Aaron Naparstek kicked off one of the first sessions at TransportationCamp NYC, an unconference focused on innovations in transportation, with this provocative question: Can ridesourcing companies contribute to the Livable Streets and Vision Zero movement? Livable Streets and Vision Zero convey two visionary ideas. Livable Streets is a vision for transportation where the streets are ones that support daily life for all kinds of people. Vision Zero is one where all policies that touch transportation – engineering, design, enforcement, education – hold no tolerance for traffic crashes that cause injury or death. Injuries and fatalities are seen as preventable incidents, not as inevitable.
The fundamental challenges underlying the Livable Streets movement have to do with the massive policy and design infrastructure that goes toward prioritizing cars. As services that make car service as seamless and “on-demand” for consumers as possible, it seems more plausible that companies like Lyft, Uber, and other ride-sourcing services only contribute to more miles driven by cars. Yet others argue they contribute to a household’s ability to go car-free. Car ownership has been shown to be the single strongest indicator that driving will be the first travel choice.
At a fundamental level, reducing vehicle miles traveled and overall trips by car would make the biggest difference for the Livable Streets movement and Vision Zero; this discussion does not challenge that longstanding notion. In fact, there are a few studies in the works examining just how much more driving is being done with these new transportation services.
But let’s call it a wash for now and look at the immediate changes within the control of ridesourcing companies that could improve behavior on our streets in the very near-term.
First, ridesourcing companies have remarkable control over the drivers they choose to hire, and the incentives they can give to them for certain behaviors. At minimum, all ridesourcing companies can conduct background checks to make sure that people without a history of driving infractions are the ones who are hired. That would clear some dangerous drivers off the street.
Ridesourcing companies can also train their drivers to drive in a manner more conducive to livable streets: Keeping to speed limits, yielding to pedestrians and cyclists. Lyft already requires new drivers to drive with veteran “mentor” drivers for 30 minutes as a double-check on driving records. Ridesourcing companies can incentivize drivers to drive in a way where the street space is shared, not dominated, by their vehicle. They can – and probably should – fine their drivers for all-too-common but deadly driving infractions like running stop signs and red lights, speeding through turns over crosswalks, and blocking bike lanes and the intersection box.
It doesn’t all have to rest on the driver. Companies can change their interface so that customers have a say over driver behavior. Customers can tell drivers not to speed and to drive carefully. Ridesourcing companies could offer rewards if drivers get safe, pleasant driving reviews from its riders. Perhaps there’s even a special rating passengers can select for drivers who are particularly thoughtful of others on the road. Perhaps business models should depend less on time than on safe delivery of passengers from pick-up to destination. For example, Car2Go (a carsharing service though, not a ridesourcing company), currently charges consumers by the minute, which is a possible incentive for fast driving.
Beyond what the company has direct control over, ridesourcing companies can choose to work with local governments, transportation and transit agencies, and even large employers and developers to induce better transportation choices. Outside of the New York City region, commercial and office buildings, universities, schools, businesses, and residences are generally not clustered in a way that is conducive to providing frequent transit service. In these areas, ridesourcing companies can serve as a backup for unreliable transit or act as a “last mile” connector service, removing the fear of being stuck or abandoned and making it that much easier to take transit. The companies can strike partnerships with major employers, office parks, and travel management associations to offer emergency rides to people who work late at night and miss the last bus or train.
Finally, look to the future and how to plan for future transportation service. Early evidence shows that ridesourcing companies succeed most in cities where there is a strong public transit system. Such companies can endorse transit investments and more efficient operations, which in turn could increase transit ridership, reduce congestion, and would help them provide better service to their customers.
More importantly, ridesourcing data can help planners think about future service provisions. Currently, estimations about where a trip starts and where it ends, if completed at all, are largely built on expensive, infrequent surveys that capture a small sample of the city’s entire trips. Data from ridesourcing companies would complete the picture.
In the end, I think one of the significant ways that ridesourcing and the whole suite of “on-demand” transportation services can contribute to Livable Streets is in how they could change consumer expectations of transportation service over the long-run. The experience of having so many transportation options at one’s fingertips will likely permeate to all consumers. I hope so. Walking is the most “on-demand”-like travel any person can make. In cities with good walking environments, walking around to take care of daily errands can happen without any advance planning. Biking could also be similarly on-demand, though much less infrastructure exists for it. We should expect the same of mass transit. There, the character of on-demand experience could be furnished through high reliability and frequency of service. We should expect lots of options, instead of feeling pinned down by one – the car.
So yes, in our minds, ridesourcing companies can contribute to the livable streets and Vision Zero movements, but their most important contribution is raising our expectations of how transportation should work in the city. I’m sure we’ve only skimmed the surface on this question. What do you all think?
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