Commuter Solutions

Five Strategies to Enhance Transportation Equity in Shared Mobility

Five Strategies to Enhance Transportation Equity in Shared Mobility

Shared mobility has the potential to offer communities a wide array of benefits including: increased mobility; greater environmental awareness; reduced vehicle emissions; and enhanced first-and-last mile connections to public transportation. While increasingly becoming more mainstream, the demographics of shared mobility users often differ from the general population. In general, users tend to be younger and have higher levels of educational attainment and incomes. They also are likely to be less diverse than the general population. Older adults, low-income individuals, rural communities, and minority communities have historically been less likely to use shared mobility. Additionally, access to the Internet, smartphones, and banking services—a pre-requisite for many shared mobility modes—tends to be lower among many of these groups. Earlier this year, we wrote about three key policy questions (the “3-D’s” – Divide, Discrimination, and Displacement) impacting shared and on-demand mobility.


There are numerous equity challenges that can impact people’s ability to access transportation services, summarized in Figure 1 below.


Figure 1: Equity Challenges (Source: Shaheen et al., 2016)

In this blog, we discuss three key equity challenges of concern to mobility providers and public agencies.


1. Equitable Service– It is important that shared mobility services provide equivalent levels of service to all users. This can include comparable wait times, pricing, and service availability. For example, a multi-institutional research study of 1,500 ridesourcing/transportation network company (TNC) rides taken in Seattle and Boston found that Uber drivers in Boston were over twice as likely to cancel the rides of passengers with names perceived to be of African origin versus Caucasian names (O’Brien, 2016). The study also found that drivers took women on longer, more expensive rides. Of the 581 trips taken, African-American travelers waited on average 20 percent longer than Caucasian travelers to have their ride accepted on Lyft or uberX, and it took about 30 percent longer for African-American travelers to be picked up than Caucasian travelers using uberX (Kubota, 2016) (Ge, Knittel, MacKenzie, & Zoepf, 2016). However, this concern is not specific to ridesourcing alone. A study of taxi drivers in Seattle found that they stopped more often for Caucasian riders than for African Americans (Scott, 2016). Similar concerns have been raised with other sharing economy service providers (e.g., AirBnB) (O’Brien, 2016).


2. Accessibility for Older Adults and People with Disabilities – Another challenge that can arise with shared mobility is the provision of services for older adults and people with disabilities. Shared mobility can present challenges when: 1) passengers with limited mobility do not offer accessible services or equivalent accessible alternatives and 2) when shared modes block American with Disabilities Act (ADA) access (e.g., ramps, curbs, etc.). A number of services have responded by adding accessible services. For example, in a number of cities Uber has implemented UberWAV allowing passengers with disabilities to request wheelchair accessible vehicles, and UberASSIST offers regular vehicles with specialized driver training. Other shared mobility operators offer similar programs. However, the lack of service availability in all markets or longer wait times for accessible vehicles can present equity challenges. For other shared modes, blocking curbs and ramps can pose a notable challenge. More public awareness is needed to prevent users from leaving equipment that could pose challenges to people with disabilities.


3. Crossing the Digital and Income DivideMany shared mobility services require users to have a smartphone and a credit or debit card to use a service hindering access by low-income, minority, younger, older, and less-educated users and people with disabilities. These groups tend to have lower levels of smartphone ownership and generally rely more on cash, having more limited access to banking services. Since the majority of shared mobility services are accessed by a smartphone, the lack of familiarity with and access to smartphones with mobile data can preclude these populations from accessing Mobility on Demand (or MOD) services that could save them time or money.



Identifying the array of transportation equity issues can be challenging because several types of equity issues can affect a user’s ability to access a service. While shared mobility can raise equity concerns when services require a smartphone and credit/debit cards or do not provide accessible services to all users in all neighborhoods, it also has the potential to enhance mobility, access, and economic opportunity for travelers.


Shared mobility can be leveraged to create opportunities for enhanced access such as: improving mobility options (e.g., fares, routes); increasing travel speed and reliability; bridging first-and-last mile gaps in the transportation network; and expanding coverage to historically underserved users or communities.


Strategies to Enhance Equity

The public and private sectors can work together to enhance equity in five key ways:


1. Providing alternative methods of service access for people without smartphones or credit and debit cards (e.g., digital kiosks; cash payment; partnerships that enable the billing of mobility services on other bills, such as utilities);

2. Developing innovative mobility programs to enhance access and mobility for a variety of special populations and demographic segments, such as children, prenatal mothers, veterans (e.g., Columbus, Ohio offers prenatal trip assistance to reduce infant mortality and assists mothers in getting to and from healthcare appointments);

3. Implementing policies and mobility services that target, overcome, and mitigate equity concerns (e.g., ADA access, service accessibility issues, and services that help to cross the digital and income divide). For example, New York City has deployed LinkNYC, a network of ADA-compliant digital kiosks that offer free Wi-Fi, free calling in the U.S., maps, navigation, public transit information, and other digital information services. The kiosks reduce the need to own a smartphone or maintain a data plan;

4. Encouraging mobility services that improve access to jobs, healthcare, and education for all members of society. For example, in Columbus Ohio, as part of their Smart City Challenge implementation, the city is working with local public and private social service providers to offer mobility services (e.g., carsharing, ridesourcing, etc.) to low-income, carless, and unemployed households in the Linden neighborhood); and

5. Ensuring equivalent level of service for special populations and users with special needs (e.g., low-income communities, minority neighborhoods, people with disabilities, etc.). Equivalent level of service means that the level of service (e.g., availability, frequency, wait time, journey time) for special populations (e.g., individuals with disabilities) is equivalent to the level of service with non-special needs users (e.g., individuals without disabilities).


Shared mobility providers and public agencies should consider incorporating equity principles at all levels of policy planning and implementation including: strategic policy, tactical procedures, and operational execution.


Frameworkfor incorporating equity principles

Figure 2: Framework for Incorporating Equity Principles into Policy and Practice

Equity Policy/Planning Approaches from Seattle and Washington, D.C.

While many cities are addressing shared mobility and transportation equity in their planning, we provide a few examples of our above framework from Seattle and Washington, D.C. For instance, the City of Seattle includes equity as a core strategic value of their city’s New Mobility Playbook stating: “Mobility, whether shared, public, private, or automated, is a fundamental human need. Everyone needs a barrier-free transportation system and affordable transportation options that are understandable and accessible to all who want to use them. New mobility models should also promote clean transportation and roll back systemic racial and social injustices borne by the transportation system.” Equity should be carefully considered in a public agency’s procedures and execution.


Seattle goes beyond addressing equity at the strategic level. At the tactical level, Seattle lawmakers have adopted provisions within local ordinances to ensure geographic equity with the implementation of shared mobility services. For a number of years, Seattle has offered a fixed number of free-floating carsharing vehicle permits (typically 500) with the option of an additional 250 permits, if the carsharing operator agrees to cover the entire city. In doing so, the city has implemented tactical level incentives to encourage citywide carsharing coverage for all residents and businesses.


In contrast to the strategic and tactical levels, operational execution often involves specific implementation practices to foster equitable access. At this level, Washington DC’s Capital Bikeshare has partnered with the District Government Employees Federal Credit Union and United Bank to provide bank accounts and debit cards to previously unbanked users and are awarded gift cards toward their annual bikesharing memberships to help defray costs.


In developing policies that ensure equitable access and equivalent service levels, it is important to consider equity, ranging from the policy level to operational execution. This can help to mitigate potential equity challenges and fill existing transportation equity gaps and enhance accessibility opportunities.


This article was co-authored with Adam Cohen. Susan Shaheen and Adam Cohen are co-authors of the USDOT report Travel Behavior: Shared Mobility and Transportation Equity. Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.


Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.



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