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Policymaking in the Public Right-of-Way: the Last Mile

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

By Patrick Mulhearn
May 18, 2019

In a few short years brightly-colored bicycles and scooters have sprouted in urban areas all over the world. Catchy names like Jump, Bird, and Lime predominate, but dozens of others are competing for a previously unknown market: short-trip transportation.

There are untold millions of “last miles” between us and our destinations—it’s just that we’ve only ever ignored them by walking them or driving them. Enter shared bicycle and scooter companies. These startups take advantage of the relatively unregulated public right-of-way that comprises these last miles and offer products that have quickly become the go-to mode of transportation for people worldwide.

And in spite of some early over-calculations, they are wildly successful. So successful, in fact, that bigger, richer companies have scooped up or started their own shared bicycle and scooter products. Uber and Lyft quickly moved into the market by acquiring JUMP and Motivate (respectively), and even old-timers like Ford have something they call Go Bike.

The Last Mile

Serving the so-called last mile has been a conundrum for transportation planners for a generation: how do you deliver people from the end of your public infrastructure to their destination? Outside of dense urban areas the answer for nearly a century has been to use the individually-occupied automobile and ignore public transit except in the most exigent circumstances.

The consequences of that reality have bedeviled governments ever since: in order to reduce congestion, increase traffic through-put and reduce environmental impacts the best solutions are in public mass transit.  But these systems have only really been effective in areas of concentrated population, where the built public transit infrastructure connects to nearly every doorstep.

In many places, though, there’s a gap between a transit stop and your doorstep (or the grocery store) and this last mile is one of the big reasons people eschew public transit.

But now we have a product that very neatly slots into this gap, and it seems as though it might actually spark a revolution. Transportation planners everywhere have a new tool to create fully-integrated networks of transportation services, with shared bicycles and scooters functioning as interstitial connections between legacy modes of public transit like buses and trains.

Suddenly that last mile between the public transit stop and your dentist is filled by an e-bike owned by a private company. But the jurisdictions benefitting from this new transportation mode now must grapple with the consequences of allowing these companies to monetize public spaces, and ultimately require some sort of remuneration for the right.

Data

A universally valuable product of 21st century startups is data, and one could plausibly argue that data’s use and consumption define our modern world. Data documenting our movement through physical space is a fungible asset in a connected economy—another point to be linked to our web browsing and credit card purchases to further define our marketing profiles, as well as to be defined by Big Data. So it’s not just the fares users pay that make short-trip businesses profit; it’s the potential of generating an entirely new data set and the opportunities such an asset represents.

But this data also is valuable to governments. Planners use traffic data to create models predicting where infrastructure investments should be made, transportation agencies use traffic data to qualify for grants to pay for that infrastructure and land use agencies use that information for zoning and land use policy, which define where things get built along that infrastructure. The future of a community lies within this data.

So there’s a public interest in acquiring this data. But how?

The Regulatory Scheme

Regulating the uses of the public right-of-way is one of the fundamental roles of local governments, so it is natural for these agencies to be involved in permitting or licensing use of these rights-of-way. In the rush to start up, though, some startups felt their best strategy was to deploy their products and hope for the best, ignoring the regulatory role local governments play.

But even in jurisdictions that were the most accommodating to these businesses, such as San Diego, outcry from stakeholder groups has pushed for regulation. San Diego initially allowed any company to set up shop in their right-of-way and currently has around six companies and over 20,000 shared bikes and scooters plying their streets and sidewalks.

What they’ve learned in their short laissez-faire experiment, though, is that regulations are necessary for mitigating the impacts of any use of public assets. And regulating these spaces is what local governments do best, and something for which they have real authority. So rather than hoping for the best, San Diego and many other jurisdictions are now developing licensing and permitting requirements for these businesses to access public rights-of-way for their profit-making.

And this is where the remuneration comes in: not only do the regulatory schemes delineate where these bicycles and scooters can legally operate, but permits and licenses can also require that companies share data with the local jurisdictions, integrate into regional planning models and even pay a fee per ride.

Local governments have a valuable commodity and should forcefully assert their prerogatives whenever anyone else wants to profit from it.


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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