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SPUR Talk: Public-Private Partnership and the Future of Mobility

Emily Stapleton, Evan Goldin, Pierre Maillot, William Chernicoff, Tilly Chang and Clara Brenner at SPUR San Francisco. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Uber, Lyft, Chariot, autonomous cars, bike share--business models and technology for urban mobility and transportation are changing at a quickening pace. How can governments and private enterprise work together to encourage and anticipate these innovations? That was the subject of a panel discussion with car share, bike share, government and tech executives at the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR)’s downtown San Francisco offices yesterday evening.

The talk was moderated by Clara Brenner, co-founder of the Urban Innovation Fund, which co-presented. She asked the panel, which included executives from Chariot, Motivate, and the County Transportation Authority, to start by taking stock of how much change has taken place in just the past five years.

"We were in the process of launching Lyft in Los Angeles" five years ago, said Evan Goldin, a panelist who was then product manager for Lyft. "Thursday at 7 a.m....we were paying drivers to wait in the field. We got excited. Hit the go button. And nothing happened--crickets. It wasn’t until 5 p.m. that we got our first ride request." He remembered how at the time nobody really knew if ride-hail services would work outside of San Francisco.

He described how people were still tenuous about using it. "It takes awareness and social validation. You start by asking your friend 'are you really going to hop in a car with a stranger?' The third or fourth time you say, yeah, it’s okay--and then you start thinking about it as a new mobility option."

Over time, that validation and awareness became widespread--and with ride-hail services the rest is history. But it took hard work and partnerships to get things started. "We focused on finding the places that were most in need of mobility services, whether that was the University of Southern California, or various businesses in Santa Monica...we would go out and work with them and get them to explore Lyft as an option" for their employees or customers, he explained. However, they didn't work with governments out of the gate.

Motivate, the bike-share operator, took a different approach, partnering with cities in the Bay Area as well as contracting through the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. "We are currently operating a pilot, Bay Area Bike share. We're about to go through a ten-fold expansion from 700 to 7,000 bikes," explained Emily Stapleton, Motivate's general manager for the Bay Area. "Part of the reason it’s taking a while is we are doing a thorough workshop process to know where people will be best served by this new transit system...identifying the needs of the city where you operate."

Tilly Chang, executive director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, talked about what it means to identify the needs of cities--and San Francisco has developed criteria for how to evaluate new options, such as bike share and private bus services. "We’re focused to make sure our 40-year-old 'transit first' policy is followed for tech changes and land-use changes," she said, citing the example of the Tech Shuttles/Google buses.

She recalled then-Supervisor Bevan Dufty asking her office to study whether employee shuttles, taking people to tech giants on the Peninsula, fit into San Francisco's goals. "He asked us to figure this run it through the lenses of is it good for equity? For transit? For safety?" she said. "We measured how reliable are the buses...and how does it effect other parts of our public policy such as air quality, labor and consumer protections--we’re looking at all of these dimensions."

To answer these questions, and questions about bike share and other mobility options, they looked at other cities, such as Seattle, New York, Boston and Washington DC. "And then we bring that advice and experience to the public and the board."

Brenner wanted to know what happens when a public-private partnership is failing--she used the example of toll roads, which are supposed to be self sufficient, but aren't. "Can you take it back? Can you say, actually this toll road isn’t making money?"

"You have to have clauses to know if you can terminate if you fail to hit certain metrics," explained William Chernicoff of the Toyota Mobility Foundation. He said the key is to be ready going in, with sufficient in-house staff to manage the partnership. "And if the city and state is doing PPP, they have to understand why they are doing it..if it's engaging an [established] tech company, or a start up, or a traditional company, you have to understand what you are engaging it to do."

Stapleton explained that's why Bay Area Bike Share is meticulously working with cities and having so many outreach meetings--and taking its time with the roll out, to make sure everybody, including the sponsors, the cities and the communities, are clear about the goals. Goldin, currently with Chariot, said the key is to pilot and experiment. "At Chariot, we were able to partner with Squaw Valley to run a pilot bus service for an entire weekend. It was a cool cheap way to test it out." During that pilot, they figured out things that other cities might also want. "They wanted to make sure everyone could take a Chariot [even without a smart phone] so we made sure our drivers pull over if they see someone waiting...we go through a long list of check boxes to make the partnership work."

Chang spoke about BART's pilot, the "perks" program, that gave rewards to people for shifting away from traveling on BART during peak periods--as a way to reduce overcrowding in the Transbay Tube. "We did a successful pilot with BART," she said. But it also pointed to a risk of doing partnerships--Urban Engines, the tech company that set the whole thing up, got acquired by Google. "Now we have to look around and find another provider."

Meanwhile, Pierre Maillot of the Bosch Group, talked about a partnership that Streetsblog thinks is a must for the Bay Area. "Working with the city of Stuttgart for on an inter-modal transportation project, we built one platform," he explained, so fare collection could be done "with one card, one app, that provides you all different mobility services, including Zipcar, bikeshare, involved 15 different partners...all led by the Stuttgard S-Bahn. I hope we can deliver that in San Francisco."

Maillot also said PPP can be a powerful tool as cities prepare for new models of mobility. "We see the mobility of the future being electric, connected, autonomous and shared" and that, he explained, has profound implications for future development and urban planning. "It impacts how you design your community, because you don’t need as many parking spaces. It impacts how people are working, living, and playing in this community."

But Chernicoff cautioned against getting carried away. "I’m always worried when people say they know what the answer is...know what the trends are, but be open to feedback and unintended consequences."

The overflow crowd at last night's discussion of Public-Private Partnership in transportation.
The overflow crowd at last night's discussion of Public-Private Partnership in transportation.
The overflow crowd at last night's discussion of Public-Private Partnership in transportation.

For more events like these, visit SPUR’s events page.

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