One of the most often asked questions we get as we develop our programs and strategy is how we decide to “invest”. A large part of this question can be attributed to curiosity about how more organizations can seek funding, but I like to think that people who have been working on making our cities better are also constantly wondering about what would make the biggest impact. So how did our small bet on a new organization contribute to them partnering with the City of Los Angeles to win a $1.6 million grant from the California Air Resources Board to work on first and last mile challenges?
First, we decided to focus on riders and technology.
There is an attachment to our mission and our focus areas. “Leadership and Governance,” “Riders and Technology,” and “Demand and Opinion” could be expressed as the following strategic approach:
We work on strengthening leadership and governance that would enhance rider experience and better integrate technology, based on our understanding of public demand and opinion for improved public transportation.
Shared-use mobility was a technology issue we were well-positioned to address.
The second decision we made was based on our organizational perspective of technology as one of the most disruptive forces in transportation that would address a persistent problem: first and last mile gaps. The proliferation new transportation services provided new, on-demand transportation options. We didn’t see this as much of a threat as it was a potential missed opportunity if the transit agencies didn’t pick up on it.
There seemed to be a lot of policy and practice implications here. How would cities “steward” the rise of private services to ensure the greatest benefit for public benefit? Could private-sector services fill a gap in the transportation system given the rapidly diminishing support from the federal government? How would the new services interact and be integrated with existing regulation around transportation services? The action is fast-paced and local, but policy and practice were fairly legible. Plus existing transportation advocacy organizations had not waded into this area, though the first shared-use mobility conference, organized by Susan Shaheen at the University of California-Berkeley, drew over 300 participants. There was no question that there was demand from a diverse group of people.
At the same time that we were developing the program concept for TransitCenter, the Shared Use Mobility Center was created from the proceeds of the sale of iGo, a non-profit car share operated by the Center for Neighborhood Technology. The proceeds established seed funding for this non-profit that set out to provide technical assistance and policy ideas on shared use mobility, a new and growing field. Its staff possessed the rare combination of operations experience as well as chops in research and policy analysis for public benefit.
We realized we could best address the issue by helping a city experiment.
Our first “play” was simply a gathering of policymakers with operators in July 2014 in Washington, DC, to explore the issues and land on some priorities. We did this with the Association of Commuter Transportation and invited SUMC, then an organization of one person, to join the steering committee that organized and designed the program for the conference.
From that conference, we realized that only talking about the policies was unlikely to catalyze any change. Uber’s valuation rose and its strategies grew more aggressively than any new national policy idea could be launched into reality. The action on the ground was moving faster than the policy community, and if we were to make an impact, we needed to position public-oriented work in the realm of implementation.
Our board supported our decision to focus on a key city that seemed ripe for shared use mobility – Los Angeles. It’s a large, auto-dependent city where conventional fixed rail transit would never be completely ubiquitous. At the same time, the city’s leadership and policy framework was also heading in a similar direction. There was a major transit expansion plan underway, a visionary mayor energized about transportation, and a transit authority with significant power. And that agency recently released a first and last mile strategic plan.
Through the planning of a regional conference that again would bring together practitioners, policy makers, and operators, we drew together some partners that we felt could push this idea into implementation. We partnered with NRDC, whose Urban Solutions group headed up by Shelley Poticha, formerly with Reconnecting America, was a major player in California policy reform intended to reduce demand on driving. MoveLA was known for having created the transit coalition that won $40 billion in transportation investments in LA; it was working on a second ballot measure that would bring in $90 billion to the region. We brought in SUMC to focus on implementation. Live.Ride.Share was the resulting conference held in February 2015.
SUMC did not dawdle during their planning visits to L.A. They met with neighborhood-based community groups to understand transportation needs. They visited the Mayor’s Office and learned about other policy initiatives and thus opportunities. In the winter, we added them to another study spearheaded by Sam Schwartz Engineering about transit agencies and shared use mobility. In March 2015, SUMC separately won a Transit Cooperative Research Program grant to build an evidence base of shared use mobility’s impact on transit operations.
But even better than the research studies, we recently learned that SUMC with the Mayor’s Office of Los Angeles, won a $1.6M grant from the California Air Resources Board to implement low-income car share in Los Angeles with many local community-based organizations. As we said, we were aiming for implementation with our involvement and we happened to make the right pick.
We’re so proud of SUMC, who deserves major credit for transforming itself from an idea into a major player in the field. And in spite of our small role in the entire process, we can’t help feeling a little bit proud for having faith in a new organization and sticking with our vision. We know what it’s like to try the unknown.
Congratulations Sharon, Creighton, and the whole gang at SUMC. We knew you could do it.
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