• Transportation Network Companies
  • Public Transit
  • Transportation Efficiencies

Future Mobility Doesn't Have to Destroy Mass Transit

Sam Abuelsamid
Jul 30, 2018

Providing mass transit has always been a challenging business. Like other public good services such as postal delivery, policing, and fire protection, the need to make mass transit available to all has made it almost impossible for the service to be financially self-sustaining. Much of the discussion around today’s transportation network companies (TNCs) and future automated mobility services (AMS) highlights the existential threat they pose to public transit. But maybe they aren't threats, after all.

The core challenge to providing a public good service is that it generally needs to be available to all—and usually at a price well below its true cost. Cities are diverse, with populations that generally cover the entire demographic spectrum from the homeless to wealthiest in our society. While a thriving modern city like New York City, London, or Shanghai has many affluent people that can afford to use TNCs or even traditional taxis, not everyone can. Even for the affluent, riding in an individual vehicle in a congested metropolis isn’t necessarily the most efficient use of time and resources, and public transit can be the best option.

TNCs in US Cities

The need for near universal, 24/7 access means that many transit lines go underutilized, leading to financial losses. Without outside support, it is challenging to reinvest in the services, make upgrades, or even perform basic preventive maintenance. Lacking funding, service suffers for everyone, including those on the most used routes.

New York City, with its population of 8.5 million, is a great example of this. In recent years, the subway lines that so many residents depend on have suffered increased outages. There are now an estimated 100,000 TNC drivers on the streets of the city, vastly outnumbering the 13,000 yellow cabs and leading to increased congestion on surface streets.

Detroit has wide swaths of low population density. Providing reliable and consistent service to low income residents poses even greater challenges and makes it difficult for those residents to get to school or work. However, a wholesale shift to TNCs or AMS is not economically viable for residents who cannot afford those kinds of services. An additional challenge is that an estimated 30%-40% of Detroiters are unbanked or underbanked. Many of these residents end up relying on cheaper, older cars that consume more fuel and emit more greenhouse gases and pollutants.

Are Multimodal Mobility Systems the Solution?

Allowing private TNCs unfettered access to city streets runs the risk of siphoning off users from the more viable, higher density routes while potentially increasing congestion. This would make providing affordable universal service to all residents even more of a challenge. Alternatively, if service providers collaborate with transit services to establish coordinated multimodal mobility systems, it can be possible to serve the needs of all residents in a way that is affordable, accessible, and financially sustainable. Leveraging apps and cloud platforms to aggregate services enables users to select the best travel combination for each trip based on cost, timing, and convenience.

Numerous companies, such as PSA’s Free2Move, are developing mobility aggregators; Ford subsidiary Autonomic is developing a Transportation Mobility Cloud for cities to use. Part of Ford’s recent investment in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood is expected to focus prototyping some of these mobility ecosystem ideas.

A coordinated mobility ecosystem that coordinates private operators with more optimized public transit can be a benefit to all urban dwellers that need to get around.