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Between Public and Private Mobility: Examining the Rise of Technology-Enabled Transportation Services

Posted by Content Coordinator on Monday, December 14th, 2015


Information and communication technologies, combined with smartphone applications and location data from global positioning systems, are making feasible transportation services that have long been imagined but never realized on a large scale. These innovations include carsharing; bikesharing; microtransit services; and, most notably, transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft.

These services are being embraced by millions of travelers who are using their smartphones to arrange for trips by car, shuttle, and public transit, as well as for short-term rental of cars and bicycles. The rapid growth in these services follows and amplifies a rebound in travel by taxis and public transit that began more than a decade ago. The new services epitomize today’s sharing economy and allow an increasing number of people to enjoy the mobility benefits of an automobile without owning one, and may encourage others to leave their personal vehicle at home for the day, reduce the number of vehicles in their household, or even forgo having one at all. Notably, most of these innovations are occurring and being deployed in the private sector without public financial support, with the exception of bikesharing, which is typically publicly subsidized.

Whereas TNCs have received the lion’s share of media attention to date, the other innovative mobility services are growing, evolving, and expanding mobility while also reducing personal vehicle travel, greenhouse gas emissions, and possibly automobile ownership. Although travel using innovative mobility services still represents a small share of total trips, a continued increase in customers and trips has substantial implications for the future.

To date, the most rapidly growing forms of shared mobility entail sequential sharing of vehicles, with each user in turn having exclusive use of a motor vehicle or bicycle. Potentially more consequential, but still in its infancy, is concurrent sharing of vehicles among strangers. By increasing vehicle occupancy, this form of shared services may collectively have greater effects—in terms of affordable personal mobility, vehicle use, energy consumption, traffic congestion, and environmental benefits—relative to today’s most popular new sequential mobility options.

At the same time that innovative mobility services are being enthusiastically embraced by tech-savvy travelers, they do raise public policy issues. For example, those without credit accounts and smartphones cannot access many of these new services, and helmet requirements may increase safety, but can discourage bikesharing.

The most controversial new services to date are clearly TNCs, which are growing rapidly in popularity, spreading to cities around the globe, disrupting the regulated for-hire taxi industry, and posing a series of challenges to transportation and regulatory policy makers. These challenges include

  • An uneven regulatory playing field affecting competition in jurisdictions that impose substantial regulations on taxis and lesser requirements on TNCs, an issue magnified by the national scale and influence of TNCs compared with mostly local taxi companies;
  • Inconsistent requirements for drivers and for vehicle safety and insurance for taxis and TNCs, requirements whose efficacy, in any case, lacks systematic assessment; and
  • The implications of a decline in or even the demise of taxi companies in places where low-income, disabled, and older persons rely on taxis, including wheelchair-accessible taxis, for lifeline services.

Coupled with these issues are the varying requirements for TNCs, taxis, and limousines imposed by different regulatory bodies within the same geographic area. A key challenge for policy makers at all levels of government, then, is to both encourage and facilitate innovations that meet the public’s mobility needs while achieving greater public policy consistency among these new services and between them and traditional taxi and livery services.

Addressing the above challenges in such rapidly growing and evolving industries is itself challenging. Doing so will require political will; more information about the scale and nature of the services being provided; and insightful, effective public policies to guide the evolution of these innovative services so as to enhance mobility, sustainability, and public safety.

Although it is too early to draw definitive conclusions, the development of such public policies will require careful analysis of both the potential benefits and risks of evolving and expanding shared mobility services. In particular, the continued expansion of these services has potentially important implications for the location preferences of households and firms, and for their travel patterns generally and their use of public transit specifically in the years ahead. In addition, substantial growth in the concurrent sharing of vehicles could meaningfully contribute to the attainment of resource-efficient and environmentally sustainable lifestyles.

The committee that conducted this study concludes that innovative mobility services can provide broad mobility benefits while serving other societal goals, but that reaping these benefits will require informed policy making. The committee favors a carefully calibrated regulatory approach for both innovative mobility services and the traditional services with which they frequently compete—an approach that accomplishes public policy goals and creates a level playing field while still allowing the full spectrum of mobility services ample opportunity to innovate and compete.

The committee’s recommendations, elaborated in Chapter 9 of this report, are intended to provide guidance to policy makers and regulators in addressing the issues associated with the new mobility services.

Recommendation 1: Policy makers and regulators should formulate public policies and regulations designed to steer the development of innovative services to improve mobility, safety, and sustainability.

Recommendation 1a: To the extent that technology features can accomplish the same customer service protections that previously required regulatory intervention, regulations should be adapted to embrace that opportunity. Local and state governments should reassess current taxi, limousine, and (where separately adopted) TNC regulations for market entry, geographic coverage, span of service, and the like in light of these new services and the service quality information available to both passengers and drivers.

Recommendation 1b: These assessments should also examine public safety requirements covering drivers and vehicles, which should be applied in Summary 3 similar fashion across competing industry segments, ensuring consistency and a level playing field.

Recommendation 1c: Similarly, in consideration of both the multijurisdictional travel patterns in metropolitan areas and the large scale of business operations, state and local governments should assess how the regulations governing the various industries relate to one another, particularly when multiple jurisdictions regulate different industry segments within the same geographic area. Policy makers and regulators should consider whether traditional for-hire and shared mobility services are best monitored and regulated at the state, regional, or local level on the basis of market and service characteristics and regulatory capabilities.

Recommendation 1d: Policy makers and regulators at the state and federal levels should conduct systematic evaluations of safety requirements, examining the core issues of effectiveness and cost.

Recommendation 1e: Given the importance of accessibility for all users (which is frequently operationalized in terms of vehicles that can accommodate wheelchairs), policy makers and regulators should address the potential disparity between access for people with various disabilities and other travelers as these new services expand.

Recommendation 2: Policy makers, planners, and regulators should identify the information needed to set policies on, plan for, and regulate mobility services, and require this information from all regulated entities.

Recommendation 3: Policy makers and regulators should carefully examine and consider the pros and cons of alternative employment classifications for TNC and taxi drivers.

Recommendation 4: Policy makers and regulators should seek to integrate the features of TNCs and other innovative shared mobility services into existing transportation systems and services in ways that leverage the new services’ strengths and features.

Also identified in Chapter 9 are needs for research to inform policy making and regulation, along with a clearinghouse for sharing information; methodologies for integrating shared mobility services into planning initiatives; and the development of consistent definitions and information sharing requirements for service providers.

TABLE 2-1 Selected Taxonomy of Innovative Mobility Services

Download full version (PDF): Between Public and Private Mobility

About the Transportation Research Board
The mission of the Transportation Research Board is to provide leadership in transportation innovation and progress through research and information exchange, conducted within a setting that is objective, interdisciplinary, and multimodal.

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