To build more inclusive transportation systems through shared mobility services, we need to use data to identify gaps and then apply a mix of equitable policies and programs. No single program or policy can solve the travel needs of low-income communities.

Approximately four billion people currently live in urban environments around the world—a figure that is only expected to increase in the coming decades. While cities develop new transportation systems to support their current population and anticipated growth, many gaps exist in the transportation ecosystem. In the past few years, the sharing economy, or shared mobility, has grown to address these gaps, including the rise of bikesharing, carsharing and on-demand ride services.

Today, these “shared mobility” services connect many people to their destinations, while others—namely, low-income communities of color—have often been left behind. And there is growing public recognition that we cannot be satisfied with the status-quo. As a result, many planners and transportation professionals are attempting to understand what it takes to create more accessible transportation systems in an era of diminishing public resources and expanding private transportation services. And like many complex urban issues, no one system or policy will be the silver bullet. Rather, cities need to provide a range of progressive policies and transportation choices, both public and private, to limit barriers and provide an array of opportunities for safe, efficient and inclusive transportation.

In this blog, we share insights from a recent workshop that the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley hosted with the architecture and planning firm Perkins + Will. At the workshop, “Crossing the Digital and Income Divide: Making Mobility Innovations Accessible to All,” we featured an all-star panel of experts from the San Francisco Bay Area and explored the role of data, empathy, policy and funding to provide mobility services in low-income communities.

Use Data to Identify Gaps and Address Community Needs

To create an accessible public transportation network, cities must make services workable for low-income communities. A critical first step is understanding the travel patterns and demand of the general population and low-income communities. This is important because data can help us to understand where gaps exist and how better connectivity can be provided. The team at the Institute for Sustainable Economic, Educational and Environmental Design (I-SEEED), recognizing the value of generating this understanding, developed a data collection platform called Streetwize, which allows for real-time surveying of low-income communities. Through new solutions like Streetwize, I-SEEED is addressing the needs of the 21st century with a data-driven approach toward understanding social justice and sustainability issues, particularly in disadvantaged communities. By using such tools, planners can get deep, disaggregated data about low-income people, which allows them to develop inclusive solutions that take the behaviors of low-income communities into account.

For example, data might reveal a gap in digital access. As a result, planners can design around the community’s need for additional infrastructure investment, options like kiosks to view real-time transit information and to access information about carsharing and ridesharing services that would otherwise require a smartphone. Or, data might reveal that heavy traffic plays a large role in community members’ decisions about travel, so that the particular community may benefit from protected bike lanes for individuals who may not be comfortable riding in traffic.

Moving forward, it is critical to collect data from community members to gather new insights into their needs, culture and desires for expanding mobility options and overall connectivity. I-SEEED is just one example of an organization striving to make these connections through innovative platforms, like Streetwize, and facilitated workshops aimed at engaging community members and thought leaders. This data-driven approach can help us to harness new methods to address complex systems.

Additional Elements of Attractive, Workable and Inclusive Mobility Services

Experts on the panel also identified a number of common threads and actionable solutions to design equitable and workable transportation services.

First, new systems should be accessible not only by bank card but by cash as well, an option recently made available by Capital Bikeshare in Washington, DC and Indego Bike Share in Philadelphia, PA. More shared mobility and other transportation systems should provide subsidized rates for those who qualify, which could be required through policy, as private transportation providers use public rights-of-way to generate profit and often do not pay toward the “public good” beyond standard taxes.

Second, physical access to services throughout a community is integral to transportation’s social equity as well; public and private transportation services should be geographically available in all communities. A report recently published by the National Association of City Transportation Officials found that “…in many cities, there is an insufficient number and density of [bikesharing] stations in neighborhoods where low-income people live, making bike-share an inconvenient choice for most trips.” Densifying existing stations, pods, stops and routes for various transportation systems within low-income communities is integral to creating reliable transportation systems that can meet the diverse trip needs of different city residents, such as going to the farmer’s market, dropping children off at daycare, or visiting friends and family across town.

Finally, to meet this diverse range of trip types, it takes an assortment of policies and mobility options. Public policy has a role to play in bringing innovation to low-income populations. In addition, public funding can be applied to address the gaps in mobility services in low-income communities and to advance the public good.

Collecting data, engaging community members and assessing mobility options is critical to creating more sustainable and accessible mobility systems. Increasingly, more organizations, like I-SEEED, are focused on addressing the needs of low-income populations and engaging them in growing solutions to complex problems, and many others are joining the effort. It‘s also important to recall that there is no one silver bullet solution. Creative surveying platforms like Streetwize and community-engagement workshops are just two tools of many that can be used to better understand what might work best for each group. This approach embraces context-specific information and subtleties to get at more robust approaches and solutions.

Building on these insights, we will outline five strategies for growing more accessible transport systems in the second blog of this series.