ahead of these changes. Chicago recently increased its tax on Uber and Lyft rides, collecting an extra 15 cents a trip to help fund the public transit agency, a strategy being adopted by other cities. San Francisco began testing a system of curb designations that would regulate where and when ride-hailing companies can drop off and pick up customers. Seattle has introduced dockless bike parking spots to help reduce the clutter of bikes on sidewalks.
Tech companies draw up their own solutions
Some of the more interesting proposals to address these problems have actually come from the transit startups themselves. Bird proposed a “Save Our Sidewalks” policy that asks operators of new transit services to pick up and service vehicles daily, avoid overcrowding streets with unused bikes or scooters, and begin revenue-sharing with cities to fund infrastructure.
“We need to lead not just on technology, but on social responsibility,” Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden wrote in a statement.
Lyft recently started a geofencing pilot in San Francisco, in the city’s Mission District, which diverts pickups to side streets to reduce congestion and double-parking. Uber has also signaled a willingness to be a better partner with cities. Amid the flurry of recent announcements, the company pledged to share more transit data with local officials via its Movement platform, which provides anonymized and aggregated Uber data that can help planners and transit officials.
Uber will also be starting a pilot with Washington, D.C., to share data on curb usage, collaborating with SharedStreets, a transportation data tool created by NACTO. Transit data initiatives like this, such as the recently introduced Replica service by Sidewalk Labs, point to another weakness cities need to quickly remedy; awareness and actionable information about current transit trends. Without investing in better tools to track and analyze this new transit paradigm, city leaders can’t craft the most efficient rules and regulations.
Shared streets—the idea that regulations, planning, and infrastructure design guarantee that all modes of transportation, including walking, are safe—has been a sought-after goal for transit activists. The current wave of new startups, partnerships, and technologies can be a means to achieve this reality, and even create more sustainable transit systems that aren’t as dependent on personal car ownership. But cities need to aggressively move to make their voices heard.
Our streets will only get more crowded, and our curbs will only get more contested. When the rules of the roads are redrawn in this era of innovation, the changes must serve the public good, not the latest transit trend.