The global COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a lot of systemic problems facing communities, countries, and the world at large. One of these is the issue of mobility, especially in cities and towns that have historically relied heavily on cars.
While there are many households working from home with access to an automobile for essential trips to grocery stores or healthcare services, others are not as fortunate. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, many households are either relying on struggling public transit systems or dealing with high transportation costs. Both of these issues are being exacerbated by a lack of access to critical services.
Planning agencies, local governments, and other key stakeholders across the country are asking the tough questions and trying to come up with solutions that will work for their constituents, providing them safe, reliable access to transportation that will meet their most essential needs.
But not all current transportation issues are directly related to the pandemic. Many cities across the country are facing changing land-use patterns, public policy obstacles, economic development priorities, and more that are making systems inefficient and difficult to navigate.
Conversations around equity are shaping how communities approach transit solutions. One academic study analyzed nine large, automobile-oriented cities and demonstrated how much variation exists in equitable access to transit services. Moving forward, communities have to grapple with how they will address disparities in transit use and access, especially for underserved minority groups and lower-income residents.
During a Remix Transpo Talk exclusive webinar, a panel of mobility experts offered their insights on how car-centric cities are adapting to transit challenges. Here are some of the key insights from the conversation.
It is important to first understand travel trends and how they intersect with demographics in order to come up with any mobility solutions. When studying how transportation behaviors had changed due to the pandemic, for example, Los Angeles saw that overall traffic volume was down nearly 50%, and public transit ridership was down about 70%. However, much of this decrease was concentrated in specific neighborhoods. Neighborhoods with low-income and minority residents continued to use transit because many fell into the essential worker category or were taking on more work to cover income losses. According to the New York Times, White ridership on public transit systems dropped nearly 20 percent, while Black ridership increased 15 percent during the earlier months of the pandemic.
Making comparisons to other cities is also important, even if the cities aren’t so similar at first glance. In Detroit, officials are dealing with neighborhoods with plenty of low-density, majority-minority communities. This causes them to think differently about possible solutions to mobility challenges. Still, when taking stock of what needs existed in Detroit during the height of the pandemic, the city immediately saw similar issues to those in other cities — mainly, the need for accessibility to COVID-19 testing sites and transit solutions that would support essential workers.
After identifying mobility needs, the next step is to come up with viable solutions. Program development for many mobility solutions involves a certain level of technical implementation, much of which can be worked out during pilot phases and early stages.
Several communities have tested out programs to deploy micro-mobility solutions, like e-bikes and electric scooters, meant to help people travel short distances quickly and affordably. Charlotte, Detroit, and Omaha were a part of a scooter-share pilot with Passport. This allowed them to have stronger management over micro-mobility deployment in the cities while allowing several providers (like Bird, Lime, Spin, and Razor) to maintain ownership of their fleets.
Providence, Rhode Island is another example. They rolled out a scooter program that is gaining traction. These programs aren’t yet feasible everywhere, however. After the pilot in Detroit, they demonstrate that not all cities are prepared to transition from cars to scooters.
Other mobility solutions developed as a response to pandemic needs included allowances for ride-sharing services like Lyft and drive-through sites for COVID-19 testing. Detroit realized that drive-through sites were important but still largely inaccessible to many. To combat this, they coordinated with paratransit vehicles and used some creative processes for maintaining sanitation and safety to transport people that needed testing.
Finding solutions that work can also put a strain on municipal transportation budgets. In Los Angeles, lead planners are having to get creative with how existing assets are used when they are unable to obtain funding for new projects. Instead, they have taken stock of what infrastructure is already in place and how that can be leveraged to create solutions that are flexible and affordable. The LA Metro’s strategic plan outlines how this will be done for that particular transit resource.
The webinar panelists emphasized that it is critical to design these mobility solutions with the end-users in mind. Otherwise, funding opportunities can go to waste on projects or programs that residents do not want and will not use.
To avoid spending limited funds in the wrong places, needs assessments and early implementation stages should directly engage potential users. For example, when attempting to develop solutions that would support essential workers facing transit barriers, transportation officials from Detroit went directly to employers to find out what their employees needed. From there, solutions were developed with those potential users in mind.
Other cities like Columbus have adapted existing transit systems to accommodate the most crucial end users in a pandemic: those using it to access food, healthcare, employment, and care for others. West Pasco, Washington has partnered with Via to create a user-friendly experience for on-demand transit. The end users are able to see all trip options and the distance of the driver. Without an app, users can still call and request rides.
In many cases, there is still a lot of work to be done in creating buy-in for the solutions themselves. Some car-centric cities are full of residents that are attached to their personal vehicles. Detroit has a strong and historic car culture, so owning a vehicle is a source of pride for many. Other cities face varying political pressures and public policy barriers that restrict innovation in mobility and transportation.
The trends forcing transportation departments to rethink their infrastructure have actually been underway for quite some time, but they’re being accelerated by the pandemic. Cities like New York and San Francisco began reducing access to cars and creating new pedestrian spaces prior to COVID-19 in programs that have proved successful so far.
For more heavily car-centric cities like Los Angeles and Detroit, the need for adaptation is stronger than ever, but workable solutions will only come with detailed planning that keeps members of the community in mind.
Metro Transit and the City of Minneapolis Public Works share their best practices on how they tackled a large-scale, multi-agency transportation project with cross-developmental collaboration.