As urbanization and city-sprawl continue to add to the peripheries of cities, migration to the suburbs is often less of a choice and more of an imposed necessity. With property and rent prices soaring in almost every developed market, more and more urban professionals are finding themselves commuting into their local downtown areas for work, while their personal lives – homes, recreational and retail activities – remain on the edges of town. While this might bring some peace and quiet come leisurely weekends, it also brings to question the issue of the Last Mile: how people get from their last stop on metro public transport systems to their homes. This is issue is especially pronounced in the United States and some European cities where a reliance on cars has halted expansive public transport developments. In developing countries, mostly in the global South, young transport infrastructures can often mean that efficient subway and bus networks only exist in the very core of a city – those who live further out rely on a tiring, multi-modal commute. Often, commuters end up completing their journey on foot or waiting for a mostly-inefficient suburban bus service. However, with the advent of ridesharing, a problem that has been plaguing cities could be resolved.
Traditionally, cities have tried to resolve the Last Mile problem by introducing costly infrastructure or supplementary public vehicles. Inefficiently yet, some have only looked to solve it by encouraging car use through the availability of parking lots at suburban stations. While the cycling renaissance that engulfed the United States in the early 2000s solved the problem for some, for others investing in a bike and trying to squeeze on a train carriage every day was hardly a solution, especially when you consider that many suburban areas are not equipped with the infrastructure to keep cyclists safe – cycling lanes are often a sight reserved for downtown. Even when bike-sharing programs picked up steam in the late 90s in Europeans cities including Cambridge, Copenhagen and Rotterdam, bicycle pick-up and drop-off points were often centralized, proving to be no use to the suburban commuter. While innovations in bicycle engineering saw foldable bikes that can be neatly stowed in overhead compartments become trendy, and bike-sharing schemes got governmental support to expand (New York City’s CitiBike plans to reach more of Brooklyn and grow into Long Island and Astoria by 2017), the Last Mile issue is only solved for a handful who happen to alight near a pick-up dock.
One would think the advent of motorized-vehicle based ridesharing networks such as Uber, Lyft and ZipCar would see an overall reduction in people using public transport altogether – a premise that might frighten city transport departments who rely on passengers as much as passengers rely on their services. However, a recent report by the American Public Transportation Association revealed that the two modes of transport, in fact, complement each other. Through a series of surveys conducted in seven American cities, the researchers found that public transit and ridesharing did not compete for riders: those who most relied on government buses, subways and trains are often the same who rely on shared-mobility services. While those surveyed stated that they mostly source rides through these apps when having to commute late at night or on weekends, when public transport is limited, by the same logic we can assume that ridesharing is a good option for those trying to get somewhere the bus just won’t take them.
“Regulation of ridesourcing providers remains a contentious process. At the same time, public transit agencies recognize ridesourcing as part of the new urban fabric and an opportunity to extend and expand the use of public transit, such as through increased first/last mile connections,” reads the American Public Transportation report entitled Shared Mobility and the Transformation of Public Transit. Indeed, the legal status of ridesharing continues to be discussed in cities across the world, and Uber has committed to shelling out a $100 million settlement in a case that pushed to categorize drivers as employees but did not go to trial. However, debates and disputes have not seemed to quell the demand for these kinds of services – their seamless, on-demand and efficient nature are perfect for those facing the dreaded Last Mile at the end of a hard day’s work. With the introduction of offerings like UberPool, and standalone car-pooling services, the costs of the final portion of a commute is coming down too. Meanwhile, in developing cities of the East such as Cairo, Bangkok and Dehli, ridesharing has been around for years before apps and smartphones became the normal. In Egypt, it’s not unusual for a passenger to hail down the cab you’re already in – if your routes are similar, the driver will ask the existing passenger’s permission before sharing the ride with another, and both passengers share the bill. Similar schemes exist – both formally and informally – across the Middle East and North Africa. In India, several passengers can share the same rickshaw or you can take it privately for the full fare. Similarly, motorcycle taxis in the likes of Cameroon, Indonesia and Vietnam can (often illegally) carry several passengers with different destinations, while in the Philippines things are a little safer as ridesharing motorbikes are often equipped with sidecars.
Even in developed cities with expansive public transport networks, the concept of ridesharing has existed before smartphones ever entered the market. In big rail and subway terminals in London, it’s not unusual to find commuters conversing at taxi stands, looking for others with similar routes to share their cabs with. As we begin to realize that ridesharing is not a new or novel concept, and that commuter willingness to partake only increases with the advent of ultra-connectivity through smart mobile devices, it’s about time urban transport authorities co-opted and formalized these methods of shared mobility to tackle the Last Mile.
Some cities have already put in motion schemes that subsidize shared rides, such as Pinellas Park, Florida, which earlier this year launched a pilot project in collaboration with Uber, which sees the transit authority pay half the taxi fare for those traveling to or from a bus station before or after work. Meanwhile, King County, Florida, offers residents up to 8 ‘emergency’ rideshares a year, for when they’re stuck and public transport is unavailable. In fact, the American Public Transportation Association’s key recommendations for transit authorities across the States are to link ridesharing services with the wider public transit eco-system and co-opt the private sector in relieving Last Mile stresses. Now, if we consider the anticipated advent of the autonomous vehicle, public transport is set to win big if cities invest now.