Greg Lindsay gets around, and he wants us all to get around better than we do. An urbanist and widely published journalist who’s a leading voice in next-generation, digitally driven mobility, Lindsay can point to a recent explosion of new companies and new ideas that are challenging our conceptions of human transport: sharing-economy models (Uber, Lyft, Car2Go, etc.), transit-connecting apps, autonomous and semi-autonomous cars, and global sustainable transport projects such as the World Resources Institute’s EMBARQ initiative. Lindsay is co-director of the World Policy Institute’s Emergent Cities Project and a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management. We asked him about the ways the digital transformation of transportation can boost human productivity and connectivity.
Are there any areas where large-scale digitally connected transportation is happening?
Uber and Lyft have already proven you can build a globally scalable system, at least when it comes to cars. But the real transformation will come from integrating all or nearly all modes of transportation, including trains, buses and bicycles. No one has built such a system yet, but there are some interesting hints of what it might look like.
One hint is the advent of apps like RideScout and Citymapper, which use open transit data to offer users a choice of which mode to take. How do I get from A to B, you might ask? Well, here’s how long it would take to drive, versus bike to the nearest train stop, versus taking a taxi, and so on. Once you have that, the next step is to build an app that can offer a single fare across any of those nodes and guarantee the schedules mesh.
An early example of this is Shift, in Las Vegas. It’s a monthly membership service combining car-sharing and bike-sharing within a single app, assigning vehicles as necessary depending on where you want to go. Another hint is Helsinki’s Kutsuplus, which is an on-demand bus service that plots its routes depending on where today’s passengers want to go. The city has an even more ambitious plan to create a citywide system by 2025 that seamlessly meshes public transit, private transit and bike-sharing.
What kinds of economic benefits could such transportation systems provide?
They’d be profound. Cities’ job and housing markets are largely shaped by transportation. I live in Queens, New York, and my neighborhood has any number of informal workarounds — such as taxis that double as quasi-legal jitneys each morning — to make up for a lack of formal transit options.
But what if public transportation were free? That’s what Tallinn, Estonia, has done. It was originally done to reduce traffic congestion, but the early data suggests the biggest beneficiaries are the poorest and most marginalized residents, who also happen to suffer from the least accessibility. Free transit means better connections to potential employment — and hopefully better integration with society.
What are the challenges in creating digitally driven mobility?
The first challenge is updating and coordinating outdated transit information systems. The second is the political battle over whether transportation is a public or private good. Uber would rather fight cities trying to regulate rather than working with them to create value. The other challenge is delivering these new services equitably. We can build incredible services, but if we can’t make them affordable or accessible, we’re only hurting the ones who need them most.
Will these innovations and ideas work or have any appeal in suburban and exurban areas, as opposed to high-density cities?
That’s the $64 billion question, and that’s also why I’m especially interested in the accessibility argument. We’re seeing poorer families and immigrants landing in suburban communities where there is little transit and little or no push to build more. The only way to increase transportation access there — besides just putting more cars on the road — is to create digitally connected transit via options such as minibus services, Uber or something else.
We don’t have a consensus in this country on building more transit infrastructure to solve congestion. So we’ll turn to our smartphones and our bandwidth, which is the one area we all can agree is worthy of investment.
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Would digitally driven mass transit make an economic impact on your city or region?