Fifteen years ago, hailing a ride meant flagging or calling a taxi. Predicting when a bus would arrive was anyone’s guess. And renting a bike required a trip to the local bike shop.
Today, it’s a wildly different scenario. More than one third of American adults and more than half of young adults have used a ride-hailing service such as Uber or Lyft; transit apps track public transportation vehicles in real-time to alert users; and more than 84 million shared bike and scooter trips were taken in 2018.
Although tech advances are giving people more options to move around than ever before, vulnerable residents, many of whom already face mobility barriers, are becoming further marginalized. People with low or no income, for instance, are finding it difficult to access services that require a smartphone and bank account. Transportation infrastructure also often fails to account for the needs of seniors and people with disabilities.
Like other cities across the country, Minneapolis knows it has to address the impact of fast-changing mobility tech. Ride hailing, shared scooter and bike services, transportation apps — these all are available in the city. And as its population continues to grow — since 2010, an estimated 46,804 people have moved to Minneapolis, bringing the population to more than 429,000 — the city is working to address its most pressing community needs.
To avoid becoming a city filled with congestion and gridlock, the Minneapolis Department of Public Works, led by Robin Hutcheson, director, is developing a 10-year Transportation Action Plan, which is connected to the broader Minneapolis 2040. “Transportation has become a field of exponential technological change. To resist the reactionary mode that tends to come with rapid change, Minneapolis has to first define what is most important to us as a city, and then find the matching approaches in technology to help us meet those goals,” Hutcheson said.
To help the city set its path, Hutcheson brought on FUSE executive fellow Danielle Elkins, who has worked with local governments on infrastructure issues for more than a decade, to focus on how to make advanced mobility technology work for all Minneapolis residents. “Cities must be thoughtful about how they prepare to adopt new transportation technologies — anything connected, autonomous, shared, or electric,” Elkins said. “For the longest time, we’ve prioritized moving cars over moving people. And we’ve seen the disparate outcomes of prioritizing cars within the city in terms of emissions, traffic crashes, and pedestrian fatalities, all of which tend to be worse in lower income neighborhoods.”
Minneapolis is working to build a modern transportation system that puts people — from all walks of life — at the center. To help meet this goal, Elkins has been exploring how to remove barriers that prevent the city from achieving more equitable outcomes.
To hear directly from residents, businesses, and community organizations, Minneapolis hosted eight community workshops. For a diverse range of perspectives, the city connected with communities of different cultures, languages, and abilities, hosting small group discussions on transportation topics. The Department of Public Works collaborated with the city’s Neighborhood and Community Relations Department and partner agencies to identify key audiences and to prioritize engagement with groups that have been historically underrepresented in transportation decision-making processes, specifically communities of color, including the city’s large East Asian, Somali, and indigenous populations. The city also issued a call to community-based organizations, individuals, and artists for engagement services designed to broaden community input.
At one community workshop, Elkins and her colleague Alexander Kado met Vernon Smith, a man who had become homeless after the factory he worked at was moved to a suburb of Minneapolis and he could no longer get there. To better understand his transportation challenges, the pair spent a day with Smith, which led to some important insights. “Everything came back to one single thing,” Elkins said. “If you don’t have a credit card or a bank account, everything is a million times harder.”
According to an FDIC report, 1.5 percent of households in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan area were “unbanked” — did not have an account with a bank or similar financial institution — in 2017. After spending a day with Smith, Elkins and Kado realized that financial inclusion must also be addressed when considering transportation challenges. One solution already being implemented: The city’s bike share provider Nice Ride is partnering with the nonprofit Prepare + Prosper to provide a low-income rate and the ability to access bikes to those who are unbanked.
Thomas Fisher, director of the University of Minnesota’s Design Center and whose research includes urban design, believes this kind of bottom-up approach to the changing mobility landscape is essential. “The sharing economy in some ways represents a questioning of top-down expertise, which often leads to solutions that are siloed and abstract,” Fisher said. “When you start from the perspective of people and the difficulties they’re actually facing, you come up with very different answers.”
Elkins and Fisher are on the steering committee for a grant that Hennepin County, which encompasses Minneapolis, is seeking in partnership with the University of Minnesota. Under the grant proposal, the research team would link the data systems of several city, county, and state agencies — transportation, public works, human services, public health, to name a few — in order to break down the silos that limit interagency collaboration.
“Transportation people don’t necessarily talk to people in human services who are trying to find shelter for individuals who are homeless,” Fisher said. “But our train system is basically becoming a homeless shelter after 2 a.m. A lot of people sleep on the trains. So, one of the things we’re starting to wonder is, why don’t we just be honest about that and provide sleeping accommodations on the trains for people who have no place else to go. Instead of building very expensive homeless shelters, it could actually be a lot cheaper to just put some sleeping cars in the transit system.”
The project would be one of the first to explore what a modern transportation system would look like if it were designed to meet a range of community needs beyond mobility, especially for the most vulnerable. Fisher envisions a future in which cars and buses will double as meeting rooms, food shelves, even mobile obstetric units.
“We’re starting to see a lot of the things that now happen in buildings starting to move into vehicles,” Fisher said. “A lot of this is looking at existing assets and how to repurpose them based on what people actually need, rather than thinking that every problem has to have a discrete solution. Frequently, everything you need is right in front of you if you simply think about it and use it in new ways.”
To explore more ideas and coordinate local and regional efforts around advanced mobility, Elkins is partnering with other regional stakeholders to host a series of workshops. One will cover data sharing — its benefits, as well as how to implement data sharing across divergent networks. Another addresses the possibility of mobility hubs, which are physical locations that provide access to multiple modes of transportation — trains, buses, and shared rides, bikes, and scooters. Hubs could also provide related resources, such as information kiosks, charging stations, and maps. A third workshop will focus on curb management, because an increase in shared rides, last mile delivery, and drop offs is already having an enormous impact on how the curb is used.
Minneapolis is also making equity and inclusion a priority in setting goals with public-private partnerships. When selecting its roster of electric scooter suppliers, for example, the city evaluated each company on its commitment to equity, which was a requirement in order to bid.
The city also created incentives for these businesses to be inclusive. Typically, with a capped number of scooters allowed in a city, most suppliers seek to maximize the number of scooters in the densest areas of the city, with limited or no focus on low-income neighborhoods. To address this disparity, Minneapolis established minimum daily distribution requirements for low-income, nonwhite majority neighborhoods and a maximum on the number of scooters that can be distributed in downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.
To support this broader distribution, the city is also working with the scooter companies to engage with undereserved neighborhoods about the companies’ low-income options and options that don’t require a smart phone for access. The city has also established evaluation milestones for the pilot that will be used to determine whether to raise the number of scooters allowed.
When private companies depend on access to public spaces, cities have significant leverage to develop incentives that reduce mobility barriers. But cities need to lay the foundation. “It’s not one size fits all,” Elkins said. “Every community is different. Before you can even really think about the technology and innovation, you need to know and understand what your communities’ priorities are and what you value. Then you can create the policies, the systems, the infrastructure, the ordinances — whatever is needed — to get the outcomes your community wants. Unless you’ve thought that through, I would argue you’re probably not ready to start implementing new mobility solutions.”
Another key challenge for cities such as Minneapolis is balancing short-term priorities — fixing potholes, adding bike lanes, removing snow — with long term ones, such as supporting 5G cellular network capabilities and electric vehicle charging infrastructure. “All of this is changing so quickly,” Elkins said. “Convincing people to think 10, 20 years ahead when the day-to-day transportation needs are so important is very hard. But we need to be doing both so that we can guarantee the outcomes that benefit our residents the most.”
One solution? Build infrastructure that is flexible and adaptable to anticipated changes, Fisher said, so that it can eventually be repurposed for something else. He cites the example of multi-level parking garages. “There should be no more parking garages with sloped floors, because those parking garages in, say, 15 years, may need to become light industrial buildings or affordable housing,” he said. “By making certain decisions now, cities like Minneapolis can create a lot more opportunities for the future.”
This story was produced by FUSE Corps, a national executive fellowship program that partners with local government agencies and produces solutions-driven journalism.
Rikha Sharma Rani is a Bay Area-based freelance journalist who writes about urban and social policy. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, CityLab, Politico Magazine and more.