March 16, 2016 - From the March, 2016 issue

Public & Private Pros Opine on How 'Choice' Impacts Urban Transportation

The VX2016 panel “Disruption on Wheels: New Mobility Models for Cities” delved into the plethora of options available to get around, particularly in Los Angeles. Private-sector innovators joined public-sector leaders to consider how these changing modes might help shape the built environment, serving together to help Angelenos transition away from single-occupancy vehicle ownership. TPR features edited selections from Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole, LADOT General Manager Seleta Reynolds, Lyft Director of Transportation Policy Emily Castor, Scoot Networks Founder and CEO Michael Keating, and Alta Motors Co-Founder and CEO Marc Fenigstein.

Emily Castor

"The question I wrestle with daily is: What is the most effective role for the public sector in the midst of all of this very welcome—and sometimes unwelcome—disruption?” -Seleta Reynolds

Rick Cole: Los Angeles is famously built around its transportation networks. Originally, Red Cars created the armature around which the Los Angeles region developed. Then the freeway system created the Los Angeles that we’ve known for the last five or six decades. It’s what Chris Hawthorne calls the “second Los Angeles,” the first one being built around the Red Cars. Now we’re entering the era of the third Los Angeles.

In the last 50-60 years in Los Angeles, there used to be a binary choice: You either drove, which involved all the infrastructure of roads, parking lots, and parking structures, or, if you didn’t have access to a car because of your income, disability, or age, you were consigned to the alternative of the bus. Los Angeles is now exploding with alternative ways of getting around.

Seleta, let’s talk about how we make it work.

Seleta Reynolds: The question I wrestle with daily is: What is the most effective role for the public sector in the midst of all of this very welcome—and sometimes unwelcome—disruption?

First: We need to make sure that this works for people—meaning, users. Tomorrow the city is launching an app called GoLA, which will, for the first time, knit together Uber, Lyft, taxis, parking, every public transportation provider in the region, bikeshare, and carshare into one platform to help people make seamless choices about how to snap all of those together. It has to work for people—meaning, the private sector. The private sector is more invested, directly and indirectly, in transportation now. Cities need to figure out how to make our system work for them.

Second: It needs to work for the city. That means it needs to make our city affordable, safe, and equitable. We’re the only system in the country where the public transit agency is investing in bikesharing as a true extension of public transit. We think about investing in EV carsharing in low-income communities. We think about mobility hubs going to places where they can be true ladders of opportunity, as Secretary Foxx likes to say, for people to get access to jobs, education, healthcare, and schools.

Last: None of these things are interesting to us unless they get us to larger goals. That comes down to making great, safe spaces for people to meet and connect, to keep the city strong and happy. 

Marc Fenigstein: I’m the CEO of Alta Motors. We are the middle layer between infrastructure and services. We’ve built drivetrain tech for moving lightweight vehicles. We’ve looked forward 10-20 years and seen that everything from bicycles to electric bicycles, to scooters and motorbikes, all the way up to NEVs are going to play a major role. Our battery technology is mile-for-mile the smallest and lightest in transportation. It’s also extremely economical. Overall, our goal is a fleet of about 60 or 70 million lightweight vehicles globally that don’t have near the emission standards of passenger vehicles. If we were to replace all those gasoline vehicles with electric, we would have the single largest impact on urban smog and all the health and productivity problems that result from that.

Michael Keating: I run Scoot, a shared electric vehicle service in San Francisco. We have 350 small electric vehicles that you can drive yourself.

We found ourselves always choosing between a way to get places that was fast and a way to get places that was affordable. We wanted to offer people something as quick as a taxi, but the same price as the bus. You can pick up a Scoot almost anywhere in San Francisco on the street, ride to another part of the city, park it, walk away, leave it for the next rider, and pay us between $2 and $4 a ride—basically what transit fare costs in San Francisco. That goes over really well. It’s fast, cheap, and fun. It’s a great value proposition.

Our core rider is a transit rider who is sometimes in a hurry. Bikeshare doesn’t really get you places faster than transit, although it’s a great extension of the transit system and is cheap. But if you’re in a hurry, your only choice is to drive your own car or hire a driver. We use affordable lightweight electric vehicles. We also make it self-service. We manage it all with an app that finds the vehicles, turns them on, and tells you where you can park. We’re able to bring the cost of a smartphone-activated personal electric vehicle trip down to $2.

Safety is a huge aspect of what we do. The Scoots are mopeds that can’t go more than 30 miles an hour, and you don’t have to have a motorcycle license. Still, everyone takes a lesson, either online or in person. That is why our safety record for riders is awesome.

If you’re a policymaker, you might also think about how the mode of transportation you’re putting on the street affects other vulnerable users like bicycles and pedestrians. Scooters are very safe for the people they share the road with. The whole fleet is 100-percent light electric plug-in. You can go 16 miles on about 15 cents of electricity. That makes us by far the most energy-efficient motor vehicle in the world. We’d love to come to this city, if Seleta will have us. 

Emily Castor: I’m the transportation policy director at Lyft. We started here in LA about three years ago. In that time, we’ve expanded drastically in this region. We’re now up and running at LAX—the first ridesharing company to be authorized there. We’re increasingly becoming an everyday part of the experience of transportation in LA.

My task at Lyft is to say: How can we use that network for good? How can we engage with the broader transportation system and integrate with all the mobility options that exist in this city in a way that makes it truly viable for the next generation—and hopefully the current generation, as we age—to believe that we can live in this city without a car, or with fewer cars per household?

The behavior of people really does fall traditionally into those two binary categories Rick talked about. Either owning a personal vehicle or taking fixed-route, high-capacity transit would never work for weaning people off personal car ownership in a city like LA. With its geographical characteristics, you need a much broader variety of transportation types.

As we look at the options that unfold between the extremes of personal vehicle ownership and high-capacity transit, we offer much more customized services that adapt to the scales of demand that exist in a particular place at a particular time. If there are a large number of people that want to go the same way at the same time, we can be smart about using our technology to group them together. We started to do that with our Lyft Line service, where people who are requesting rides at the same time, without needing to coordinate with one another, can be dynamically matched through our algorithm so that they share a ride in a single vehicle. You can imagine how that principle could expand across other vehicle types. Maybe, in the future, it’ll be an increasingly integrated app, like Seleta’s GoLA initiative. You’ll be able to get matched with the perfect vehicle type that can most efficiently serve you at the most affordable cost that meets your requirements for speed of arrival, experience, and number of people in your party, and matches your personal, physical, and cognitive abilities.

We started this process with our Lyft service—one person, one driver. We’ve expanded to Lyft Line. You’ll continue to see iteration as we imagine how we can use our existing roadways much more efficiently, enabling a city in which we focus on the movement of people, and build an environment around them that accommodates the lifestyle they want, rather than building our city for cars, as we have in the past.

We’re already looking ahead to what automated vehicles can bring to that conversation. We recently received $500 million in funding and a partnership for the long term with General Motors. Big OEMs are looking at how they can play a role in the diffusion of technology that will greatly bring down the costs per mile of people accessing shared services like Lyft, and do so through an on-demand platform rather than through a personal ownership model.

Right now, given the cost, Lyft would not be a sustainable replacement for a vehicle if you had to use it for every trip, or even for first- and last-mile trips twice a day. But automated vehicles will bring that affordability, not to mention safety and customization of experience that many consumers will find compelling. I’m excited about this future, and I think LA is the perfect laboratory to test it. 

Rick Cole: Seleta, you came from San Francisco to head an agency in what everyone else around the world views as the car capital of the world. What are the challenges and opportunities for DOT to embrace innovation and to channel it to public purposes? 

Seleta Reynolds: How do you innovate inside a bureaucracy, and how does government do startups?

When I got to the Department of Transportation, I found a place full of people who were hungry for the opportunity and permission to innovate. The challenge has been figuring out how to move things out of the way for those folks inside the agency who want to work across multiple disciplines and want to continue to lead.

Los Angeles has taken a leadership role in innovating in transportation over and over again, starting with the 1984 Olympics, when we built the largest interconnected signal system maybe in the world. In ATSAC, our signal nervous system that lives downtown under City Hall, you can see any intersection in the city at any time of day. That will be an asset that will pivot toward the future, to our investment in smart parking strategies with Express Park, which is expanding in Downtown and Westwood and hoping to expand into Hollywood and Venice.

My job is to make sure that all of those leaders who have been quietly innovating are lifted up and put on the main stage so that they have an opportunity to interact with folks from the private sector—like Google and Waze, which we have a data-sharing agreement with—so that we can tear down some of the public/private barriers that exist between us.


One of the biggest challenges is that government is not great at being in the startup industry because of our procurement. We get stuck having to pick a winner, and that’s not the way startups work in transportation.

The challenge is: How do you create pilots if a company like Bridj has a particular use here, at the same time as a company like Via, which is slightly different but one of their competitors? How can I make investments so that they serve everybody in Los Angeles, and not just where the market might drive them? That requires us to do some things that we might not be comfortable with in terms of procurement and pilots.

We’re working on a Transportation Technology Strategy coming out in the next few months—a roadmap for how we can reach across to our partner cities, to the county, and to the region to make the investments we need to bring as much good as possible into transportation, and then be able to access the data, share it, learn from it, and grow from it. The mayor has been tremendous in encouraging all the general managers in Los Angeles to “fail forward.”

Rick Cole: Michael, you’ve cracked the challenge of getting into the San Francisco market.

Michael Keating: It should be much easier for us to bring Scoot to Los Angeles than it was to bring Scoot to San Francisco.

LA is at least open to talking with us about a blanket parking permit. San Francisco may be the only major city in the US that prioritizes private, personal car use of public space over shared vehicle and electric vehicle use of public space. We are not able to convince the City of San Francisco to let us pay—generously—for an on-street parking permit.

Angelenos, who stereotypically are quite attached to their automobiles, need to be comfortable seeing other types of vehicles on the street, and even other types of vehicles parked on their street. The only source of public friction in San Francisco has been the idea that a piece of public space is really for use for private vehicles. Now, a shared vehicle might be parked where someone is used to parking their private vehicle. It’s helpful to have political support. In fact, sharing cars or sharing rides, or maybe even sharing a vehicle that’s smaller than a car, is a way of freeing up that parking for other vehicles or for other good uses of public space.

Emily Castor: I have spent much of my last six to eight months in conversations with big transit agencies all over the country who are excited about the idea of partnering with TNCs, but don’t know how. I’ve seen aborted attempts to have RFPs for partnerships with TNCs that have been unsuccessful because they were not formulated in a way that companies could engage with. They didn’t result in contracts being issued or a launch.

Instead, a platform-based model that allows you to facilitate the participation of this broad range of services, which are currently competing with each other, is a really good idea. We’re at such an early point in this industry that the services we offer are changing on an every-few-months basis. It’s not great to be overly prescriptive about the box you want these things to fit in, because soon we might be able to do other things that you might like even better. Also, there are so many different players in the market that are serving different segments of that need, which overlap but don’t fully substitute for one another. Bridj may be have an edge over Lyft in certain areas where they can bring the price down because they can aggregate a lot of demand. But we’ve got an edge over them in places where there’s not enough demand to fill a large bus-like vehicle. We don’t want to have one selection of a kind of shared mobility. We want to have some openness to what these things can accomplish when consumers decide to use them in combination. We can learn from that about how we can insert policy nudges that help bring them in the right direction.

In order for us to make this service widely available, accessible, and affordable for all Angelenos—for it to address some of the stickiest, hardest transportation problems—we need partnership with the public sector. 

Seleta Reynolds: I want to flag another tension: making sure bikeshare, carshare, scooter-share, etc., are available to everyone. It’s not just about the price. Over and over again in different markets, we’ve seen some investment to make the price competitive with public transit. But you still have not seen broad adoption, investment, and use by folks who could really benefit from having these choices.

I’ve often thought about whether we public transit operators should be cobranding our service along with services the private side is providing. I understand there’s a tension with that business model.

There’s more to the equity problem than just dollars and cents. It is about presenting a solution that is authentic and organic to those communities—and breaking down serious trust issues that people have about giving out their name and information, and having an amount of money stored in their bank account. If I have a trusted brand like DASH that’s already widely used by low- and very low-income folks, how can I use that in a positive way to extend how people think about public transit, which will then increase the number of jobs they can get to every day by orders of magnitude?

Emily Castor: We’ve been transitioning toward trying to solve that problem. We launched our Concierge platform a couple of weeks ago. It’s a third-party web dispatch tool that an agency or other institutional partner can use to request Lyft rides on behalf of other people.

Let’s say that we worked with Seleta on a DASH partnership program. She’d have her DASH staff at a little call center where they could take calls from people who don’t have smartphones and request rides on behalf of those people. They would have some analog mechanism of recovering payment from those people. We could bill the LADOT monthly.

We launched that with a partner called Nat MedTrans, which provides Medicaid transportation for seniors and others who need to get to medical appointments for dialysis and so on. They were very clearly people who generally don’t have smartphone access or weren’t comfortable booking a ride that way. We piloted it as part of that Enterprise partnership. But we’ve already seen a great deal of interest from paratransit agencies, as well as other agencies that work with communities that may not want to book a ride through a smartphone. 

Marc Fenigstein: If we were to put $1 billion into lightweight vehicles at $5,000 a pop, that would be a fleet of 200,000 vehicles. If they were shared via a service like Scoot and got five rides a day, that’s a million rides a day. If you continually made that billion-dollar investment every year for the next five years—because it’s a five-year life cycle on the vehicle fleet—you’re now covering five million rides a day, potentially, with what seems like a pretty small investment and requires zero change to infrastructure, roads, neighborhoods, etc., except maybe for some of the permitting process.

Rick Cole: We live in a one-party state in which Democrats have a pretty strong stake in the status quo of unionized, legacy industries and the workers in them. We also are the world center of innovation technology. How do we navigate that challenge of not leaving behind the people that the dominant party is deeply invested in, and offer new opportunities? 

Emily Castor: I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game.

Is it a competitive or complementary relationship between shared mobility and transit? If anybody tells you they know the answer yet, they’re lying, because we don’t. These things haven’t been around long enough to truly understand the behavior through research. But the way that our founders got $500 million from General Motors was not by pitching to take a piece out of the pie of public transit’s market share. It was by looking at the enormous market share of personal vehicle ownership, and the huge opportunity for all shared modes to take pieces of that share.

We see ourselves as strong allies of transit. We will be in support of Measure RX. It is really good for Lyft, because the more viable it is for people to live here without owning a car, the more likely it is that they’re going to use Lyft frequently in combination with transit and other modes. We need to look at how we can create this robust ecosystem together. 

Michael Keating: Our feeling is exactly the same. In San Francisco, about 40 percent of trips are taken in a private car, maybe 40 percent transit, and the rest is walking, biking, and other stuff. That 40 percent going into private cars amounts to a billion-and-a-half dollars a year spent in San Francisco alone to move people around. The opportunity to shift that to a bit of ride-sharing, a bit of scooters, a bit of Zipcar, a bit of biking, and a whole lot of transit, is a massive economic opportunity from a macro scale. The money going into gas pumps, car depreciation, and poor uses of a huge amount of public space can be going to cover transportation needs with us, Lyft, and a whole bunch of other folks (which costs much less). Then the rest of that money goes back into the economy.

Emily Castor: The opportunity in LA is way bigger, because the transit mode share here is way smaller. 

Seleta Reynolds: We just hired, for the first time in the Department of Transportation, an assistant general manager for mobility management. We are trying to signal clearly that we are still in the infrastructure delivery game, but we are now pivoting as well. The labor question will become even more pointed with the arrival of connected and driverless vehicles. We’re at the beginning of a huge disruption. If cities and states are not at the table in setting those regulations and making sure we get the tremendous benefit out of the arrival of those technologies, the labor question will become almost intractable.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.