Shared-Use Mobility and Low-Income Americans


The past decade has seen an explosion in shared-use mobility.

Bikeshare, carshare, and rideshare services have become welcome transportation options for Americans. They are even leading people to rethink the need for car ownership altogether.

But how well do these new services connect low-income Americans with jobs and opportunities? They could do better, according to a new report from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) in collaboration with Living Cities.

Shared-use mobility (also sometimes called shared mobility) would seem well suited to serve low-income Americans. After all, these services add much-needed transportation options. They make transportation more efficient. Ultimately, they lower transportation costs.

And with the Brookings Institute reporting that only 30 percent of our cities’ jobs are accessible via a 90-minute ride on public transportation, access to opportunities is more important than ever.

Yet the ITDP report finds that low-income Americans, who tend to have the longest commutes, are less likely to utilize shared-mobility services than other Americans.

The promise of the democratizing effect created by shared mobility remains, as yet, unfulfilled.

This point can be witnessed in the Washington D.C. region: Capital Bikeshare has struggled, along with other bikeshare services, to attain significant numbers of minority and low-income users, despite having a lower per-trip cost than that of competing bus or rail options.

Some of the barriers to low-income adoption of shared-mobility services, the ITDP report points out, lie in the way payments are processed and the technology required to become customers. These services, by relying on customers with access to credit cards, debit cards, and smartphones, create significant barriers to entry for those without sufficient technological sophistication and credit worthiness.

The ITDP report states that other barriers to low-income participation in shared-mobility systems are cultural, such as a lack of understanding about how these still fairly nascent services operate.

Though the report, titled “Can Shared Mobility Help Low-Income People Access Opportunity?” and released in December 2014, finds no “silver bullet” remedy to improving low-income access to these potentially revolutionary services, it does make some recommendations.

The authors acknowledge first of all that shared-mobility services work best as a complement to an already established public transit system. In other words, shared mobility works best as a first-mile or last-mile solution; that is, at the margins of the core system.

Furthermore, the report recommends that jurisdictions wishing to implement shared-use mobility solutions should launch pilot programs based on research of the actual transportation needs faced by low-income communities. These jurisdictions should include shared mobility in the long-term transportation planning process.

Policymakers must also realize that the commuting habits of low-income people are fundamentally different than other income groups. Specifically, these commutes tend to be more geographically dispersed and of longer duration.1

Shared mobility is shaking up the urban-transportation landscape. With attention, perseverance, and creativity, policymakers can ensure that bikeshare, carshare, and rideshare are more widely available to people of all incomes.

Splash photo by Move Forward. Story photo by DDOT DC.

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