The Covid-19 outbreak is a stress test to the resiliency and sustainability of transportation networks and infrastructure. As communities across the globe grapple with pandemic responses, the value of public-private partnerships and technology integration has never been more clear. Now, as we look to recovery, incorporating shared mobility and innovation into federal funding allocated for equitable, sustainable, and efficient transportation systems is urgently needed.
As the movement of people and goods have been restricted in order to contain the spread of Covid-19, demand-driven dynamic solutions have emerged as critical tools for resiliency. On-demand shared modes and electric micro-mobility, in particular, have pivoted to support essential workers’ commutes, equipment, and goods deliveries. Through thoughtful mobility options integration, an affordable, smart, resilient and efficient intermodal and multi-modal transport system can become a desired new norm. A growing body of research shows that a broad uptake of emerging mobility technologies like shared, electric and autonomous mobility (SEAM) over the next three decades could increase accessibility, social equity, and economic growth, while reducing transport emissions by more than 80%.
Recognizing the importance of public transit in a resilient transportation system, the federal $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, included an immediate $25 billion in emergency funding for public transit. Larry Willis, president of the Transportation Trades Department, noted that this sum is critical for “stabilizing critical industries and ensuring working families can weather this crisis”. With societal vulnerabilities top of mind, many warn greater investments and well-informed expenditure will be needed for achieving resiliency of city lifelines for the movement of people and goods for not just the immediate term but long lasting.
And as we look beyond the immediate crisis, Congress stands poised to pass a comprehensive infrastructure package. During the summer, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed the America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act which would dedicate hundreds of billions of dollars over five years to modernize US transport infrastructure and systems. The Banking Committee continues to work on a complimentary act. In the House, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee developed the “Moving America and the Environment Forward” framework that calls for $760 billion investment over the same period. With a focus on “a transportation system that is green, affordable, reliable, efficient and provides access to jobs,” the framework could not have been timelier.
The Moving Forward Framework has the potential to accelerate US transportation systems’ capacity to deal with the current crisis, delicately, and prepare for crises to come by building a more resilient, sustainable, and inclusive mobility that serves everyone. In particular, we are supportive of the following important targets and approaches it sets forward:
Improving and Innovating Public Transit
The framework advocates for a significant boost in funding for public transit, which now seems more visibly acute than ever before. We echo the observation that systems “are often unreliable and inefficient” and concur that technological innovation can provide for direct improvements as well as complementary systems upgrades. The framework importantly states that the legislation “takes mobility on demand beyond demonstration projects and incorporates it into everyday public transit operations.” Ride-sharing, micro-transit, car-sharing and micro-mobility strategies should be part of a broader public transit network that enables the transition away from less equitable and sustainable modes of commute, while accommodating for physical distancing and related technological upgrades across modes (scheduling, reservations etc.). This has the potential to increase commuter uptake of the transit system and decrease per person mobility emissions faster. By embracing and incorporating inter-modality, public transit can be more accessible and available to a greater number and diversity of commuters.
Reducing Carbon Emissions
The framework importantly sets out a bold goal of setting “a path toward zero carbon pollution from the transportation sector.” It further explicitly recognizes the role that technology can play in delivering congestion and pollution reduction in urban areas. The impact of mobility on urban air quality was demonstrated in cities under lockdown across the globe, and in many cases, sparked citizens’ call for policy action for livable areas. While global average ownership is less than one vehicle for every two people, in the United States it is nearly a vehicle per person. By capitalizing on on-demand shared mobility, embracing solutions for increasing occupancy rates, and accelerating the uptake of ridership on zero emission vehicles (including shared micromobility), passenger emissions can be dramatically reduced without compromising mobility needs. Studies show that by syncing shared and zero emission electric rides, carbon emission reduction targets may be achieved in time to reduce the economic, societal and environmental risks posed by climate change. One pathway for achieving this is restructuring mobility costs and funding distribution in a manner that motivates a decrease in miles traveled, particularly in low occupancy and emitting modes, while providing for more desired alternatives.
Greater mobility options with user sensitive fees
The effort to create a multi-year national pilot program to test new revenue collection methods, including a “vehicle miles traveled fee,” is the right way to transform transportation systems with efficacy and effectiveness, particularly if it recognized the user’s ability to pay. This will be a critical effort to better manage congestion and emissions, as well as raise much needed funds as gas tax revenue dwindles, while narrowing socio-economic gaps. Zoning, through access restrictions and pricing, is another demonstrated tool for replacing an unsustainable commute with a sustainable one while increasing equity — if designed right and includes robust transit improvements. Technology now also allows for dynamic, variable fee or pricing systems that can account for a variety of factors, such as passengers’ ability to pay, the number of passengers in the vehicle, the time of day, the type of vehicle, and location.
This article is derived from a letter the Global New Mobility Coalition sent to Congressman DeFazio and team in support of his important work to improve mobility in the United States while reducing emissions in the next surface transportation reauthorization package. COVID19 presents governments from around the world with an historic opportunity to re-set mobility ecosystem that is more inclusive, sustainable and resilient through well-designed recovery plans and guidelines.