Our lifetimes are marked by rites of passage, many of which revolve around personal autonomy and agency. As a baby, we crawl and then learn to walk. Later, we are given a tricycle and then a bicycle. Who doesn’t recall getting their first bicycle? In one fell stroke, a child’s range of exploration is expanded by orders of magnitude, and with that expansion of autonomy comes the expectation of responsible behavior.
Until recently, the sixteenth birthday also held significance as the day a teenager could get a driver’s license. After a stint of sporadically driving the family car, the next big day was getting your very own car that could take you anywhere you want, any time you want, provided you had money for gas.
For most people, this is, and always has been, the end game, and with people living longer and almost everyone driving their own cars, the freeways will never be big enough to hold them all. The traditional solution? Add another lane. Once built, extra lanes incentivize housing developments in outlying, affordable areas and pretty soon, we’re back to square one with more people crawling through the twice-daily ritual commute. Today, technology has surrendered to the inevitable and is focused on providing maximum connectivity and entertainment within the car to help us endure the slog from home to work and back.
Like so many other aspects of present society, this model is no longer sustainable. As more and more cars, each with only one or two riders, pile onto our highways, the speed of transit grinds to a halt and we have tens of thousands, nay MILLIONS, of cars crawling along, each spewing almost as much carbon and particulates as if they were traveling 60+ miles an hour. These daily carbon events are equal to or greater than the many wildfires that have afflicted our state.
Something has to change, and that change has to come from within all of us. We must temper our ideal of absolute autonomy and invest the capital necessary to develop an integrated, multi-modal “mobility as a service” (MaaS) system that moves more people with less energy, but still provides an element of flexibility and freedom to travel the “last mile” to the end destination.
Single to Multi-Modal Transit and the Last Mile
So how does such a system work? Well, instead of using only one mode of transportation (i.e., your car), you would transfer between various transit modes dependent upon the distance from your present location to the next mode, and your time and space requirements. For example, you may choose to walk to the nearest bus stop, take the bus to a location near work, and then rent a bike to travel the last few miles. To get home, reverse the order.
The rule of thumb in multi-modal transport is to utilize higher mass transit modes for longer distances, and then scale down to microtransit modes as you approach the “last mile” to your destination. If I’m traveling from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, I would ideally want to take the train, and then transfer to a bus or shuttle. If I happen to be within a few miles of my destination, I may choose to ride a bike or scooter. The key is to develop a wide range of transport modes that address the traveler’s needs to transport both him/her and their baggage.
What About All Our Stuff?
The above scenario works fine if you don’t need to carry anything more than a backpack or suitcase. It gets trickier if you need to bring a number of items with you. In the above example, you may need to call a transportation network company (a.k.a. a TNC or Uber or Lyft) or some other form of microtransit service to get you and your belongings to the next mode. Development of container product lines will be needed to help people easily transport their goods via different transport modes. A multi-modal system may also create demand for portage companies who specialize in taking a person’s items to their final destination. By facilitating the separation of the traveler from their “stuff,” individuals are free to choose a more enjoyable, experiential modes of transport that add a positive, recreational aspect to the journey.
Uber and Lyft No Panacea without Electrification
Although TNCs like Uber and Lyft have touted their service as a means of reducing congestion, recent reports have shown that congestion has actually increased in San Francisco, its birthplace. It stands to reason, as these “gig economy” drivers often stay on the streets in between rides.
Connectivity and an Integrated Interface are Key to the Multi-Modal Experience
Obviously, moving from one transport mode to another, often waiting for the arrival of the next transport mode, entails more time than jumping in your car and driving directly to the destination. To make up for this difference, a critical requirement successful multi-modal transit will be to provide the traveler with full connectivity and productivity while in transit. This requires development of a broadband, wi-fi network providing continuous online connection during and between transit. Modal connection points such as train stations and bus stops must also offer a full range of services, including charging access for available vehicles and traveler accessories.
Today, a bus stop is usually nothing more than a sign and park bench (see below). In an advanced multi-modal system, many of these stops will need solar + energy storage in order to charge and maintain electric cars, bikes, and scooters, among other things. A basic multi-modal tenet is for connection points to sustain transport modes on either side of the connection while ensuring traveler functionality while transferring or in transit.
Paramount for the success of multi-modal transport is an integrated interface where riders can find information concerning venues and events, reserve various transit vehicles needed to reach their destination, and receive updates regarding the status of each transit mode. Working to develop such an interface is L.A. Metro’s TAP (Transit Access Pass) smartphone application, which will allow riders to reserve spaces on all LA Metro transit systems. Once operational, such a system could incorporate Santa Barbara County transit systems, enabling tourists and Angelenos to take Amtrak to local train stations, and then utilize various transit modes to their hotel or other destination.
Multi-Modal Pros, Cons, and Takeaways
- You no longer are part of the congestion problem (good karma!).
- You can work, socialize or recreate while in transit.
- You can integrate exercise into your commute.
- You can connect with a broad cross-section of your community.
- You organize your day more efficiently and flexibly.
- Your commute will take much longer.
- You may not get there on time.
- It can get crowded.
- Diesel buses are very loud (bring your earphones!). Soon: electric buses (much quieter!)
- You will need to organize and arrange your belongings for multiple transfers.
Transitioning to multi-modal transport will require a large degree of capital investment and cultural acclimation. For inexperienced transit users, going “cold turkey” for a week can be exhausting. After our experiment (SEE THE CASE STUDY), both Kristy and I agreed that while using mass transit over multiple days involved problematic sacrifices in autonomy, there was at least one day each week where the car could be left at home or the office and transit used to commute to home at night and then to work in the morning the next day. Using this routine, we could remove ourselves from the evening and morning commutes while still retaining the autonomy to travel to business engagements during the day.
What would our freeways and streets look like if each of us could use mass or shared transit one day each week? If planned properly, the benefits should be substantial. As multi-modal systems become more seamless, more opportunities should present themselves, ultimately leading to the day when absolute autonomy through car ownership is no longer the ideal.
By Robert Perry, with editing and input from Kristy Jansen