When cities try to come up with ways to use urban development to turn drivers into mass transit users, they should consider the last mile. Solving the issue of last mile connectivity is really what’s going to make a world of difference and bring about behavioral change.
When car-dependent people are asked why they do not consider taking transit, they typically cite “convenience” as their number one barrier. What they mean is that the car gives them the freedom to leave a location whenever they want and go directly to wherever they want. By contrast, transit is constrained by supply, schedules, stops, and stations — and since there are only so many stops and stations, people have no choice but to walk the last block (or even the last quarter of a mile), adding five to ten more minutes to their commute times. This “last mile” is a crucial part of the convenience equation that just doesn’t appeal to the many people who choose cars over transit.
Just as vital to the equation is the “first mile,” because not everyone is fortunate enough to live next to a bus stop or train station. Inevitably, they must walk. Someone who lives in Phoenix will not walk very far in the heat of July, just like someone in Buffalo will not walk far in the cold of January. It comes down to that for each transit user: how far am I willing to walk? Earlier this November, a panel at the LA CoMotion conference discussed these questions and what a solution might look like.
Chris Thomas, Founder & Partner at Fontinalis (a venture capital firm that specializes in funding next-generation mobility players), believes that the key to solving the first and last mile dilemma is to have a deep understanding of demand. “All of us have a personal utility around the dollars we have in our pocket, the amount of time we have for an A to B ride, and the modal of preference we have based on the environment that we are in,” he explains. This is why transit offers something different to every single citizen. Our transit systems, and our cities as a whole, are developed to be convenient for an optimum mass of people, but they are still not convenient for all. We all have different needs and wants that we expect the system to provide for us, but the truth is that it just isn’t constructed to serve all of us when we want it. “If we can actually utilize data based on demand-based transit systems, it’s going to be able to incorporate all of our public transit, legacy assets like the automobile, and new technologies coming on board,” Thomas explains.
This partnership between transit and new technologies seems to be where things are headed right now. While LA CoMotion was taking place, the mobile app Via entered a partnership with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority to deliver first and last mile solutions to the public, facilitated by a $1.35 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration. During the panel, Zach Wassermann, the Head of Global Business Development at Via, explained that the partnership would “deliver an on-demand, shared, first and last mile service in coordination with LA Metro, taking people to a from and handful of bus, rapid transit, and train stations in LA County.” By pooling people in real-time from varying points of origin, the app offers the convenience that we continue to ask for.
To solve the issue of first and last mile connectivity, we’ll need an ecosystem of solutions that also consider urban development. Transit-oriented design is only one option, but not everyone can afford to live next to transit. By providing many transit options, however, we can begin to fill in the gaps that currently exist.