Prioritizing People, Public Transport, and Pooling: Transitioning to Shared Automated Vehicles

Technology is reshaping cities and societies and changing the way we travel. Real-time information coupled with on-demand mobility are redefining ‘auto mobility.’ Rather than rendering cars obsolete, the convergence of on-demand shared, electric, and automated technology will make the autos more cost effective, efficient, and convenient – especially when shared. But the convergence of sharing, electrification, and automation in itself is not a silver bullet to solve our transportation challenges. To maximize the potential opportunity and minimize the challenges associated with shared automated vehicles (SAVs), we should consider 5 key issues in managing the transition toward an automated future.

 

1. Equity Challenges and Opportunities – Earlier this year, we wrote about common equity challenges impacting our transportation network. Suburbanization has been one of the great underlying trends impacting transportation in the Western hemisphere during the 20th century. While early suburbs were often built around railroad and streetcar lines, post–World War II suburbanization has become primarily an auto-driven phenomenon. In many cities, our urban centers declined as development patterns focused on mass personal vehicle ownership; the marketing of suburbia as a residential location; and the building of highways that manifested in strip malls, suburban retail and employment centers, and very low-density housing. This development pattern has resulted in an overreliance on private vehicles that has come at a high cost to household budgets, public health, and the environment. It is not uncommon for low-income households to spend upwards of 30% of their income on transportation. For those without a private vehicle, limited access to jobs, education, and health care can be a barrier to upward mobility.

 

A shared, electric, and automated mobility future has the opportunity to enhance access and mobility for underserved communities, but it could also exacerbate existing barriers and increase inequality. SAVs may be able to address spatial inequality in areas with limited alternatives to private vehicle ownership by providing additional mobility options for an entire trip or first- and last-mile connections to public transportation. The strategic placement of SAVs in communities underserved by public transportation could reduce inequities by providing innovative mobility options that have greater coverage and service availability than existing options. However, not all users may have access to a smartphone or debit/credit cards that are commonly required for payment as part of app-based and on-demand mobility services. In the future, it will be critical that policymakers ensure equitable access of SAVs for all neighborhoods and users with special needs, including access options for digitally impoverished and underbanked communities.

 

2. Environmental and Travel Behavior Impacts of Automation – While SAV impacts remain uncertain, many practitioners and researchers predict higher efficiency, affordability, and lower greenhouse gas emissions. However, the number of personally owned automated vehicles may determine to some extent SAV demand. More importantly, SAV impacts will also depend on sharing levels (concurrent or sequential) and the future modal split among public transit, SAVs, and pooled rides. It is possible that SAV fleets could become widely used without very many pooled rides. Thus, single-occupant vehicles will continue to dominate the majority of vehicle trips (e.g., users could access a shared fleet without pooling). It is also feasible that pooled rides could become more common, if automation makes route deviation more efficient, cost effective, and convenient. While the environmental and travel behavior impacts of SAVs are unknown, proactive public policy is key to guiding how SAV adoption unfolds.

 

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3. Urban Planning (Rights-of-Way Management and Zoning) – With the growth of on-demand and flexible transportation options (e.g., ridesourcing or transportation network companies, e-Hail, microtransit, etc.), public agencies should consider policies to guide shared mobility and SAV development through the allocation of public rights-of-ways (e.g., parking, curb space, and loading zones). The allocation of public rights-of-way for shared mobility today can support the development of intermodal mobility hubs today, which can be transitioned for SAVs in the future.

 

In the longer term, automation will likely result in fundamental changes to our built environment. Reduced vehicle ownership due to SAVs could impact parking needs, particularly in urban centers. The repurposing of urban parking has the potential to create some opportunities for infill development and increased densities. While SAVs may compete with public transit, infill development could create higher densities to support more public transit ridership in urban core locations.

 

4. Public Transportation in an Automated Future – Concerns that the introduction of SAVs could reduce demand for public transportation and may encourage increased vehicle use are real. However, just as SAVs have the potential to reduce driving costs, automated transit vehicles have the opportunity to reduce operational costs and pass these savings onto riders through lower fares. Reduced operational costs and lower fares could allow public transit agencies to increase the number of routes or service frequency, making public transit more competitive than other modes. While the impacts of automation on public transportation are uncertain, leveraging it to reduce overhead costs and improve public transportation efficiency is an important consideration.

 

In addition, vehicle automation could further change the nature of traditional notions of public and private transportation services. In the future, public transit agencies may opt to provide more flexible demand-responsive service in smaller vehicles, while others may opt to pursue such systems through partnerships. The emergence of SAVs could give rise to the development of hybrid quasi-public-private transportation systems that could result in a range of partnerships that vary by region.

 

5. Occupancy Pricing – Underpriced and overcrowded roadways create a “tragedy of the commons” where individual users acting independently and rationally, according to their own self-interest, behave contrary to the common good of maximizing road efficiency. In the future, single-occupant SAVs could continue to dominate the majority of vehicle trips, if users access SAVs without pooling. To minimize the risk associated with this scenario, policymakers should consider pricing policies that adjust prices based on vehicle occupancies. Public agencies may be able to improve roadway performance by providing discounts for pooling and varying prices by the time-of-day, roadway demand, and congestion.

 

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SAVs will not inherently solve today’s transportation challenges. To solve these challenges, AVs require prudent planning and public policies that balance societal goals with commercial interests. To harness and maximize the social and environmental benefits of highly automated vehicles, we need to prepare for the transition today. This includes focusing on social inequities (the digital and income divide), public transit declines, land use barriers, and pricing strategies.

 

Susan Shaheen and Adam Cohen recently co-authored the article “Is It Time for a Public Transit Renaissance? Navigating Travel Behavior, Technology, and Business Model Shifts in a Brave New World” and the U.S. Department of Transportation Mobility on Demand Operational Concept.

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

Who’s Really Inventing the Future of Public Transportation?

By Timothy Lane

 

Every age feels like it’s poised on the edge of the future. The glimmering possibilities of our fantasies are always just about to be reached and realized. Your father, your grandfather, and his grandfather before him could all safely say that they lived in unprecedented times.

 

Public transportation is no different. And lately there have been splashy headlines prophesying the coming of supersonic trains, self-driving cars, and of course, the Hyperloop. Investor/celebrities like Elon Musk and Richard Branson promise advancements like an underground web of tunnels for getting around L.A. and supersonic jets to shrink the world even further. With visionaries and private companies invested in mass transit on an unprecedented scale, perhaps now is the time when we step into the future. Perhaps now is when the seemingly impossible becomes every day.

 

However, should the public be wary of charging headlong into funding dramatic moonshots in transportation? After all, many of the most futuristic and ambitious concepts—three-hour supersonic flights across the Pacific, 30-minute Hyperloop commuting between L.A. and San Francisco, and South Korean trains that approach the sound barrier—are announced with sexy mock-ups that are intended to capture and rouse the public imagination, in order to win its much needed support.

 

“When you’re spending billions of dollars, sexy is a really bad objective,” says Jarrett Walker, Ph.D., who is president of transit consultancy Jarrett Walker & Associates. “Sexy, by definition, is ephemeral, and yet what’s needed is permanence. Sexy is over fast and that’s not what we’re after when we spend billions of dollars.”

 

Public transit, a necessity in any metropolis where high densities of people live and work in a small amount of space, operates on simple principles: systems need to be designed and built to move people without taking up too much additional space. Which is why cars, most typically carrying one person, are less desirable than buses, which can carry many. Problems arise, however, when this basic equation is addled with too many unnecessary variables. When it’s also charged, for example, with being sexy.

 

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P3s could pave the way (or lay the track, so to speak)

Of course Walker is referring above to the spending of public dollars, raised through taxes and municipal bonds. But what if much of the up-front funding for designing, building, operating and maintaining is coming from private sources? Much has been written about public-private partnerships (P3s), in which public transit agencies establish financial partnerships with private entities, such as investors and commercial developers, in deals in which both short-term risks and long-term rewards are shared among the partners.

 

The P3 concept seems like a no-brainer for financing big mass transit infrastructure projects like commuter rail. The practice is fairly common in Europe, yet there’s been only one P3 that included design-build, financing and long-term operation in the U.S. to date. With the Eagle P3 Project in Denver, a consortium of private companies called Denver Transit Partners (DTP) serves as the design-build, financing and operations concessionaire for a major expansion of the Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) light rail network. The innovative P3 arrangement allowed the RTD to spread out what would have been large upfront costs over a longer period of time, and resulted in the winning bid coming in some $300 million below original internal budget estimates.

 

The $2.1 billion Eagle P3 Project was completed and went into operation in 2016. And while there have been several service hiccups since service commenced, passenger fares enable RTD to pay back DTP $3 million per month. So RTD passengers are literally paying for construction while they’re using the finished product.

 

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Swing for the Fences, or Try to Get on Base?

While expansion of a regional light rail network may seem rather mundane, it’s the moonshot initiatives—like Hyperloop—that can play a larger role than simply moving people from place to place. Some would argue that by thinking, acting, and spending bigger, it energizes the public around the possibilities of public transportation, and helps pave the way for a better future.

 

Walker doesn’t buy it.

 

“Lots of money gets spent on big fantasies,” he says. “Either the project collapses or sometimes, even worse, the project gets built and then turns out to not be as useful as people thought. And those sorts of failures do not lead to greater support for transit.”

 

Also, a danger in following the dreams of the Musks and Bransons of the world is confusing what’s best for their private businesses with what serves the greater good. Walker calls this ‘elite projection,’ and defines it as ‘the belief, among relatively fortunate and influential people, that what those people find convenient or attractive is good for the society as a whole’. Last year he caused a Twitter stir by directly challenging Musk for this kind of thinking. Musk responded by calling him an idiot.

 

However, the core of Walker’s point is sound. The elite, by definition, are the few. Public transit, by contrast, is for the many. It’s crucial for a robust public transit system that the former prioritizes the latter.

 

To start, what Walker proposes is making better use of what’s already built unless absolutely necessary. This means using existing infrastructure in more efficient ways. By doing things like expanding light rail systems, increasing bike lanes, and improving the information technology around travel, public transit can reach and serve more of the public without burdening them with enormous cost.

 

“It cannot just be all about grand, expensive gestures,” Walker says. “It’s also about being sensible and working with what works.”

Microtransit: Mining the Potentials of a Public Transit Disruptor

By Edmund Sandoval

Over the course of the past several years, the issues plaguing urban mass transit have received a lot of attention in the press. From ridership declines on a national level to cost overages and inefficiencies, to insufficient options and poorly planned routes, the hits just keep coming. And while ambitious projects to overhaul entire transit systems have come down the pipeline, there have also been a number of smaller, more nimble potential solutions have joined the flow.

 

One such possibility is that of microtransit, a coming together of on-demand ride-hailing and public transportation. This kind of partnership would hypothetically leverage the smart usage of data and a fleet of smaller, more agile vehicles deployed to riders in need of service.

 

Yet, with just a few small-scale pilot programs having been launched to date in a handful of cities, some question whether this potential could become an actual reality. To provide some insight, we spoke with Jeff Owen, Senior Planner for Active Transportation for TriMet, provider of bus, light rail and commuter rail transit services in the Portland, Oregon metro area.

 

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Trial and Error

On-demand ride-hailing service providers like Uber and Lyft have, in a very short time, fundamentally changed the way people get around when it comes to urban transportation. Rather than being reliant on a personal vehicle or having to fit one’s transport around a transit schedule, commuters can now, with a couple of quick taps, summon a car to any location within the service boundary of a ride-hail provider.

 

Seeking to build off the success of these companies, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) and Santa Clara County Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) kicked off app-based public transportation pilots named Bridj and FLEX, respectively. Consisting of 14-person vans and converted 26-passenger buses, the aim was to provide flexible options for daily commuters.

 

Unfortunately, neither program lasted more than a year. Owing to high costs, low ridership, and a constricted service area, both were forced to fold. In Bridj’s case, rides were limited to only morning and rush-hour periods; FLEX, while offering rides within seven-and-a-half minutes, failed to provide connecting rides to the area’s light rail stop. The cause for low rider turnout was assumed to be a lack of promotion and marketing.

 

Still, transit agencies are working hard to examine every piece of the puzzle.

 

Money Problems

Currently, microtransit seems to be judged on its profitability while providing a low-cost public service to everyday commuters. The necessity of promotion and marketing often comes up in conversation, as does the need for more advanced tech, as well as partnerships with private companies. This begs the question: would those things actually make a difference?

 

At such an early stage, it’s hard to say definitively, but the evidence so far says probably not. For example, a Bay Area microtransit pilot, Leap Transit, folded after raising $2.5 million. As did Loup, which received $1.5 million in additional funding from Obvious Ventures (a capital investment fund founded by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams). Chariot, operating in San Francisco, was purchased by Ford Smart Mobility.

 

Part of the problem, then, is the focus on achieving returns on initial investments over fairly short trial runs. There have been calls for public subsidization, but this puts an additional onus on transportation agencies and municipalities whose budgets, in many cases, are already stretched thin.

 

“The reason we really take a careful approach is because we’re spending public dollars, and we really have to make sure we’re being good stewards of this money and not simply trying something because someone called us up and wants us to try it,” says Owen. “There’s a whole range of different things that go into the cost structure, the customer service, and the expertise of the driver and the operator.”

 

The average cost of microtransit rides is more expensive than bus or subway fares — hard numbers are difficult to come by but research points to roughly $3-5 per ride. Subsidization pushed Bridj costs down to $1.50 per seat, but that price turned out to mask an estimated cost of $1,000 per ride when compared to actual ridership stats.

 

In addition, increased visibility of these services runs the risk of increasing the appeal to riders who are able to afford the luxury of a Lyft or Uber, while failing to serve the communities who depend on a dynamic public transportation system.

 

“A lot of the micro transit pilots promise better customer service,” says Owen, “and sometimes it appears that you might get better public service but for a smaller number of people. How does that relate to equity concerns throughout the region? How does that relate to any number of related cases?”

 

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Just One Piece of the Puzzle

In many ways, one could question whether microtransit is getting a fair shake when it comes to reporting its apparent failures. Should microtransit be measured against the same standards?

 

“The question of the day that everyone is struggling with is, what happens when you start to compare some of the numbers of these pilots for cost or boardings per hour?” asks Owen. “When you begin to break it down, they don’t compare very well to what agencies currently run. Even the numbers on lower performing bus routes usually come out looking better than those with microtransit pilots,” says Owen.

 

What it’s really going to take is a combination of time, research and continued investment … and the acknowledgment that microtransit isn’t a panacea for the issues currently bedeviling public transit systems. It should be viewed as one of several tools that can be implemented within a multi-modal transportation plan. Rather than casting a wide net, it will require focused and nuanced planning.

 

As Owen neatly sums it up, “Emerging technologies may change what we do as agencies. Microtransit is one of the things that has gained a lot of traction and headlines, as well as new ventures, around the country. We’re now are in the process of working together with a lot of our peers and agencies across the country — sharing approaches, lessons learned, strategies — to continue improving what we do and how we do it.”

 

How Peer-to-Peer Carsharing Is Reshaping Our Relationship with Auto Mobility: Early Understanding and Four Key Findings

Peer-to-peer (P2P) carsharing is an online marketplace that connects people interested in sharing their vehicles with people who are looking for short-term vehicle access. The companies that comprise this marketplace provide the organizational resources needed to make the transaction possible such as: 1) an online platform, 2) customer support, 3) automobile insurance, and 4) vehicle technology. Members access vehicles through a direct key transfer from the “host” (or owner) to the “guest” (or driver) or through operator-installed, in-vehicle technology that enables unattended access. As of January 2017, there were over 2.9 million individuals participating in P2P carsharing, making use of a combined shared fleet of over 131,336 P2P vehicles across six operators in North America, according to our recent Carsharing Market Outlook: Winter 2018.

 

Our March 2018 study titled: Peer-To-Peer (P2P) Carsharing: Understanding Early Markets, Social Dynamics, and Behavioral Impacts provides insights into how early P2P carsharing has affected the travel behavior of vehicle guests and hosts. We found that P2P carsharing encourages some households to reduce, delay, or even avoid a vehicle purchase. Additionally, the services offer individuals the opportunity to drive a variety of vehicle types. P2P carsharing also enables hosts to reduce their ownership costs, monetize otherwise idle assets, or both.

 

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Based on a user survey of 1,151 guests and hosts from three U.S. P2P carsharing companies, we documented four key findings:

1. Vehicle Ownership: Most P2P carsharing members (46%) were from carless households that joined P2P carsharing to gain additional mobility. Another 20% enrolled to earn money sharing their vehicle, while 14% of respondents indicated that they held off on a vehicle purchase due to their carsharing membership. A small percentage (3%) noted that they had sold a vehicle because of their membership.

 

2. Ease of Use: Forty-eight percent of respondents felt that P2P carsharing was easier than expected to use compared to 15% who said that vehicle sharing was more challenging to use than anticipated.

 

3. Changes to Travel Modes: Most respondents reported no major change in their public transit use as a result of P2P carsharing, with 9% increasing bus ridership and 10% decreasing it. Similarly, 7% of respondents reported increasing rail use, while 8% reported a decrease. Taxi use showed a net decline among all respondents. Survey respondents that use ridesourcing or transportation network companies, such as Lyft and Uber, were split—as 9% reported an increase and 9% noted a decrease. In contrast, carpooling showed a net increase (6%) among the sample, suggesting that P2P carsharing users were likely traveling with multiple occupants.

 

4. Super Sharers: In addition, P2P carsharing was used in conjunction with other shared mobility services. Respondents reported that 14% were members of at least one other P2P carsharing service, 43% were members of at least one other carsharing organization, and 78% had used at least one other shared mobility service. Many P2P carsharing members were also frequent users of Lyft and Uber, broadly suggesting that they used a portfolio of shared mobility modes to meet their transportation needs.

 

In addition to these key findings, the study also unveiled motivations and barriers for using P2P carsharing. For vehicle owners, key opportunities and motivations included: 1) earning revenue on existing, often underused vehicles and 2) contributing to the “sharing economy” by providing mobility access to others. Common barriers for vehicle owners included: 1) concerns about their inability to use their personal vehicle when it is accessed by a guest, 2) potential vehicle damage, and 3) complex insurance requirements that vary by jurisdiction.

 

Today, P2P carsharing operators in the U.S. have developed strategies for providing insurance that cover vehicles while they are in use by guests ⎯in all but New York State ⎯ which do not jeopardize the existing insurance policies held by vehicle hosts. Thus, a single vehicle in a P2P carsharing network is covered by two different insurance policies: 1) one that insures the vehicle’s use by the host and 2) the other, which is provided by the operator – called “group insurance,” that covers all driving by guests. In addition, insurance requirements have become simpler as many jurisdictions have revised their laws to cover P2P mobility services. These jurisdictions require the P2P carsharing operators provide vehicle liability insurance and assume liability in the event of a loss or injury while a vehicle is in use by a guest. In addition, legislative reforms in California, Oregon, and Washington prohibit a host’s liability insurer from canceling a policy or reclassifying their personal insurance from a private passenger motor vehicle to a commercial use vehicle due to its use in a vehicle-sharing program.

 

For vehicle guests, key opportunities and motivations to participate in P2P carsharing include: 1) accessing a wide array of vehicles, including luxury and zero-emission models and 2) avoiding the costs and hassles associated with private vehicle ownership such as: parking, maintenance, and insurance. Common barriers for vehicle owners include: 1) first/last mile connections to access P2P carsharing vehicles, 2) key pick-up and drop-off, and 3) lack of reliable response from a car host following a sharing request. Access to/from vehicles and other challenges suggest expanding P2P carsharing outside of urban areas could be more challenging.

 

The convergence of automation, P2P carsharing, and shared mobility has the potential to transform how people access and use mobility services. Understanding of current P2P carsharing services could help to address potential opportunities and barriers to shared automated vehicles (SAVs). In the future, it is possible that privately owned shared AVs could augment the vehicle supply offered by dedicated SAV fleets. This could enable SAV fleets in more diverse land use environments, such as the suburbs and smaller cities. Moving forward, the transportation community will need to rethink traditional notions of access, mobility, and auto mobility. P2P carsharing and other forms of shared mobility could help with a transition toward a range of SAV models.

Blockchain + Urban Mobility: Exploring the Potential of the Tech World’s Next Big Thing

By Edmund Sandoval

Blockchain. It’s vast, it’s complicated, and it’s having a moment right now.

At its most basic, blockchain is a global distributed database capable of running on millions of devices. As the Harvard Business Review recently wrote, blockchain is “open to anyone, where not just information but anything of value – money, titles, deeds… intellectual property, and even votes – can be moved and stored securely and privately.” Accordingly, there has been wave after wave of articles singing the praises of this nascent technology and how it will change the landscape of just about everything that emits a digital pulse, including transit and urban mobility applications.

 

With a vested interest in the future of mobile technology, we enrolled the help of moovel’s Research and Development leadership team in order to have a frank and open discussion as to the realistic applications of blockchain in the mobility arena.

 

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Blockchain, What is it good for?

Though the potential for blockchain is vast, we thought it best to winnow out those applications that show real promise. That being said, it seems as though blockchain has a few possibilities when it comes to improving urban transit and its attendant physical and digital manifestations. Those possibilities being: mobility-related transactions and data collection and sharing — bringing siloed data under a single roof (say GPS records from a public bus as traffic ebbs and flows through high-volume corridors). This is due to blockchain’s unique ability to record transactions while establishing secure, nonproprietary identities without the reliance on a centralized intermediary.

 

As to how this security is ensured? Data in the blockchain is secured via cryptography; members of the distributed network are responsible for verifying that data added to the blockchain is real; this is accomplished using a system of three keys (private, public, and the receiver’s key), allowing members to check the veracity of the data while also confirming the source.

 

In other words, blockchain is complicated. And that’s just the reason why it’s difficult to infiltrate and corrupt.

 

Mobility-Related Transactions

With blockchains already serving as the backbone for digital currencies, a natural extension is using the technology for transit transactions. As it stands, multi-modal transportation requires commuters to pay for different tickets in different places. Take for example the individual who travels on suburban rail (one ticket) to the city, rides the subway downtown (a second ticket), then rents a bike for two hours. The integration of blockchain technology could both solve, simplify, and potentially eliminate the requirement of multiple purchases and consequent pain points for the user.

 

As Matthew ‘Skip’ Rotter, moovel’s Vice President of Research & Development  mused, “There’s a potential that you could devise a transit coin or token that an individual would use to pay fares on public transportation or any kind of mobility service provider. It would become a stored value, capable of being used across many different modes of transportation.”

 

To that end, DOVU, a Jaguar-backed blockchain startup, has developed a secure marketplace that will let users offset mobility costs in exchange for their transport data. It’s powered by Ethereum, an open-source, public, blockchain-based distributed platform and operating system featuring smart contract functionality.

 

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Data Collection and Sharing

One particularly intriguing aspect of blockchain is its versatility when it comes to collecting data. This unique capacity allows it to handle any type of data that can be digitized. As such, blockchain provides a point-to-point consent solution to establish trust between a consenting party and a receiving party, while enabling smart contracts to adhere to regulatory statutes governing when and how consent should be applied. Additionally, the technology itself enforces data integrity and provenance while distributing the most recent state of data among all interested parties.

 

Yet, with so many parties in play (the numerous arms of the public and private mobility sectors), an incentive to incorporate blockchain as a shared primary or supplementary data management resource is necessary.

 

That’s where enforcement of data integrity and the anonymous, nonproprietary nature of the collected data might come into play. Says Rotter, “If a hundred different service providers or agencies or integrated smart technology systems [street signal, sensors, the Internet of Things] started putting their data on a shared blockchain, it would behoove you or your agency to join, because you now have access to all the data on the chain. It makes it so that you can share data rather easily. If you’re willing to give your data, the incentive is self-fulfilling, as you receive access to all the data on the chain because it’s a public, viewable dataset.

 

Rotter continues, “Additionally, it’s likely to be more plausible when it comes to regulatory side of things … Instead of governments saying, ‘You have to give your data to the us,’ there’s already this shared domain, open to all participating parties.”

 

Further, this represents a possible middle ground where public sector agencies and private sector companies could meet. With privately held companies like Lyft and Uber (as well as autonomous vehicle technology companies like Waymo) loathe to share the data they’ve collected, participating in a blockchain would allow both parties to share information without compromising their users’ private information.
As moovel Principal Technologist Zach Babb says, “It’s appealing for governments because [technically] there are no upfront costs. A motivated group of people can decide to start a blockchain with the intent of increasing the sharing of data and increasing awareness of a mobility marketplace. This alone has value.”

 

Mindy Montgomery, moovel’s product manager, feels that regulation around ICOs (initial coin offerings) will further legitimize blockchain. “ICOs are filling a gap in the market for companies and organizations that need to raise money. And, you could potentially see NGOs and nonprofits starting to use blockchain to do good works.” As an example of the latter, Montgomery mentions one Portland, OR based NGO who may be using blockchain to register and track the identity of refugees.

 

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Limitations

Currently, blockchain transactions and validations are notoriously sluggish, sometimes taking hours to complete; a mass transit system would need instant validation of transactions. It would also require offline functionality, something no blockchain is capable of at present.

 

Another potential issue is how currency values fluctuate within the chain. Given the volatility in cryptocurrency markets, guaranteeing that a trip on the bus will be the same price day after day is dubious. Says Babb, “If we want to serve in the community, we need those who are transit-dependent people to be able to ride without it changing their lives one way or the other. A constantly changing transit fare does not equate to good service, no matter who steps on board.”

 

Additionally, a main appeal of blockchain technology represents a potential drawback: its immutability. Once a transaction is agreed and shared across the distributed network it becomes close to impossible to undo or modify, and more and more difficult to reverse over time.  A blockchain with a weakness written into the code makes it more accessible to hackers (as is the case with the blockchain serving Bitcoin). Therefore, a flexible blockchain like the Ethereum is a necessity in order to fix potential flaws.

 

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, a blockchain-based transit application would need to be universally accessible, a challenge given the vast array of socioeconomic backgrounds among transit riders. Today, it takes significant technical savvy to implement locally, understand and operate. Even the requirement of a smartphone may be prohibitively expensive, so potentially discriminatory.

 

To sum up, while blockchain registers high on potential with regard to the urban mobility arena, it currently ranks low on functional utilization. This is not to say that agencies ought to abandon the implementation of blockchain. Rather, it is to say that its time — its actual time — is yet to come.

 

With special thanks to Zach Babb, Mindy Montgomery and Skip Rotter
— Quotes lightly edited for clarity

 

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