Mobility on Demand Strategies: Re-Imagining Suburban Mobility
By Susan Shaheen
For as long as there have been cities, there have been suburbs. Cicero used the term “suburbani” to describe the large estates of wealthy Romans on the city’s periphery. In North America, early streetcar suburbs were built across the continent beside horsecars and later alongside cable and electric streetcar lines. In the post-war years, North American suburbs were re-imagined around automobility with the growing popularity of private vehicles, interstate highways, and the conversion of streetcars into bus lines.
Today, shared mobility innovations are on the cusp of re-imaging suburban mobility again. Mobility on Demand (MOD) is an innovative transportation concept where consumers can access mobility, goods, and services on-demand by dispatching or using shared mobility, courier services, and public transportation solutions. Common MOD passenger services include:
Carsharing: Members access vehicles on a short-term basis (e.g., hourly) by joining an organization that maintains a fleet of cars and light trucks;
Bikesharing: Users access bicycles on an as-needed basis for one-way (point-to-point) or roundtrip travel;
Ridesharing (e.g., carpooling and vanpooling): Formal or informal shared rides between drivers and passengers with similar origin-destination pairings, which does not involve the driver earning a wage;
Ridesourcing/Transportation Network Companies (TNCs): Prearranged and on-demand transportation services for compensation that connect for-hire drivers of personal vehicles with passengers requiring rides;
Scooter Sharing: Users access scooters through a third-party organization that maintains a fleet of scooters at various locations; and
Microtransit: Public and private sector transit services that offer fixed-route or flexible-route options as well as fixed schedules or on-demand rides typically employing a van or small bus.
Between the years 1800 and 2000, the percentage of Americans living in urban areas increased from less than five percent to nearly 80 percent. In spite of this shift from rural to urban areas, most of the post-World War II growth has occurred in suburbs outside of central cities. In the 2000s, suburban growth exceeded urban growth in 81 of the largest 100 U.S. metropolitan areas. Today, approximately 75% of U.S. households live in single-family or mobile homes.
In many areas, suburbs continue to grow faster than urban cores with many urbanizing into “edge cities” with employment centers and densities resembling urban centers but with a less walkable built environment.
Suburban built environments and densities are typically not well suited for high-quality fixed-route public transit services. These challenges can create social isolation for carless and car-lite households in suburban settings.
In many cases, MOD deployments have emphasized walkable, high-density, mixed-use urban locations. However, in recent years MOD is expanding into suburban locations. A closer look at Arlington and Fairfax Counties, Virginia offers a five examples of how MOD can be deployed in less urban contexts.
Carsharing in Lower Density Environments: Arlington County previously offered a risk sharing partnership with Zipcar based on a “subtraction model” to expand carsharing vehicles to lower density, less profitable locations. As part of this partnership, Zipcar determined a break-even cost of service provision, deducted the revenue generated from the total cost, and billed the shortfall to Arlington County.
Carsharing Parking at WMATA Stations: The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) issues a request for proposal (RFP) to encourage a carsharing operator to locate vehicles at its outlying metro rail stations with parking facilities. Enterprise CarShare won the most recent competitive bid and currently has vehicles located at 45 of the system’s 91 Metrorail stations.
Closed Campus Bikesharing: Closed-campus deployments of shared mobility, such as bikesharing, carsharing, and microtransit, can be employed at universities, business parks, and other campus settings. ViaCycle briefly operated the Patriot Bikeshare program, a 20-bicycle campus bikesharing system at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA between 2012 to 2013. The program was available to faculty, staff, students, and guests for cycling on- and off-campus.
Public Bikesharing at Employment Centers: Since launching Capital Bikeshare in 2010, the system has expanded to include edge city deployments across Northern Virginia such as: Alexandria, Rosslyn/Ballston Corridor, Crystal City/Pentagon City, Tysons Corner, and Reston. Tyson’s Corner offers a prime example for how bikesharing can be applied in an edge city/office park setting. The area’s predominantly vehicle-oriented built environment results in areas that are often not easily walkable in spite of multiple metrorail stations. Capital Bikeshare, a station-based system, located ten kiosk stations throughout the vicinity that can serve multiple suburban use cases such as: first-and-last mile connection to rail transit and mid-day errands and lunch trips within an office park. Even if employees drive to work, bikesharing can help minimize mid-day trips and vehicle miles traveled, while providing an active transportation alternative throughout the workday.
Public Bikesharing at Residential Locations: Capital Bikeshare has also located bikesharing kiosks in more suburban settings, such as an 11-dock kiosk at Crescent Apartments, which includes 181-garden style affordable apartments on 16.5 acres, located in Reston, Virginia. The property is managed by the Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority (FCRHA).
Other potential applications that could be potentially well suited to suburban areas and edge cities include: scooter sharing and microtransit. Light-electric scooters may be well suited for low-density residential and office park environments, particularly in places with dedicated trails and other active transportation rights-of-way. Similarly, microtransit could provide a mobility option for suburban densities that are not well matched to frequent, fixed-route public transit services using standard buses. With smaller vehicles, microtransit may be able to offer lower cost, more frequent, demand-responsive services that could make public transit and higher occupancies more attractive in a suburban setting.
MOD could help overcome a number of equity challenges commonly associated with the suburbs by providing transportation alternatives to the private vehicle, as well as enhancing job access and social inclusion. MOD in suburban settings can also provide more choices for individuals who have more limited options, primarily private vehicle ownership and public transit. Not surprisingly, public transportation has significant first-and-last mile challenges in most suburban setting. MOD may be able to bridge suburban service gaps where public transit service is unavailable, geographically limited, or infrequent.
In the future, the convergence of automation, electrification, and sharing has the potential to reshape suburban mobility. Many forecast shared automated mobility will expand from cities to the suburbs. Shared automated vehicles and automated transit services have the opportunity to reduce operating costs and make higher occupancy modes more competitive in suburban environments. Ultimately, automation could lead to the replacement of many privately owned vehicles in suburban areas with shared vehicle services.
Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.