Lia Kantrowitz

Could a 'Scooter Share' Solve New York’s Transit Problems?

Tearing up the Big Apple on two wheels, baby!

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Jul 20 2017, 9:30pm

Lia Kantrowitz

In early 2019 the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here.

New York's subway system is in a bad place. Dealing with a deluge of crises and in the midst of what's been deemed a "summer of hell," the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has been a lightning rod of public ire of late. Unable to meet the daily demands of millions of commuters in New York City and the tri-state area, the authority has morphed into a symbol of how slow government can be to act. In the eyes of most New Yorkers, returning to a state of good repair any time soon seems like a pipe dream.

On top of its immediate woes, the MTA is staring down the barrel of another massive disruption set to hit in 2019 when the Canarsie tunnel shuts down for 15 months. Just last week, elected officials and activists gathered in North Brooklyn to demand that the MTA and the city's Department of Transportation (DOT) come clean with details on a mitigation plan, as initial proposals have been half-baked at best, with almost a year and a half to go until the shutdown.

Since the closure was announced the broad majority of backup plans have arisen from third parties, like Transportation Alternatives, a transit group advocating for a 'PeoplesWay' in both Brooklyn and Manhattan, or that guy who wants to build a gondola over the East River. But few have been as extensive as the work from New York University's Rudin Center for Transportation, which last August released a report with a bevy of recommendations, including, most famously, subsidizing ride-share services and creating a citywide scooter share.

But that was almost a year ago. To hear if anything's changed since then, VICE caught up with one of the report's authors, Sarah Kaufman, the assistant director of technology programming at the Rudin Center and an MTA alumna. Here's what she had to say:

VICE: So, what was the Rudin Center's conclusion with the mitigation plan?
Sarah Kaufman: The three main ideas are, one, planning needs to start immediately; two, we need to think outside of the box; and three, this is a real opportunity for the city and state to coordinate on a transportation issue where, right now, they're experiencing conflict. This is a real opportunity for them to collaborate, and, really, a requirement for them to collaborate.

Yeah, when we started our coverage we didn't think a "state of emergency" would be declared for the city's subway system. In terms of thinking 'outside of the box,' let's start first with the scooter share. How would that work?
Scooter shares are becoming more popular and a bigger idea right now. They're being used in Paris, and some cities in China. There are two different kinds—one is a scooter, like a Razor, that you ride and push, and the other is a Vespa-type scooter. There is a startup in San Francisco [Scoot], and a few other motorized scooter shares, that have been popping up. [Scoot] is entirely an independent start-up, and they're activated by a user's smartphone.

Those are suggestions where we have to start thinking outside of the box. Do we actually think people are going to scoot across the Williamsburg Bridge? I don't think that's the solution, but it's necessary to start exploring all of these opportunities.

How would subsidizing ride-share services, like Uber or Lyft, work into that equation?
When we talk about ride-sharing, that's a whole different story. One of the major successes after Hurricane Sandy was requiring HOV lanes on the bridges, in addition to the so-called 'bus bridges,' which carry streams of people over the bridge. There's no reason we can't, and shouldn't, imitate that management here. There should not be a single occupancy vehicle that's traveling over the Williamsburg Bridge during the L train shutdown.

Business owners in Williamsburg and other neighborhoods that are affected should think about subsidizing ride-sharing to their restaurants and bars. But the city could also consider doing the same thing, because it's not absurd to get people moving from one place to another as long as it was more of a larger vehicle, like Via, with SUVs, which can carry six to eight passengers at a time, rather than one passenger and one rider.

Is this something that New York could actually enact? I imagine you'd have to consider yellow cabs, and the controversies with these companies we've seen in cities worldwide.
It comes up a lot: how can a city subsidize ride-sharing? It is controversial, and yeah, I don't think that if I decide to take an Uber instead of the subway home from work today that the city should sponsor it in any way.

But I do think that the city has a job of mitigating congestion, and the cost of congestion to city residents could work out to be much higher than the cost of subsidizing shared rides. That's the same reason we subsidize bus trips, ferry rides, and subway trips, of course—it's a financial gain for the city to move people around efficiently. Even though Uber and these other companies have reputations, and are in the private sector, that doesn't mean that they're not serving their purpose of limiting congestion and helping people move and get to work on time so they don't lose wages, and getting them home on time so they can pick up their kids.

It's essentially drawing from the success of dollar vans, which are hugely succesful here in the city, and it's actually a great model of dynamic, ride-sharing bus travel. If our buses didn't stop every two blocks—if they were planned more dynamically, where you hail them by pressing a button on a lamppost, or by paging them on your phone, instead of having the bus stop automatically every two blocks, which is sort of a tedious process and really inefficient—we could have buses move more quickly, and get people where they need to go a lot faster.

How do you see ride-sharing subsidies working for folks further out, in neighborhoods like East New York or Canarsie? Is that a realistic alternative for them?
Since the L will be running within Brooklyn, populations can get to Williamsburg as their endpoint and then get to Manhattan from there. That's probably their best bet because the subway is almost always faster than traffic, as long as it's running. So that'd be the best move for people farther east. But of course, that'd be a huge choke point once they get to Williamsburg.

In a different study on access to transit and its effects on employment, we found that the economics of East New York and other nearby areas that don't have direct subway access are really impacted by the fact that residents have extremely long commutes to work, limiting both school and job opportunities. So those populations need to be assisted, regardless of what's happening with the L train. There is an opportunity to connect these neighborhoods to Manhattan more efficiently than they are now, like with express buses, or getting them on the Long Island Rail Road at a discounted rate. That would avoid the L train mess all together, which should really be a permanent solution, rather than just related to the L train.

I was going to ask about the permanence of this situation. The ride-share idea seems more pegged to the shutdown, but the scooter share, for example—are these ideas that the Rudin Center believes should be living past the shutdown?
Yes! We need to push some permanent innovation into New York City mobility in a big way, and the L train shutdown should be a catalyst for that.

As someone who once led the MTA's open data program, is there any space there for innovation during the shutdown?
I think it could be really useful for the city and the MTA to partner with major cellphone providers. If the networks can track where users are—anonymously of course, and probably in an aggregated fashion so the data is anonymized—the city and the MTA could track how people are managing, and moving. The accelerometers in our phones can show us what mode we're using—if we're riding a bike, or taking a bus, or getting in a car.

There is this information out there and, in general, public agencies should be using it. In this particular instance, where they have this somewhat long situation, it would be really wonderful to access this data, understand how people are managing, and if there seems to be inefficiencies or problems that you can detect, we can moderate how we're getting people around because we have so much time. I think policymakers should go into this shutdown being ready, being agile, to the ability to change direction—add more buses, for example; add more ride-share capabilities—by knowing what's happening with everyone.

When you said planning needs to start now, is that coming from experience?
Yeah. The MTA is famous for being slothful in getting its projects done, but that's not always a fair assessment, in part because the MTA has to account for every passenger, and every passenger type. And that's a real challenge. They have to account for parts of the population that say, "Uber doesn't have any accessible vehicles right now." So if you do a plan with Uber, you're not accounting for, say, 20 percent of the population. If the city was to enter into a contract with Uber, they'd need to put in a requirement for accessible transport as well, whereas the MTA provides this through buses and some accessible subway stations. There's also a digital divide issue that would need to be taken into account for [certain] populations.

So what do you make of the proposals thus far—namely, bus routes , the HOV lane for the bridge , and maybe ferries? Do they go far enough?
The MTA is facing a really interesting issue right now, and the city, too, because normally the L train transports over 200,000 people everyday underground, but the surface—the streets, the sidewalks—are all managed by the city's DOT. And so both agencies are limited in what they can do. The MTA can't institute HOV lanes; that has to be DOT. There are these governmental, bureaucratic challenges that exist throughout this problem, and that makes it even trickier.

But I haven't seen a lot come out. It's also a question of who's responsible for coming out with a mitigation plan between the MTA and the city. To me, it hasn't been really clear who is going to actually take the lead on this project. When we put the report out last August, we said planning needs to start happening now. And I don't know if the city and state have arranged a mitigation plan that's as far along as it should be at this point.

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