Will Pittsburgh’s Novel Mobility Experiment Work?

can be reached at meehna@gmail.com
can be reached at meehna@gmail.com
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The descent of micromobility vehicles on cities has happened quickly — and sometimes without permission. Without any rules or regulations in place to integrate new vehicle modalities into the current infrastructure, it’s been a virtual Wild West out there. And, citizens are getting fed up.

  • Micromobility companies have caused a lot of strife by not consulting cities about rules and regulations before putting their electric scooters and bikes within those city limits.
  • Micromobility companies have been known to tussle over territories.
  • Rather than have the city take on the task of sorting out how micromobility companies can peacefully co-exist, Pittsburgh’s chief of the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure had them come up with a plan of their own.

People have expressed their opinion about Bird e-scooters by stuffing them in toilets, setting them on fire and throwing them off balconies. And this outrage isn’t limited to Bird’s brand. After New York put limits on cruising time, Uber and Lyft decided to sue.

Spin, part of Ford Smart Mobility, is one of the companies part of the Pittsburgh Mobility Collective, an experiment that tasks mobility companies to figure out how to collaborate in providing citizens green transportation options. (Photo: Ford)

Pittsburgh passes the buck

While Columbus, Ohio took charge of managing mobility options in its “smart city,” Karina Ricks had a different idea. Formally the Director of Transportation Planning for the District of Columbia, she became the inaugural head of the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure in 2017. Instead of the city taking on the sole responsibility of managing the micromobility players vying to operate in Pittsburgh, Ricks threw the job back to the providers themselves with the advent of the Pittsburgh Micromobility Collective.

A self-organized, private consortium that aims to bring a range of “new mobility” services across the city, the Micromobility Collective needed to come back with an integrated proposal for the city to approve. Ricks directive was to come up with car-free transportation options customers could access all in one app. From five proposals submitted, the winning one came from a group spearheaded by Spin, the electric bike and electric scooter company owned by Ford. The other collaborators included Zipcar, Ford Mobility, Waze, Swiftmile, an app to find scooter parking, and the aggregator Transit app. Lyft, owner of Citi Bike, denied Transit access to Citi Bike on its platform.

The collective of Spin, et al. offered the idea of “mobility hubs” conveniently located near transit stops throughout the city. There, customers can choose which option best suits their needs, whether a bike-share, Zipcar, Waze carpool or a bike or scooter, with Swiftmile keeping the streets and sidewalks clutter free with a parking solution for two wheelers. The Transit app takes care of routing and ticketing, while Ford Mobility is responsible for data management to be reported back to the city.

For those who only need a car for special trips or errands, Zipcar offers hourly and daily rates. (Photo: Zipcar)

The Micromobility Collective is born

So, what gave Ricks the idea for the Micromobility Collective? In an article on CityLab, Ricks said it was actually the transportation conference called Mobiliti and held last October that sparked the idea.  The conference happened right about the time the city was about to launch its first dockless electric bike program and also thinking about how to incorporate electric scooters into the system as well.

Mobiliti was designed to bring together employers, residents and technologists to build actionable solutions together to get everyone moving in a city. Residents who relied on Pittsburgh’s public transportation were specifically asked to share their challenges with using the system. From listening to the residents’ struggles, Ricks realized that adding a couple hundred scooters onto the city landscape wasn’t going to cut it. She learned that single mothers, shift employees working odd hours, and some ex-offenders stripped of their driver’s license wouldn’t be well served by a scooter rideshare.

“We know that Razors on steroids are not a safe way for a mom to take her kids to school,“ Ricks was quoted as saying in the CityLab article. “So while we still wanted them, we also wanted to be able to provide something else to improve that situation.”

Ricks was also concerned with how to reduce her city’s carbon footprint. And, that meant getting more people out of cars, including rideshares Uber and Lyft. With residents’ transportation needs and the dire state of the environment top of mind, she came up with the collective idea.

Transit is an aggregator app that puts access to public mobility options, routes and bookings all in one convenient place. (Photo: Transit)

Incentives to foster collaboration

It might seem a bit counterintuitive for potentially competing micromobility companies to work together. However, Ricks explained that Pittsburgh offers incentives to foster cooperation. She gives as one example that Pittsburgh isn’t allowing any other mobility companies to this party. Also, she and her department will create an environment for success. More than money, she cites parking spaces or operating rights as a deterrent to entry. The city will step in to help with negotiations to make Pittsburgh a friendly (and profitable) place to do business.

Last month, the Mobility Collective had its first meeting with stakeholders, including the city and the Port Authority of Allegheny County (the mass transit operator in Pittsburgh) to discuss the best neighborhoods to begin the pilot program, with a goal of implementation in early 2020.

WHY THIS MATTERS

In order to choose more environmentally friendly modes of transportation, cities must implement a manageable and orderly system. Pittsburgh is trying the novel idea of letting the mobility companies hash out the rules of how they will operate together instead. If it works, Pittsburgh will save heavy administrative costs while leaving the mobility companies to figure out how to cooperate.


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can be reached at meehna@gmail.com
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