Urban Mobility

Mobility On Demand and Transportation Equity

Our transportation system is undergoing vast transformations. Technology, entrepreneurship, and changing customer expectations are disrupting traditional mobility models and reshaping how consumers access, pay, and use transportation. Last month, we wrote about three key components of Mobility on Demand (MOD): 1) the principle of commodification, 2) the importance of public-private partnerships and key stakeholder groups, and 3) the interrelated nature and importance of goods delivery to MOD. This month, we discuss the importance of transportation equity and MOD.


Three key policy questions (the “3-Ds”) underscore the future of mobility:

1. Divide: How do we ensure access to all and an equivalent level of service among mobility providers? How do we provide an even playing field among mobility providers?

2. Discrimination: How do we prevent discrimination against protected classes (i.e., minority, people with disabilities, etc.)?

3. Displacement: How do we make sure all shared modes, including public transit, are affordable and accessible to all users? How do we ensure that public transportation is not displaced as an affordable mobility option, particularly for low-income travelers?


Six common transportation equity challenges include:

– Affordability: “It’s too expensive.”

– Predictability: “Will dynamic or surge pricing make it too expensive?”

– Availability: “The services aren’t available in my neighborhood.”

– Payability: “I don’t have an acceptable payment method.”

– Accessibility: “The service isn’t accessible for my medical condition.”

– Techno-ability: “I don’t have a smartphone or a data plan.”


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Generally, these challenges can be categorized into 4 overarching themes:

1. Access for People with Disabilities: Across the industrialized world, older adults are redefining longevity. In the United States (U.S.), by 2045, the number of Americans over the age of 65 will increase to 77%. As populations across the world age, the number of people with disabilities will increase (nearly 20% of the U.S. population lives with a disability). Removing barriers to MOD services for people with visual, auditory, cognitive, mobility, and other disabilities is critical.

2. Un- and Under- Banked Households: Many MOD services require debit/credit cards for payment and, in some cases, collateral for vehicles or equipment. This can be a barrier for consumers who are under banked or unbanked. Providing alternative fare payment options is key.

3. Low-Income Affordability and Service Equivalency: Pay-as-you-go MOD pricing can be expensive (and costlier in comparison to walking, cycling, and public transportation). It is important that low-income households and neighborhoods have equivalent service. This includes affordable mobility options, equivalent travel modes, comparable hours and frequency of service, and similar wait times.

4. Digital Impoverishment: MOD services increasingly require a smartphone and high-speed data packages to access services. This can be a barrier to low-income and rural households who may not be able to afford or may lack data coverage to access MOD services. Alternatives such as digital kiosks, telephone services, and non-tech access (such as street hail) can help overcome these challenges.




The inability to afford or access MOD services can either block or limit access to on-demand transportation services, including access to jobs and healthcare. Not surprisingly, lack of access to physical mobility and can also limit upward mobility. There is, in turn, a need to expand the conversation about traditional notions of equity (often focused around Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, environmental justice, and narrow definitions of protected classes) to encompass a broader set of issues that can exacerbate inequality and limit access to transportation mobility and economic opportunities.


To help public agencies and the private sector ensure that MOD is accessible to all users, we are excited to announce a recently released USDOT report Travel Behavior: Shared Mobility and Transportation Equity. In this primer, the USDOT has developed the STEPS framework to aid in identifying and mitigating gaps in equitable service delivery. STEPS stands for – Spatial – Temporal – Economic – Physiological – and Social. Each of these considerations are explained below:


Spatial factors can compromise daily travel needs, including lack of service availability in a particular neighborhood, excessively long distances between destinations, and the lack of public transit within walking distance.


Temporal time barriers can inhibit a user from completing time-sensitive trips, such as arriving at work or completing travel due to lack of service availability at a particular time (e.g., late-night transportation services).


Economic considerations include direct costs, such as fares, tolls, and vehicle ownership costs as well as indirect costs (e.g., smartphone, Internet, credit card access) that create economic hardship or preclude users from completing basic travel.


Physiological factors include physical and cognitive limitations that make using standard transportation modes difficult or impossible for certain individuals, such as children, older adults, and people with disabilities.


Social considerations include social, cultural, safety, and language barriers that inhibit a user’s comfort with using transportation modes and services. Examples of social barriers can include neighborhood crime, poorly targeted marketing, and the lack of multi-language information.




Identifying and understanding the various equity challenges related to MOD is the first step to help ensure access and equivalent level of service for all; prevent discrimination; and make on-demand modes accessible and affordable to low-income, digitally impoverished, and un-/under- banked users. The public and private sectors, along with key stakeholders (e.g., non-governmental organizations, community-based organizations, and foundations), can partner to help overcome these challenges by understanding these issues and implementing tailored solutions to overcome each challenge.


Five key opportunities where MOD can help to address transportation equity include:

1. Fostering public-private partnerships between public transit operators and MOD operators to provide first- and last-mile connections and deploy on-demand transit options in lower-density service areas to bridge spatial gaps;

2. Leveraging late-night shared mobility services to fill temporal gaps;

3. Implementing multiple fare payment options and subsidies for low-income and unbanked users to overcome economic hurdles;

4. Employing services and technologies that overcome physiological challenges (e.g., voice activated mobility app features, wheelchair accessible services, etc.); and

5. Incorporating service features that are designed to minimize and overcome social challenges (e.g., targeted outreach to underserved communities, apps that limit discriminatory outcomes, multi-lingual apps and marketing, etc.).


By applying this framework, the public and private sectors and key stakeholder groups can identify and remove barriers to ensure that MOD is accessible to everyone. Researchers and academics can assist in performing third-party studies that help to measure and document progress in achieving equitable mobility. To read more about MOD, Transportation Equity, and the STEPS framework, please read one of our latest publications with the US Department of Transportation.


This article was co-authored with Adam Cohen. Susan Shaheen and Adam Cohen are co-authors of the recently released Travel Behavior: Shared Mobility and Transportation Equity. Shaheen and Cohen are members of the UC Berkeley/Booz Allen Hamilton Independent Evaluation team for the Federal Transit Administration’s MOD Sandbox.


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