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America’s Transportation History is Full of Mistakes. Let’s Not Make Another One.

Public-private partnerships can create monumental change in transportation. In the early 1930s, General Motors and the American Automobile Association formed a coalition called the National Highway Users Conference. Private car ownership was still in its relative infancy, and automakers wanted to ensure that motorists had a bigger role to play in the nation’s transportation future. So the group helped convince the federal government to publicly fund a network of free high-speed roads—48,000 miles of interstate highway—to span the major cities of the United States. Hundreds of torn-apart communities and 263.6 million registered vehicles later, we continue to reap this system’s benefits and grapple with the serious consequences for equity in our cities and our environment.

Today, the auto-centric reality is facing disruption. New mobility services are appearing on city streets every day, including electric bikes, scooters, autonomous shuttles, and more. “We’re in a Cambrian explosion” of new transportation modes, says Emily Castor Warren, the former senior director of policy at both Lyft and Lime. “Despite that, the 900-pound gorilla of private car ownership still dominates.”

As a commissioner at the San Francisco Department of the Environment and co-founder of the transportation planning startup Remix which helps hundreds of cities around the world plan for the future of urban mobility, I’ve found that our city customers have seen more chaos on their streets this year than any other. And, like many others who are involved in public and private market efforts to transform America’s transportation system, I’m convinced that we have to work through the chaos to embrace a brighter future.

Once again, the key to expanding the adoption of new modes involves physically making room for them. “These new services will grow to the extent that infrastructure allows them to,” says Tilly Chang, executive director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. “If infrastructure does not respond, they will only reach early adopters and get stuck.” As more private-market players align with cities’ vision of designing streets to prioritize people over cars, it might be time to borrow a page from the GM/AAA playbook—but this time, learn from history’s mistakes and build the coalition for the multimodal city of tomorrow.

Pent-up demand for a multimodal city

Several trend lines are converging: people moving back to cities, traffic congestion increasing, climate change nearing the point of no return. Transportation has also changed more in the past 10 years than in the previous 50, driven by technological advancements and a private sector flush with venture capital. “Last time I checked there were 60 scooter and 70 [autonomous vehicle] companies,” says Tim Papandreou, former director at Waymo and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. In the U.S. in 2018, 84 million trips were taken with bikes and scooters, 9.9 billion on public transit, and an estimated 4.47 billion on ride-hailing and for-hire vehicles. But unless these modes reach people who would otherwise drive alone, they will struggle to make the impact we need to see.

Policies that prioritize people over cars

Vehicles and service models aren’t the only things changing—cities are passing new people-focused policies. This spring, Cambridge, Massachusetts, made it mandatory to build protected bike lanes on all roads slated for upgrades. San Francisco saw the nation’s first tactical transit lane in 2014, and 17 other cities followed suit. Urban highways like the Alaskan Viaduct in Seattle and the Inner Loop in Rochester, NY, are being dismantled in favor of urban greenways. Last year, 17 out of 20 public transit funding measures passed.

But despite this progress, cars account for nearly one-fifth of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and Americans have driven more every year since 2013. We need to do more.

Partnership over prohibition

As we saw in the 1930s, the private market can make a huge impact on how people get around. Too often we hear about new mobility providers clashing with cities instead of problem-solving together. For example, after a spate of fatal crashes involving cars, Atlanta banned nighttime riding of scooters and e-bikes. New York City still bans scooters, while West Hollywood received zero applicants for their dockless bikeshare program due to onerous permit requirements. In New York State, Pennsylvania, and Hawaii, outdated state laws forbid major cities from even considering pilot scooter programs. “Cities by themselves are limited in what they can do,” says technology advisor Jim Kapsis, the former policy lead at the energy efficiency company Opower (and the co-host of CityLab’s Technopolis podcast). “They could partner with private tech companies to further challenging goals.”

Banning new, sustainable modes is not the answer; working beside them is. “As cities are forced to make room for innovation, they can think of it as an opportunity,” says Sarah Kaufman, associate director of the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation.

What can cities do to take advantage of this opportunity? The best path is to move away from taking too restrictive of a stance, and become the facilitator and trusted coordinator of a multimodal world of transportation.

Likewise, mobility companies must learn that they’re not above the rule of law: They need to embrace a collaborative, non-adversarial approach as well. The future of transportation requires us all to rethink the public-private partnership.

New modes require new ways of thinking and collaborating

According to Story Bellows, partner at CityFi and former head of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Philadelphia, the key is to “regulate smarter and align incentives, so we can inspire cities and communities and companies to row in the same direction.”

Here are a few examples of cities and tech companies that are collaborating to usher in a safer, more sustainable multimodal age:

  • Santa Monica is using $1.1 million in dockless scooter/bike permit fees to accelerate the construction of 19 miles of green lanes, bike signal detectors, and bike racks.

  • In Washington, DC, Uber and Lyft shared anonymized pickup and dropoff activity data with the city to help with street design, making the case to remove 60 parking spaces and improve safety along a popular nightlife corridor.

  • In Oakland, Lyft partnered with the city, local nonprofit TransForm, and the Scraper Bike Team to invest $700,000 towards a free bike library, community parklets, and better bikeshare station placement.

  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recognized that they don’t have all of the answers for autonomous vehicles, so they developed guidance in the form of a living document that will change over time.

Just as the National Highway Users Conference found, dedicated funding leads to faster implementation. In July 2019, we saw a ray of hope at the federal level: Senator Edward Markey and Representative Steve Cohen introduced the Complete Streets Act, which would require states to set aside 5 percent of federal highway funding for streets that accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit users, not just cars and freight.

This is what a mutually beneficial public-private partnership looks like. The last time a coalition of this scale was built, transportation changed monumentally—but in a way that irreparably damaged our communities and our environment. Today, we are at the cusp again. Let’s do it better this time around.

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