The Regulatory Framework Cities Need for a New Age of Mobility


This article originally appeared in Governing.

As more and more digitally enabled services begin doing business in cities, public officials whose job is to regulate them struggle to apply outdated rules with obsolete processes and find themselves hemmed in by antiquated regulatory frameworks. This is particularly apparent when it comes to regulating mobility. Twentieth-century laws and their enforcement mechanisms are insufficiently dynamic, too siloed, lacking in administrative discretion, data-deprived, and neither citizen-centric nor inclusive of public feedback.

Atlanta recently took on the effort of modernizing its regulatory response, creating an Office of Mobility Planning as a good first step toward meaningfully responding to new transportation offerings that increasingly compete with pedestrians and cars for space. But Atlanta, like other cities, finds itself caught between competing issues. Eighty-two percent of its residents think the current fleet of more than 6,200 electric scooters should be an option, for example, yet at the same time the city suffers from high numbers of scooter accidents, and companies are withdrawing from the market due to impoundment and storage-fee practices. In January, Lime announced its departure from Atlanta while owing the city almost $70,000 in fees from illegally parked scooters the city had seized.

For the short term, Atlanta will extend scooter permits while it works on fair rules to govern them. But while new mobility offices such as Atlanta's are likely to produce better rules, comprehensive reform requires something rather elusive: actionable, integrated, real-time data.

Modernizing the regulatory tools to allow the collection of real-time data would facilitate more nuanced approaches. For example, how should a city respond to the competing goals of regulating scooters or allocating the services of transportation network companies (TNCs), such as Uber and Lyft? It could cap or fine them, of course, but those are blunt instruments, especially when the vendor is losing money. Real-time, dynamic data from multiple sources (both human and machine) can show us where scooters or TNCs are operating and how they're being utilized, whether certain services allow residents to get to bus stops, and where blocking a sidewalk with a parked scooter or double parking an Uber produces complaints or accidents.

To realize the benefits of these emerging mobility options, cities also must think more broadly about their regulatory framework, repositioning to focus on the needs of end users while ensuring a competitive, non-oligopolistic marketplace. Calvin Watts, Atlanta's transportation manager, notes that cities face new opportunities as they move from managing parking to using data to manage the curb. He looks on parking reform "as a key tool that can ease Atlanta toward a more people-centered city, less reliant on the automobile while also reducing carbon emission. As we take a deeper dive to understand the value of our curb, it's important that we consider all factors when it comes to sharing the curb space."

Administrative agencies that touch mobility, including departments in charge of streets, parking, TNCs, traditional taxis, transit, and shared bikes and scooters, not only need to come together around broad public goals but also need more discretion granted by the city council. The legislative process is a long one and intrinsically slow to respond. And many innovative solutions bring unknown benefits and liabilities, so writing legislative rules is fraught at the outset.

Most cities, for example, set their parking fees annually by ordinance or rulemaking, but those rates are inevitably outdated. A city council should set broad goals but allow administrators to make decisions based on data that would inform adjustments to reduce congestion or encourage turnover at the curb. Real-time data can show where rates should be lowered based on vacancy or raised based on heavy periodic use, such as during a sporting event. Or perhaps, in order to induce good behavior, scooter rental fees would be increased if one is left blocking the sidewalk in front of a busy restaurant. The data can help administrators ensure scooters are available in underserved neighborhoods, or adjust the cap on number of units based on utilization. A recent Harvard-led executive convening addressed these issues in its subsequent paper, "Effectively Managing Connected Mobility Marketplaces."

All of these changes depend on data — secured from connected vehicles; shared by providers of mapping apps like Waze, TNCs and other transportation providers; and augmented with traffic cameras, sensors and other Internet of Things devices. The data can identify outliers: which areas show low curb utilization or aberrationally high enforcement, for example. Data is the new regulatory currency. It allows nuanced control to protect health and safety while still considering community needs.

This 21st-century regulatory framework also would include the collection and analysis of anonymized public sentiment gathered through Twitter, Yelp or other platforms. A person who needs better access to a bus route or who has a bad experience in a ride share can augment city regulators' information by posting a reputational grade.

Establishing a new regulatory framework that adjusts in real time, engenders cooperation, empowers administrators, efficiently utilizes data and truly gives a voice to citizens is a daunting, multi-faceted task. But in the end, it is also the only route forward to address the costs and benefits of our new mobility marketplace while maximizing opportunities for accessibility.

About the Author

Stephen Goldsmith 

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His latest book is Growing Fairly: How to Build Opportunity and Equity in Workforce Development.

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