Setting up partnerships between local authorities and private enterprise – the subject of a captivating debate at the recent Code for America summit in Oakland, California – may help provide the answer to the question of how to improve urban mobility.

PPPs the right solution for urban mobility?

Urban mobility is a central issue for the Smart City. People are increasingly flocking to huge urban agglomerations which now exceed anything so far seen in human history as regards population numbers and density, plus city size and complexity. Most city-dwellers live quite some distance away from their place of work, and this modern socio-geographic reality brings problems for the transport system, including among other things overcrowding on public transport, with the inevitable passenger problems and accidents; saturated roads, leading to traffic jams and accidents and generating greenhouse gas emissions; and the ever-increasing drain on space to build car parks. Short-term fixes such as counting the journey to and from home as part of working time and firms paying travel expenses to staff who come by bicycle are now being considered.  In the longer term, however, public-private partnerships (PPPs) are likely to provide the best solution to infrastructure needs. This subject aroused a wide-ranging debate at the recent CfA Summit. ‟Traditionally, we had public transport run by the local authorities on the one hand, and private firms offering their own services on the other, such as taxis, and there was no communication between the two,” pointed out Emily Castor, Director of Transportation Policy at Lyft. However, she told the audience: ‟We’re now increasingly seeing closer links, with companies like mine using public data to offer a better service and in return providing some of their own data to municipalities.”

Data-exchange a win-win process

Sharing data is certainly one way for private firms and local authorities to exchange expertise. ‟It’s important for us to gather data on mobility so that we can steer policy accordingly,” explained the City of Boston’s Chief Information Officer, Jascha Franklin-Hodge, underlining: ‟For example, how far does having car and bike-sharing services available reduce the chances that you will drive your own car?  We’ve set up a partnership with [GPS navigation software developer] Waze, which provides us with vital data on road traffic and so helps us to adapt our roads, signals and parking spaces to this reality.” While everyone can get something out of this type of information exchange, it is not entirely without risks for the companies concerned, as Emily Castor explained: ‟Our added value lies to a large extent in our software and our algorithm, so the whole challenge is to help local authorities benefit from our data without destroying our competitive advantage.”

Building complementarity

Jascha Franklin-Hodge was nevertheless at pains to point out one fundamental difference between public transport providers and private companies: ‟Public transport has to be available to everybody, including passengers who are not really profitable in business terms. So in a public-private partnership any services created must be designed for everyone, not just for those likely to bring a return to the company.” In reply, Emily Castor argued that PPPs may in fact be a good way of making transportation available for all, stressing: ‟Due to lack of resources, it often happens that public transport networks are not very well, or not at all, developed in certain areas. Now, as we [Lyft] don’t need to invest crazy sums to deploy our services in new areas, we can really help to bridge these gaps.” Gabe Klein, Special Venture Partner at Fontinalis Partners, a venture capital firm which focuses on startups working in the area of next generation mobility, backed the idea of startups working together with public bodies in order to fill any gaps. For example, one could imagine Lyft or Uber stepping in to transport passengers from one part of the metro to another if the middle section is out of service due for instance to a passenger accident. Another example might be for a person to commute in to work using public transport and then take a ride-share home if s/he happens to leave the office late. Meanwhile, ‟tools that help people plan their journeys efficiently, combining all the possible modes of transport, such as the CityMapper app, have a key role to play here,” Jascha Franklin-Hodge told the Code for America Summit.

By Guillaume Renouard