At Strong Towns, we’ve been guardedly positive about recent innovations in personal transportation, ranging from ride-hailing services to dockless bike-share and electric scooters. There are some good reasons for optimism about these trends, from the point of view of someone who wants to see our places become productive and fiscally resilient:

  • A combination of services like Uber/Lyft and scooters that address the “last mile” problem can make it feasible and convenient for a far greater number of people to live a car-lite lifestyle. There are huge numbers of people who don’t have the ability, without moving to a whole new city, to arrange their lives such that they never need motorized transport. But could you arrange your life so that you only need it, say, a few times a month? And if you could, would you consider eschewing actual car ownership, or maybe downsize to one car instead of two for your household? If enough people can do this, we can cut way back on parking requirements and reclaim valuable space for productive use.

  • These services thus offer a real way out of car-dependency in a much broader range of cities and land-use patterns, not just in places that actually have the population density and concentrated economic activity to justify a billion-dollar transit megaproject. (Hint: a lot of the places building those projects aren’t places that actually should be doing them.)

  • E-scooters in particular are exciting because they can change the conversation about whom the streets are supposed to serve, and who gets to take up space in our cities and towns. They create a whole new constituency beyond the stereotypical “spandex-clad cyclists” for such things as protected bike/scooter lanes, which enhance public safety and are good for the economic productivity of our streets.

  • A diverse, decentralized mix of mobility options is a system that has more potential to be antifragile: it’s an insurance policy for individuals and communities. It’s a system that can adapt to feedback over time, a crucial Strong Towns principle.

We also see reasons for hesitancy. There is a real risk that overzealous evangelism for the “next big thing” will make us forget the underlying imperative that we build productive places that are financially solvent—the principles of which have largely been understood for millennia. There is a real risk that we’ll radically re-engineer our streets around that next big thing, a mistake we already made once with the automobile. There is a real risk that those who control the public purse strings are simply, in the words of transit guru Jarrett Walker, “searching endlessly for a transit idea that will allow them to neglect buses.”

Perhaps a lot hinges on how these new technologies are implemented in our cities, and if it’s in a way that allows for bottom-up innovation and small experiments to flourish. With that in mind, I read with interest two recent stories warning of a threat to this hope:

First, there’s an article in FastCompany entitled, “Why Uber and Lyft want to create walled gardens—and why it’s bad for urban mobility.” Author David Zipper warns that Uber and Lyft, and the bike-share and scooter startups they have been acquiring, may find it beneficial to their bottom-lines to force users onto proprietary platforms for accessing those services, much the way Apple acts as curator of the apps available on the iPhone, or Comcast decides which bundles of cable content are available to its subscribers. And this might not be good for the public’s ability to get around smoothly:

For starters, it’s worth considering how mobility walled gardens could affect public transportation, the mode that cities rely on to reduce congestion and provide mobility for those who can’t afford a personal vehicle. Many U.S. transit agencies offer apps with trip planning and ticketing functionality, but no transit app allows users to also book a trip on ride hail. It’s doubtful that Uber or Lyft would ever allow that, since they want to own the customer relationship. They would much prefer to incorporate transit ticketing within the walled gardens of an Uber or Lyft app—and they are rapidly moving in that direction.


And perhaps most importantly, will Uber or Lyft design their apps to nudge people away from public transportation and toward their ride-hail service? Despite Uber and Lyft’s insistence that they view public transportation as an ally in the war against car ownership, the companies have targeted marketing to woo transit riders. Recall how Apple’s App Store makes it easier for customers to find certain apps; what if Uber used its app to nudge people toward ride hail and away from transit? That could undercut core rail and bus service that low-income residents need to get to work, and that urban planners rely on to reduce congestion (ride hail is already being blamed for falling ridership across public transportation systems).

Over at Medium, the makers of the Transit App (who obviously have a personal stake in this question) also warn of “Comcast tactics” stifling the ability of individuals to obtain a ride that combines multiple modes—say, a scooter to the bus to a car-share vehicle to your destination, all scheduled and booked through one app:

Source: GoToVan via  Flickr

Source: GoToVan via Flickr

Take car2go, owned by Daimler. Previously, car2go published its vehicle locations online with an open API. It meant anyone could add car2go to their platform: whether it was a scooter app, a ridehail app, or an app for public transit. It made it super convenient to compare options or plan a multi-modal trip. But now, it’s not. Now Daimler pushes you to use the proprietary car2go™ app to find car2go™ vehicles or book car2go™ trips.

It’s where the rest of the industry could be headed, with mobility companies yanking support for open APIs: no shared vehicle locations, no transparent prices, no way to plan or book a multi-modal trip across providers. It would make multi-modal transport way less convenient than it already is — and car ownership, as attractive as ever.

The Transit App team recommends a key technological response to this problem: “open the API.” An open API allows anyone who wants to make an app that helps connect users to transportation options to incorporate the full range of private services into that app, including their real-time data and the ability to book a ride or vehicle:

With [open data standards], third-party actors are free to promote car-free transport in beautifully unexpected ways — whether it’s companies like RemixRide ReportLocal Logic, or Populus using open APIs to help cities improve their mobility infrastructure, projects like Transit Score that let you find apartments with good transit access, research that studies mobility access in poor vs. rich neighbourhoods, or apps like Transit that let you combine trips across different modes.

Washington, DC is the gold standard here: their strong open API requirement makes it easy to compare and combine multi-modal options….

Moral of the story? Cities do have a role to play. But it’s not about building apps. It’s about building infrastructure — digital infrastructure — so mobility companies work together, instead of against each other.

Will it be an open, decentralized future for transportation in our cities—a thousand little bets? Or are we headed toward a Comcast/Verizon-style future? Tell us what you think in the comments.

(Cover photo: Paul Wasneski via Flickr)