Austin still wrestling with mobility questions

Sunday, 18 March 2018 22:01 Written by  Read 11 times
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to the SXSW (pronounced South by Southwest) arts and technology festival last week sparked debate among attendees about how cities and mobility companies can work together.

"At the end of the day, there might be situations where private profit motive and public good do not align," said Jessica Robinson, director of city solutions for Ford Smart Mobility. "Our commitment is to sit at the table and figure it out."

Uber and Lyft stopped operating in Austin in 2016, objecting to city regulations that required fingerprinting of drivers and other safety measures. Last May, the Texas state government passed HB100, a law that superseded local regulations and made ride-hailing a state-regulated business, which paved the way for the companies' return.

But unresolved tension behind the absence led to conversations during the future technology portion of the festival on a range of prickly issues, from how companies share operational data to where and how they are allowed to run mobility services. Car and tech companies are trying to cultivate relationships with Austinites, who have taken a skeptical, even hostile, attitude to anyone advocating a car-based culture in this quirky, left-of-center town.

Road space an issue

Austin is a petri dish for the forces of population growth, congestion and transportation innovation that are changing how cities approach moving people and goods.

The Austin area surpassed 2 million residents in 2016, a 35 percent increase from 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. During the same period, population rose nearly 20 percent in Texas and 8 percent in the U.S.

"We need to get more people into the central area and we've got to do it in modes other than single-occupancy vehicles," said Rob Spillar, director of the Austin Transportation Department.

"Even if you have chauffeured vehicles or automated vehicles, there's still only so much road space."

Ride-hailing companies have been criticized for contributing to crowded streets. Multiple studies in Boston, New York City and other urban areas have concluded that ride-hailing customers would have opted to walk or take transit if they didn't have easy access to a cheap car ride. The companies dispute this.

"We believe congestion is the result of a lot of things," said April Mims, Lyft's director of public policy, citing low gasoline prices and the reversal of de-urbanization. "We don't want [transportation network companies] to be the scapegoat."

Mims and Ford's Robinson spoke on a panel on city-company relations alongside representatives from Austin and Washington, D.C., in an unusually frank discussion on potential points of conflict ahead.

"My job is to help cities and states understand our mission," Mims said. "We are very interested in shared rides. Once they understand the mission, a lot of the challenges from a regulatory standpoint melt away."

City's helping hand

Support from local officials through zoning regulations, parking and curbside allotment and city messaging could be a decisive factor in launching citywide services.

As the Austin area has topped 2 million people, congestion is a big part of the mobility debate.

General Motors' Maven mobility unit launched an operation in Austin this month to provide Chevrolet Bolts for ride-hailing and delivery drivers who don't have cars. The launch was facilitated by partners at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization that has strong relationships with city officials.

"We shouldn't be fighting each other," said Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute. "All of this is about bringing together the incumbents, disrupters, government and communities."

A more immediate example of where cities can make a difference is the experience of Austin's upstart ride-hailing companies that moved in after Uber and Lyft pulled out and have suffered from the giants' return. Many have shuttered, including Fasten, of Boston, which shut down this month.

"When you're competing in the age of Uber and Lyft, you have to do things differently," said Bobbi Kommineni, vice president of operations for RideAustin, a nonprofit ride-hailing service.

"Their marketing power is pretty high. We can't afford that."

One year ago, RideAustin was at its peak, completing 20,000 rides a day during SXSW without competition from Uber and Lyft. In the first week after the companies returned, ride volume dropped by more than half. Within months, it had moved out of its headquarters and slashed prices to more effectively compete. Now, Kommineni hopes an alliance with city government will give the company an edge.

"We're not here to make money. We don't have a self-driving vehicle," Kommineni said. "We would welcome the opportunity if the city wanted to embrace us."

Starting now

In the meantime, companies can signal good intentions through community-oriented work and by engaging in long-term discussions on problems cities face.

For instance, Austin officials are revising the city's land development code, a prime opportunity for companies to consult on the roads and regulations that will eventually govern their operations.

"This is long-term strategy that cities and private companies just need to do a lot better at talking about now," said Tien-Tien Chan, a transportation planner with the city.

Lyft representatives have also collaborated with local venues and musicians to support the arts, a savvy strategy in the self-titled "live music capital of the world."

"We all live here," said Aaron Fox, Lyft's general manager for the city. "We need to make it work for Austin."

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