By Stephen Goldsmith Matthew Leger • February 26, 2020

As technology continues to transform transportation, what can cities accomplish with the strategic use of new mobility options like ride-, car-, bike-, and scooter-share? Surely there are goals broader than simply providing more fun and cool choices for young, creative class professionals. In a recent two-part series we published on Data-Smart City Solutions, Mobility and the Connected City, we discussed the guiding public values and goals cities have around mobility, the regulatory levers cities have to adapt regulations to changing mobility needs, and the opportunity cities have to leverage mobility data to enforce compliance.

The relationship between private micro-mobility providers and public transportation agencies should more frequently be described as a public-private dispute than a partnership. However, in recent years, the City of Boston and its neighboring municipalities have utilized their technological expertise to structure something closer to a partnership. Their level of sophistication is demonstrated by the way the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), the regional planning agency supporting the 101 municipalities in Metro Boston, worked in partnership with the micro-mobility company Lime to roll out dockless bikes in 16 cities in Boston’s outer core.

Greater Boston’s Values- and Data-Driven Approach to Micro-Mobility

In late 2017, MAPC offered municipalities in the region an opportunity, at no cost to them, to participate in an inter-municipal dockless bike share program where the planning agency would facilitate the procurement and roll of dockless bikes on behalf of each participating city. LimeBike (now known simply as Lime) and Spin were selected by MAPC to provide the dockless bikes services for the program after a thorough review process. The 16 cities of Arlington, Bedford, Belmont, Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Medford, Melrose, Milton, Needham, Newton, Quincy, Revere, Waltham, Watertown, and Winthrop participated. In July 2018, Spin ultimately decided to back out of the deal after making the decision to pivot to dockless scooters instead, and Lime became the sole provider for the program.

MAPC and Lime rejected the more common adversarial approach between mobility companies and governments, and MAPC chose not to be highly prescriptive in its demands. The partnership between the mobility provider and public agency was founded on the premise of data sharing, a move that we have argued is critical if cities want to fully realize the benefits of micro-mobility options. In exchange for MAPC facilitating the proposal, procurement, and contracting on behalf of participating municipalities, Lime agreed to share trip data from each bike’s GPS unit with MAPC.

MAPC took a values-driven approach to what data to collect, how to analyze it, and how to use it to drive policy. First and foremost, the agency wanted to better understand system usage and how people were moving around the region. The goal was to use the data to inform agency policies and investments in transportation infrastructure to help “ensure that new technologies and modes contribute to a more sustainable, equitable, and convenient transportation system.” The data was shared in Mobility Data Specification format, a nationally-recognized data standard established by the Open Mobility Foundation that emphasizes the use of trip-level data, anonymized at the user level. MAPC clearly defined its goals and values from the beginning of this partnership, which align very closely with several of the key values we outlined in Mobility and the Connected City: 1) improving public safety, 2) improving public health and sustainability, and 3) advancing equitable service delivery and access.

After 18 months of the program, MAPC conducted an analysis of the 300,000 trips taken by area bikers and the 380,000 miles they rode. They used data visualization tools and mapping to conduct the analysis to better understand the inter-municipal use of dockless bikes. Some interesting findings from the study that will help MAPC advance its goals include:

  • Improving Public Safety

    • Almost 1 in 5 miles traveled by riders were on “very high stress roadways,” a classification for roads with high traffic volumes, several lanes in either direction, and no protected bike infrastructure. Many of these roads are the primary connection points for key areas of the region, with little to no alternative route options.
    • Just under half of all trips were on “low stress roadways,” demonstrating that many riders actively seek out safer routes to travel.
  • Improving Public Health and Sustainability

    • A survey of riders found that more than 50 percent had been using Lime bikes even when biking was not typically their primary choice: these riders either had not used their own bike in the last 30 days or didn’t even own one.
    • 75 percent of trips ranged between a half mile and two miles, with a median of 0.92 and average of 1.3 miles, suggesting that dockless bikes truly do serve as replacement options for short trips.
  • Advancing Equitable Service Delivery and Access

    • Most trips taken began in town centers or commercial areas and ended in outlying neighborhoods at distances that were either too far to walk or had no easy access to transit.
    • A small percentage (15 percent) began or ended at a transit station, suggesting that dockless bikes are not as widely used as a connection between mobility options.
    • Nearly one third of all trips ended in a different municipality than where they started.

This analysis helped MAPC better understand what role micro-mobility options like dockless bikes play in the region, and what infrastructure investments should be prioritized to create safer travel routes for users of dockless bikes. The researchers in this study noted that this data demonstrates how, when widely available across municipalities, mobility options like dockless bikes serve as “circulator role” between communities and they truly do serve as a reliable last mile solution, particularly in communities where docked bicycle systems currently do not exist and would be difficult to support.

The Importance of Purposeful Data Sharing

As of right now, dockless bikes constitute a very small percentage of all trips that Boston-area commuters take. Even in the City of Malden, which accounted for the greatest share of rides originating in a single municipality (74,000), dockless bikes were only .08 percent of the overall mode share. However, with Boston ranking among the worst cities for traffic in the country (and getting worse), it is likely that commuters will continue to seek alternative modes of transit in the future, and the region will continue to use the data from this report to ensure that those who choose these modes can do so safely. The insights in this report shed light on how critical it is that government agencies have access to the data generated by mobility providers. The writers of the report said that “this level of data access should be standard procedure for all new forms of mobility, whether scooters, drones, autonomous vehicles, or anything else. With this information, public agencies can ensure that new technologies and modes contribute to a more sustainable, equitable, and convenient transportation system.”

One of the most important findings of the report was that one in five miles traveled on dockless bikes was on “very high stress roadways.” Given that many of these roads are the main connection points between key areas of the region, MAPC intends to use this data to prioritize infrastructure investments to protect riders who use those roads. They noted that the fact these roads are so busy will make it difficult to retrofit them to support riders, but that it is absolutely necessary for safety. MAPC and Lime have shown that partnerships founded on data sharing can not only help to improve road safety, but can also provide a path to equitable service delivery, as well as greater and more valuable usage of alternative transportation modes.