Commentary: Towards Defining "Mobility"

Mobility. It is just a word, right?

Actually, there is a lot behind the word these days. Automobile manufacturers have been swirled into the definition of this word, along with technology companies, community activists, governments and other non-profit entities trying to provide the same kind of service.

The service of mobility used to live in silos. The move towards the intertwining of these silos has been on the forefront of industry news for the past few years. Perhaps they saw how Uber and Lyft have been changing the way we go from point-to-point in recent years. How can everyone else get into the act?

It is also about the drive towards autonomous driving. There is a vision where people can no longer take the wheel of their own automobile, but have them go on a specific route to get to where you need to go. Some of these technologies are already equipped in today’s automobiles. Yet, the trick to make them fully autonomous already yielded mixed feedback from various stakeholders – including potential customers.

Thrown in the mobility mix is a drive to relieve ourselves from using petroleum products. The electric vehicle has been a regular debate, but one now accelerated by the desirability of Tesla's vehicles and the rush for other manufacturers to keep up with Elon Musk's venture – if not use current platforms to compete against them.

Tesla Model S

Yet, there is still growth in car sharing services and similar entities. While one model follows the hub approach to car sharing services, other peer-to-peer services are gaining ground, though some might be concerned about the additional risk of letting a privately owned vehicle in the hands of another person – let alone a paying customer.

Discussion of these three silos in the context of the future of mobility have taken center stage alongside the current state of the automobile. I get my fill by reading Automotive News and other related media as they talk about this automobile-based mobility future like its the greatest thing since Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler created their own automobiles. However, I feel that there are some pieces to the mobility puzzle that has not been addressed fully within these conversations. If I bring up the aspects of the future of the taxicab business and of public transportation, then a whole can of worms will open up.

The idea of mobility seems to be catered towards the middle and upper classes. Anyone with a low income – which represents a growing number of people in this country – would be shut out of these services because of cost. Electric car ownership requires a huge outlay of cash, between setting up a charging area at multiple unit dwellings that are strictly rental property, the purchase of an electric vehicle, along with accounts to use charging stations and so forth. Also, customers might not be aware of premium charges levied by app-driven car hailing services during "prime time" hours. If autonomous driving becomes reality, how many people from lower income situations could afford to purchase such vehicles?

46th Street Station 16

My point so far is to see what can be done to include all people within the mobility future being discussed by the automotive industry.

To approach an understanding towards seeing a full spectrum view of the future of mobility is to see what is happening in my home market – the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

I had hopes for the Twin Cities. Eleven years ago, HourCar established themselves as a different model than what was being touted for car sharing. It was a non-profit enterprise that have grown to become the leader in alternative mobility in this region. HourCar's leadership in car sharing will remain true, as Daimler AG's car2go will close operations in this market. This will leave HourCar and Zipcar operating with hubs in core areas between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

In terms of creating an electric vehicle charging infrastructure, I have to recall back in 2011 when there was momentum by the City of St. Paul to have key areas equipped with charging stations. Since then, there had been some growth, thanks to the recent opening of HyVee’s supermarkets across the Twin Cities. Aside from the number of Teslas on the roads, there had been limited growth in the sales of other EV and PHEV vehicle offerings to utilize these public and private charging stations. However, the push is for more homeowners to install faster chargers for their vehicles, as encouraged by local electric utilities. The idea is to have EV and PHEV owners take more responsibility at home, while taking consideration of winter driving and vehicle storing during the colder months.

Just like most communities, there had been a huge growth in Uber and Lyft services in the Twin Cities. There has also been some resistance to their presence in this region, in particular a dispute at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport regarding pickups by non-premium service drivers. The latter is due to the highly restrictive nature of for hire services at MSP. Aside from that, the app-based ride share services have taken fares away from licensed taxicabs. Taxicabs companies in this region have been fighting back, with the use of their own apps and offering similar services to Lyft/Uber. The two main cities in the metropolitan area – Minneapolis and St. Paul – have been struggling with finding the balance between licensed taxicabs and Lyft/Uber with their struggle in legally defining these two services towards a form of regulation for all of these services.

As for autonomous vehicles, I am not aware of any such testing on these technologies in this region to parse out here.

There is something missing in the global conversation on mobility. Public transportation is still a part of this mix. Between Metro Transit, the Metropolitan Council and its associated agencies, there have been expansion and improvement of services throughout the Twin Cities. Between bus expansion in Shakopee and the building of a freeway station at Cedar Grove in Eagan, public transport is seen as an integrative part for riders of all incomes to participate in the larger mobility picture here.

Which leads back to the idea of the division between income classes and their access to mobility options. If you can afford to buy an electrified vehicle equipped with autonomous driving systems and are able to set up a fast charger at your home, then you may have bought into the larger picture of what mobility is supposed to be. However, not everyone can afford to own such a vehicle and equipped their house as such. This is the exact point everyone seems to forget in this conversation.

Can car sharing, app-based ride sharing and taxicab services be an upper end solution for those in lower income segments? It depends on whether they can afford to utilize these services and add them as work benefits, such as transit-agency sponsored guaranteed ride home programs.

Central Station - Green Line LRT

This leads to another important point: What would make it attractive and integrative for everyone to use public transport? In the larger metropolitan areas, the buy-in is easy – that is, if they work where most of the services go to/from during normal business hours. From that point, there is the extended question of enabling services for reverse commutes to suburban workplaces, off-hour transit services to jobsites across the metro, and ensuring safety and security for everyone using public transit services. Inclusion and resolution of these questions should be part of the global conversation on mobility.

Is this a conversation that can happen, even with the rise in talk volume of autonomous automobiles, ride and car share services and plug-in electric vehicles? Though the global view shows that the automobile reigns supreme, perhaps that global view is clouded in terms of affordability and access. Perhaps this conversation should be augmented by including public transport infrastructure and finding a way to include those who cannot afford to buy into new automobile ownership.

Considering the current and speculative political and social climate, I’m afraid that time might not be on our side for a wide-ranging conversation. Then again, I could be wrong about all of this.

All photos by Randy Stern

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