A promising trend is taking shape among policymakers around the future of mobility. It’s a shift in perspective to better understand how inextricably linked transportation policies are to people’s lives and to the vitality of society’s long-term economic, equity, and sustainability goals.
This type of “systems thinking”—looking at how one policy fits into larger social, environmental, and economic systems—helps policymakers ask better questions, make more nuanced decisions, and accurately weigh the benefits—and costs—of different mobility options as they enact the transportation systems and services of the future.
Many policymakers have set ambitious and necessary goals to improve the lives of people in their communities, promising to reduce pollution and lower energy prices, cut administrative red tape to help local businesses thrive, and improve access to well-paying jobs, educational opportunities, and other essential services.
To achieve these goals, however, policymakers must accurately measure the vital role transportation plays in getting there. This can be achieved by leveraging new digital planning tools, taking a more nuanced approach to integrating new mobility services and expanding people’s transportation choices.
Better tools for seeing the big picture
Transportation has perhaps the most direct impact on a community’s sustainability goals. Providing people alternative transportation options to private, combustion-engine vehicles can mitigate the root causes of climate change, improve local air quality and wellbeing, and can even eliminate noise pollution in bustling urban areas.
But does that mean policymakers should subsidize electric cars or e-bikes for all? Do shared e-scooters help or hurt when it comes to achieving these goals? Questions like these matter when trying to determine the right policies to meet a community’s goals.
Digital planning tools can help communities better understand the tradeoffs and benefits of different decisions as they strive toward their goals.
Platforms like ClimateOS, developed by the startup ClimateView, help cities to connect the policy dots to create comprehensive emissions reduction plans.
For example, ClimateView has developed a government-backed “Panorama” climate action plan for Sweden. ClimateView has also advised Cincinnati in the U.S. and Nottingham in the UK on their climate policies.
Other platforms, including Vianova, Populus, and Replica, organize transportation-specific land and device data in a useful way for cities.
Critically, these tools help cities calculate the financial costs and benefits of policy choices, creating a menu of options that policymakers can toggle to understand the potential impact of those choices.
For example, rather than banning a new, zero-emission shared e-scooter system because it costs a municipality too much in time and resources to regulate, tools like these can help quantify the impact that system has on meeting sustainability goals, making it easier for municipal governments to get public or private funding to help manage those systems.
Complicated issues demand nuanced policies
Unfortunately, Paris appears to be heading down the path of outright banning shared e-scooters after public backlash and frustrations within the government over administering the program.
Mayor Anne Hidalgo, otherwise an aggressive champion for sustainable, shared, and active mobility in the city, has put the question of whether the city should have shared e-scooters to voters. The referendum on an emerging shared mobility business model will be on the ballot this spring.
Decisions like this impact much more than just shared e-scooters, though, and have the potential to undermine cities’ larger goals, in this case having a potential chilling effect on investment in new shared mobility, and the economic benefits that come with it.
For example, according to researchers from Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, in the U.S., shared e-scooters have a positive correlation with increased spending, especially at local restaurants, suggesting that these new modes, with the right policies in place, can be leveraged to help bolster cities’ economic development goals in addition to the sustainability benefits.
This approach, even if well intentioned, fails to capture the benefits of new mobility and signals that Paris isn’t the place to innovate.
Rather than ban whole business models, policymakers need to make more nuanced decisions using cost-benefit analyses as well as public input and consider policies that minimize the negative externalities of new modes while leveraging the significant benefits.
Increasing equity by increasing transportation choice
As policymakers center on the question of how to create a more equitable society, transportation will be in the limelight.
For many millions of people, reliable and affordable transportation is essential to access quality jobs and vital services, but options for getting around are often lacking in their neighborhoods.
If a car is your only reliable option, that car breaking down will not only put you out the cost of the repairs, but also potentially lost wages and lost time.
Too often, people won’t even apply for jobs they can’t reliably commute to, simply forgoing the opportunity to earn higher wages. According to a 2021 Capital One survey, 84% of U.S. households that make $50,000 a year or less reported that they had to turn down a job opportunity because they didn’t have access to a vehicle to get them there.
Transportation planning that increases people’s options for getting around will be key to opening economic opportunities and connecting communities that have not seen investment in transportation infrastructure in decades, or ever.
Emerging technology and models can help—reliably and affordably—close gaps in transit networks and turn what once seemed like impossibly grueling commutes into something more accessible.
When more mobility options are available, a car breaking down or a bus not running doesn’t have to mean a day’s lost wages or a lost job. Additionally, greener transportation options also help reduce pollution in lower-income communities, which are often disproportionately impacted by vehicle emissions.
A piece of the larger puzzle
Transportation can’t solve all of society’s problems, but it is a key piece of the solution for many pressing economic, social, and environmental issues facing people and communities today.
Understanding the nuanced role of policies that support new and existing mobility options, as well as the interrelated impact technology plays in addressing these issues, will be key to maximizing their positive impact in the lives of people.
The alternative is maintaining an unsustainable status quo that leaves too many behind.
Kim Watts holds a Ph.D. in Law from the University of Antwerp, Belgium where her doctoral research was an international study of alternative liability systems and their application to mobility developments. She is the Program Manager for Passenger Transportation at ReMo.
ReMo Policy Associate Justin Klaparda contributed to this post.