What’s the mobility story beneath the Uber and Community Transport regulatory headlines?

Local Transport Today 732: Mobility Matters

Underneath two big recent transport headlines sit a common story that points to changes in transport supply and demand that are evidence on emerging new norms for mobility. In a previous Mobility Matters column, I reflected on the inadequacies of current regulation on new mobility, so let’s have a look at the current woes of Community Transport and Uber from a mobility perspective.

The challenge to Community Transport (CT) operators about whether they can undertake commercial work without a PSV license (LTT XXX) may seem arcane to the outside world, but is evidence of how the supply and demand of services is having to change in the new mobility (and economic) reality. As CT operators are taking on – and succeeding at delivering – services more cost-effectively than the commercial sector, it broadens the profile of Community Transport. Anything that helps encourage a less tribal approach to travel choices is good for fair and healthy mobility.

But if we step back and look at this problem from a transport-for-communities perspective rather than “Community Transport”, it looks a bit different. The near-decade of bus subsidy drought has left serious mobility deserts. Indeed, this at least partly explains why Community Transport operators have been picking up so many marginal commercial contracts. What is increasingly happening on the ground is a re-orientation of approach to community-scale service design and delivery. Where the DfT Total Transport pilots triggered some tearing-up of the transport silo rule books, many other areas are considering service design from the bottom up. Mobility and understanding local travel demand are more commonly (and refreshingly) the starting point driving much broader thinking of appropriate and resilient services, often looking to social enterprise as the delivery mechanism. More flexible and open delivery mechanisms where social benefit sits alongside viability is what is required to realise the benefits of new mobility models at a community scale; the current regulatory battle seems to point in the opposite direction.

Secondly, TfL’s recent decision to revoke Uber’s license to operate has sent shockwaves far beyond the transport world. Whilst the reasoning may be related to issues of safety, security and transparency, the reactions are really interesting in terms of what they say about new mobility. Whatever anyone might think of Uber, its ability to create 3.5 million users in London in a handful of years, polarise opinions so widely and lead to such high-profile media and public responses means that it has hit a mobility demand vein.

In terms of mobility, are ride-sourcing services (distinct from ride sharing as drivers are motivated by income and the journey is triggered by a customer) such as Uber saints or sinners? The case for sinner is widely covered in terms of business practices, but what is the evidence from a mobility perspective? We just don’t know, and this is the big issue in terms of policy outcomes. In short, how would the 3.5 million Uber users have made their journeys (if at all) if Uber had not been available? With Uber’s existence, how do people over the medium and long term change their mobility lifestyles? How many empty Uber miles (getting to and from fares) clutter London’s streets? And how do the emissions of Uber vehicles compare to the national fleet?

The flipside of this (the saintly argument) relates to the holy grail of reducing car ownership. We know from 10 years of evaluating the impacts of car clubs that being able to get rid of a private car is the single biggest thing that has an enduring impact in reducing car use, increasing use of public transport & active travel and liberating street space. If Uber (and taxis more generally) alongside other choices for making journeys mean that owning a car is less likely, then its main benefit may be a useful enabler in unhooking people from private car dependency. This is the methadone or vaccine argument – injecting a bit of the problem (i.e. on-demand car use) unhooks people from the disease of dependency.

The Shared Use Mobility Center (SUMC) considered mobility impacts using Uber data from 7 cities in the USA[1]. This suggests that “…public transit and ride-sourcing services such as Uber and Lyft are largely complementary, with each serving different trip types but working together to enhance urban mobility and decrease reliance on private [cars]”. This is fine to a point, but it does not question whether ride-sourcing services are the most appropriate or desirable solution from a policy perspective; in terms of short, medium and long term social & environmental impacts, do such services lead to benefits or drawbacks compared to other solutions that might require nurturing?

A main recommendation of the SUMC research was the need for ride-sourcing services to be considered at city scale and calls for “…shared mobility information standards; ensuring data reciprocity from the private sector; and coordinating multiple agencies and modes toward common mobility goals”. For London, the current development of the Mayor’s Transport Strategy provides the ideal opportunity to frame effectively the role of ride-sourcing services within the “common mobility goals” so that they deliver the social and environmental ambitions of London as a 21st century world city. The question then becomes more about whether and how ride-sourcing enables mobility lifestyles that contribute to the ambitions for London, and hence what appropriate framing for its development might be. This would be the Porter Hypothesis regulatory constraint (Mobility Matters, LTT YYY) that would trigger innovation.

Wearing a mobility hat, the Community Transport and Uber stories are linked. There is a chatter at community level, especially beyond the city limits, of a community-benefit led Uber-type model. Whilst such models are emerging in the USA (such as Ride Austin (Texas), Juno (New York State) and Union Taxi Cooperative (Denver)), we have not seen any developments in the UK yet. Such models could help provide the fine grain of access required in these areas that is traditionally provided by Community Transport, but enabling local people to supplement income by providing the services. This not only (further) blurs the silo boundary of services (taxi? social car scheme? paid-for 2+ ride sharing?), but could be a real enabler of a broader based mobility lessening the need for car ownership. It also challenges the distinction between people as transport service users and providers; for the local economy, especially if rooted in social enterprise, this opens some really interesting new avenues for community development that is more resilient to the changing winds of policy and investment.

[1] Shared Mobility and the Transformation Of Public Transit, March 2016  http://sharedusemobilitycenter.org/uncategorized/new-research-suggests-uber-trips-complement-public-transit/

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