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Policymaking in the Public Right-of-Way: Mobility as a Service

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Patrick Mulhearn
April 21, 2019

The public right-of-way is the frontier of private profit-making. And it’s not just the telecoms who are looking to make money off of public property. Now all the cool kids in Silicon Valley are keen to make use of this “free” infrastructure for their startups, and to make tidy sums without having to build the infrastructure themselves.

When you think of the right-of-way, think of the curb and sidewalk in front of your house. All that concrete and asphalt was paid for (for the most part) by local taxes that you paid. Now think of the newest app-based transportation service and how successful the Ubers, Limes, and Zipcars would be if they had to build this infrastructure first.

Unlike telecommunications companies, which largely had to build whatever infrastructure they needed to deliver their products, app-based transportation service companies exist because someone else built their infrastructure for them. So, in many ways they can reap profits without having to absorb the costs of their business model: they don’t have to build the roads and sidewalks before they can provide their services, nor do they have to pay to maintain any of it.

It could be argued that this is why they’re profitable at all.

Mobility as a Service

These new services comprise a new transportation category known as Mobility as a Service (or by its cooler acronym MaaS). This outgrowth of app-based, consumer-oriented technology platforms is pushing transportation planning in new directions and forcing local governments and planning agencies to re-think infrastructure investment and transit planning.

MaaS consists of a mobile or web-based application comprising a user-localized map describing various transportation options available in the vicinity and some means of connecting to them. Think of Uber/Lyft or Jump/Lime—or even the various public transit applications available. This is car sharing, bike sharing, ride sharing, bus, subway and scooter all available at a swipe.

MaaS is public or private depending on the transportation mode (car/bus/bike/scooter/train), but in the future will see regional applications that incorporate data from all the connected vehicles in public and private fleets to provide users an integrated map of available transportation options. If the future of transportation planning is about offering choices, not managing congestion, then MaaS is integral to these efforts. It also has the potential to offer “last mile” connectivity—that unicorn of transportation planning that connects people between modes and their destinations.

But MaaS is not just about offering users options, it’s also about collecting and aggregating data about the transportation decisions they’re making. This is the most valuable and controversial feature of these services. Private companies want that data to generate revenue while public agencies want it for planning purposes. Such granular data provides both opportunities for micro-targeted marketing to users and for more integrated transit and transportation infrastructure, but user consent is still a big question.

In the twelve years since the iPhone was released, our lives have come to depend on pivot around devices. The contemporary world is in many ways the product of our dependence on them, so it makes sense that the ways that we traverse this world would be affected, too. And just as we contend with our personal data being siphoned off of Facebook, we’ll need to contend with our transportation decisions accreting to our digital profiles and the consequences of our movement becoming a fungible asset.

The Role of Local Governments

Local governments and regional transportation planning agencies are ground zero in this new interface between transportation and technology. They are the agencies responsible for creating rights-of-way, repairing infrastructure and regulating uses and users. Local laws describe where shared bicycles can be stored, whether shared scooters can be driven on sidewalks and where Ubers can pick up.

But many of the private entities delivering these products have operated with impunity in a world where regulatory bodies are constantly playing catch-up. In fact, in some cases it’s been integral to their business models to start up before local regulatory agencies have a chance to initiate policy-making.

This can be particularly frustrating for residents and business owners who look to local government for oversight when new vendors enter a community and hijack the sidewalks in front of homes and storefronts or when the users of these new products negatively impact the community.

Local agencies should assert their authority over public rights-of-way and find ways to not just regulate but also integrate these new modes into a broader revision of transportation infrastructure: to bring these rogues into the fold. We’ll discuss some of the ways that local governments have started developing policies to address some of the externalities of MaaS in future articles.

Clear regulations protect community interests. Integrating private vehicle-sharing into public transit planning promotes comprehensive solutions to problems like congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. There is a way forward but it will require collaboration.

Author: Patrick Mulhearn, MPA, is a public policy analyst for the Santa Cruz County, California, Board of Supervisors. He focuses primarily on policies relating to telecommunications and transportation infrastructure and may be reached at [email protected].

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