By Stephen Goldsmith Betsy Gardner • January 29, 2020

This article originally appeared in Governing. 

Six years ago, as deputy mayor of New York City, I was involved in the battle to add taxi service to the outer boroughs. The city's familiar yellow cabs essentially served only Manhattan, rarely venturing into Queens, the Bronx and the other boroughs except for airport trips. The argument among providers, residents, lobbyists and city officials dealt almost exclusively with how to allocate opportunity between existing licensed cabs and the proposed new ones that eventually became the outer-borough green taxis — not on the larger value questions such as how to most efficiently connect underserved workers to their jobs.

Today's new transportation options and technologies make that fight both more important in principle and almost quaint in retrospect. Across the country, seismic forces are shaking city transportation policies. Ride-shares and other platform-based services are reaching saturation levels. There has been explosive growth in e-commerce delivery. The use of digital maps is pervasive. Downtown sidewalks and curbs have been converted from liabilities to valuable assets. Individually and collectively, these changes are dramatically altering the transportation landscape. Yet we have not expanded the regulatory aperture necessary to manage these changes, reducing the chances of capturing broad public value.

When Uber or Lyft aggressively enter a market, city officials wrestle with specific licensing issues, often focusing on balancing ride-shares with taxis. When scooters enter a market, officials must allocate significant attention to sidewalk use and clutter. When parking rates change, time-consuming political battles erupt on pricing, even when raising rates is the right thing to do. And each of these city/vendor dustups raises important data-sharing questions.

By focusing narrowly on discrete transportation modes and technology issues, we run the substantial risk of falling into a new version of the yellow cab/green cab battle, one that exhausts itself in mediating small disputes while overlooking what is truly at stake from these disruptive changes.

There are important, discrete matters that need attention, of course, but officials and the stakeholders with whom they are involved must learn to frame the discussion of these new technology-driven transportation modes and the traditional ones with which they compete in terms of their transformative potential for cities and their residents. Connected mobility strongly affects the quality of city life, and officials need to develop a method of forcing consideration of the critical policy issues that are affected. These include public safety, public health, sustainability, equitable service delivery and access, and land use issues such as parking policy.

Some agencies, researchers and service providers have been taking steps toward aligning the narrower, discrete issues with larger public policy goals. For example, TransitCenter's latest research brief, "A Fare Framework," highlights how three transportation agencies — San Francisco's MTA; TriMet in Portland, Ore.; and King County Metro in Seattle — have established rider-friendly principles to guide fare policy. Lyft announced its Jobs Access Program, an effort in 35 markets to help low-income and disabled riders. And Charlotte, N.C., and a few other cities are piloting a data platform that supports better management of micromobility.

In most places, however, out-of-date government structures cannot keep up with the fundamental changes redefining today's mobility landscape. But cities can better referee new service offerings and costs with a focus toward helping more lower-income residents and less concentration on the disputes between incumbent public and private providers and new entrants. Officials, for example, can monetize the curb and use the proceeds to support equitable extensions of service. They can incorporate platforms that allow them to improve customer experience and to gather and visualize comprehensive usage data in order to knit together better service and access.

National experts at a recent conference sponsored by the Knight Foundation on "Mobility and the Connected City" at the Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center tried to do what practitioners ensnared in the daily battles between regulators and new transportation providers can't: Look at what's at stake and how best to capture public value. Building on the issues examined at that conference, perhaps it's time for a mobility impact framework that guides public action while capturing the true consequences of decisions and opportunities. Such a framework should address these larger values and questions:

  • Access and equity: How do decisions increase or decrease access and for whom, and how do they mitigate or aggravate equity issues?
  • Environment: How do transportation decisions affect air quality and public health both broadly and within a neighborhood?
  • Sidewalk usage: How should we allocate valuable curb and sidewalk space?
  • Revenue: How do decisions regarding parking rates or regulatory fees affect both user behaviors and a city's ability to cross-subsidize other transportation modes?
  • Safety: How does a decision protect or endanger riders, pedestrians and bystanders?
  • Privacy: How should transportation-related data be protected, used, shared, accessed and stored to maximize both efficiency and privacy?

A sharpened understanding of the goals, tradeoffs and tools to facilitate transportation services that improve access, quality of life and sustainability is a realistic goal. In upcoming columns in this space, we will discuss the levers cities can use to allow innovation while guiding the new mobility toward an equitable and values-driven landscape.