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Between Public and Private Mobility: Examining the Rise of Technology-Enabled Transportation Services (Transportation Research Board Special Report 319)


Journal Article

Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways (STEPS)

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Suggested Citation:
Taylor, Brian D., Ryan Chin, Melanie Crotty, Jennifer Dill, Lester A. Hoel, Michael Manville, Steve Polzin, Bruce Schaller, Susan A. Shaheen, Daniel Sperling, Marzia Zafar, Susan Zielinski (2015) Between Public and Private Mobility: Examining the Rise of Technology-Enabled Transportation Services (Transportation Research Board Special Report 319). Transportation Research Board

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.

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.

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.

Available online at: TRB