By Juan Sebastian Arias.

In the last decade, bike-share, car-share and ride-share programs have taken off across the country, changing how many Americans navigate the cities in which they live. In many ways, these shared mobility models have emerged as complements to local public transit and as alternatives to private car ownership. They also offer added flexibility and cost savings to their users. Yet, while the number of people participating in shared mobility has steadily grown, low-income people and people of color – those who often face longer and more costly commutes – are not using these services at the same rates as the general population.

To better understand how the emerging shared mobility field can better serve low-income communities, Living Cities commissioned research by the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP) to explore the potential of new shared transportation models such as bike-share and car-share to improve low-income residents’ ability to access opportunity.

ITDP’s research highlights the many barriers that inhibit low-income usage of shared mobility systems and recommends strategies for maximizing the benefits of shared mobility for low-income communities. Barriers exist on two fronts: (1) barriers that deter users from accessing the systems (ranging from structural to cultural reasons) and (2) barriers that deter operators from expanding systems into low-income communities (largely related to profitability risk). Given this complex mix of reasons why shared mobility rarely reaches or even succeeds in low-income communities, any strategy developed to facilitate usage among low-income residents will need to be comprehensive and collaborative. For example, locating bike-share stations or car-share vehicles in low-income neighborhoods does not address challenges faced by individuals who don’t have bank accounts and thus cannot realistically sign up for the services. Failing to address multiple barriers limits the impact of well-intentioned efforts to offer low-income communities more affordable and more flexible transportation alternatives.

The research found that no silver bullet exists for addressing the overall transportation needs of low-income communities through shared mobility. For shared mobility to most dramatically increase access to opportunity for low-income people, it needs to be incorporated into long term transportation planning. Shared mobility is only one piece of the larger transportation and mobility system. If implemented intentionally as a part of this whole, it could add considerable value by extending the reach of existing public transit routes, bridging gaps in existing service and guiding the growth of mass transit systems.

Little knowledge exists on the actual transportation needs of low-income communities.

Through the scan, we also found that little knowledge exists on the actual transportation needs of low-income communities. However, promising efforts, such as the Dukakis Center at Northeastern University’s survey of transportation needs and patterns of Latino households in Massachusetts can help fill the gap. ITDP recommends launching launch pilot projects based on research of low-income communities’ actual transportation needs. By conducting research around specific community challenges, we will be better able track progress and continuously improve interventions that actually enhance how low-income people access opportunity.

We also know very little about the actual business models for sustainable car-share, bike-share and ride-share programs. The market for shared mobility is nascent and the field is still testing how for-profit and non-profit models can meet this new demand. Yet, similar to the private real estate market, for-profit models are unlikely to serve low-income communities without some incentive or subsidy (which the low income house tax credit provides for the affordable housing industry). Further research on the business models of bike-share, car-share and ride-share can help identify the appropriate subsidy or incentive needed for shared mobility models to locate in and serve low-income communities.

Local government can play an important role in guiding and steering the expansion of share mobility across metropolitan areas.

Lastly, ITDP’s research identified the importance of two key players to promote the use of shared mobility by low-income people: local government and third-party intermediaries. With its significant formal authority, local government can play an important role in guiding and steering the expansion of shared mobility across metropolitan areas. Through regulation and funding, government can incentivize (or simply require) shared mobility operators to serve low-income people. Intermediaries, on the other hand, can act as third party brokers that help low-income residents overcome the various barriers to using shared mobility. Intermediaries, for example, can play a role in conducting outreach and marketing campaigns while also implementing technical fixes to structural barriers (such as providing streamlined alternatives to online-only applications).

It is our hope that the findings and recommendations of this research can inform operators, government agencies, funders, non-profit organizations and others in their efforts to tap into the potential of shared mobility strategies to improve the lives of low-income individuals. For a more bite-sized version of this report, see the Executive Summary. For more in-depth information about specific programs in cities across the country, review the nine related case studies.

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Originally posted at Living Cities.