The Future for Sharing-Based Transportation in Cities Looks Bright

Photo by JT under a Creative Commons license from Flickr

Urban planners, researchers, policy makers, bike and car sharing organizations, technologists, and ridesharing companies met in San Francisco on October 10th and 11th to foster the development of shared-use mobility services. Organized by Dr. Susan Shaheen of UC Berkeley's Transportation Sustainability Research Center (TSRC), the Shared-Use Mobility Summit featured lively, in-depth discussions on how the industry can increase the availability, cost-effectiveness, and sustainability of mobility for people around the world through car sharing, public bike sharing, ridesharing, and related services within the sharing economy.

A critical juncture for the industry

The themes that emerged over the two-day meeting revolved around barriers to scaling shared-mobility. Cities are beginning to increase their investments in alternative transportation (San Francisco has made notable progress), and those who attended the meeting agree that the industry has reached an important juncture. While shared mobility makes up only a small fraction of local trips compared to cars and public transit, the technology and business models are now firmly in place—and sharing services are ready to scale.

One key barrier for these services remains, and that is policy. Even so, additional research on the impacts of shared-use mobility will likely influence cities to change outdated zoning laws and other costly practices that encourage personal car ownership because, in most cases, the research is positive: people who use sharing-based modes of transportation drive less and own fewer vehicles. 

This rapid evolution brings an urgent need to define the different types of services within the industry. "Lines between business models are blurring," says Shaheen. "Definitions and understanding are critical, as policy and decision makers are faced with integrating these emerging services into our transportation ecosystems." Ridesharing, for example, is not the same thing as carpooling. This ambiguity makes it more difficult for consumers to make transit choices and for policy-makers to craft favorable policy frameworks.

Innovation before policy

Entrepreneurs at the summit were encouraged to recognize the need for shared-mobility services within their communities and to innovate accordingly. “Innovation comes before policy,” said Rick Hutchinson of the Bay Area-based car sharing company City CarShare. Speakers like Hutchinson also encouraged attendees to guide their local policy makers by forming self-governing bodies, codes of conduct, and recommended benchmarks for sharing-based transportation solutions, such as minimum insurance liability levels to protect consumers. Local government needs to act as a facilitator for shared-use mobility, but it doesn’t often keep up with the pace of innovation. As such, operators were even encouraged to take the initiative and codify their own regulations and best practices. The car sharing industry in particular has already formed a self-governing body called the CarSharing Association, and its members adhere to a code of ethics that guides operators' business decisions.

Data Data Data

The importance of data came up in nearly every panel and speaker presentation. The research required for influencing policy makers and other significant industry regulators (such as insurance providers) can only take place if operators collect data and share it.

What’s more, if operators and their technology providers create open APIs, others can use those resources to improve all sorts of transportation services, including public transit. Tim Papandreou of San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency frequently bemoaned his "dumb wallet," filled with nearly a dozen access cards to the various transportation services in San Francisco. He said a smartphone application integrated with local shared-mobility services would not only make consumers' lives easier, but would also discourage private vehicle use. When it's clear just how many modes of transportation are available, the perceived need for a private vehicle will diminish. But this kind of development is not possible without open data and entrepreneurs who can put it to work.

Looking ahead to a follow-up summit

The summit’s attendees were palpably excited about this catalyzing moment for shared-use mobility. Everyone left the summit with plans for further collaboration and anticipation for a forthcoming white paper by the TSRC that will help eliminate policy barriers for operators. Political strategist Jason Pavluchuk is already planning the second summit, which will be held in the spring of 2014.

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