Public Policy Forum Blog

Back from the Future (of Transportation)

When it comes to transportation, we are living in a dynamic period of innovation. Concurrent with the rise of smart phones, Milwaukee and cities across the world recently have introduced carsharing, bikesharing, ridesourcing, and other new ways of getting around. At the same time, electric vehicles have come to the market and autonomous vehicles have been introduced in several U.S. cities, including Pittsburgh, where the ridesourcing company Uber is piloting use of autonomous vehicles in its shared fleet.

Last week, I attended the National Shared Mobility Summit in Chicago, which brought together over 500 public, private, and nonprofit sector transportation leaders from throughout the U.S. and beyond. I hoped to learn how other metro areas are addressing the challenge of connecting their residents with available jobs that may be out of reach of their transit systems. The “first mile/last mile” challenge – as it is commonly known – was one of a number of themes that ran through the summit, which focused on how transit systems can work with other modes of “shared mobility” to improve transportation connections in a sustainable and equitable manner.

One of my primary takeaways with regard to the first mile/last mile challenge is the high degree of experimentation occurring across the country. For example, a number of partnerships have been formed recently between transit systems and ridesourcing companies like Lyft, Uber, and Bridj to fill in gaps during non-peak hours and in difficult-to-serve, low-density areas. Those partnerships are so new however, that none were launched before 2016, meaning there is no data available yet that pulls together the experiences of multiple cities to analyze their collective results.

In response to the tech-based transportation innovations that are occurring, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) recently introduced a new program called the Mobility on Demand Sandbox, which “supports transit agencies and communities as they integrate new mobility tools like smart phone apps, bike- and car-sharing, and demand-responsive bus and van services.” Just last week, the FTA announced its first set of grants through the program, which were awarded to 11 U.S. communities for technological or service level solutions, many of which address first mile/last mile problems. A second cycle of the program is already in the planning phase and could represent a good opportunity for Milwaukee.

While the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) still lacks a smart phone app, most of our peer communities have developed such apps that allow users to plan trips and add passes and stored value to their transit cards with ease. In fact, several of the FTA’s Sandbox grantees (Chicago, Dallas, Portland, and Vermont) are using their awards to enhance existing mobile apps by integrating “shared mobility” services like ridesourcing and bikeshare. Those enhancements will allow users to plan and pay for trips that involve more than one mode of transportation in a simplified, streamlined manner.  

Another theme that ran through the summit was the rise of autonomous vehicles. While ridesourcing companies like Uber and Lyft didn’t even exist five years ago, Lyft’s president made headlines recently when he predicted that most Lyft rides will be provided by autonomous vehicles within five years. As the piloting of autonomous vehicles expands, cities will have to respond by regulating their use of city streets and curb space. Many presenters at the summit predicted that within 20 years, we will reach a tipping point when autonomous vehicles become the dominant mode of travel.

It was thrilling to learn from leaders at the forefront of transportation innovation at the summit, and now that I’m back from the future, I’m trying to filter what I learned to focus on the strategies and projects that seem most practical and applicable to addressing “last mile” challenges in the Milwaukee area. Look for our report on this subject in February. 

Joe Peterangelo