This editorial article is a part of Tech and the Environment Month of Technical.ly's editorial calendar.
Pittsburgh will soon be a national leader in mobility tech.
Earlier this month, the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure launched a two-year initiative called Move PGH, a comprehensive program convening private and public transportation options both physical and online to help Pittsburghers get where they need to go. Partners of the program include electric scooter rental company Spin, moped rental company Scoobi, local bike share system Healthy Ride, Waze Carpool and Transit, among others.
Move PGH centers around a robust app, powered by Transit, and 50 new physical mobility hubs across the city. While Transit has operated its services in Pittsburgh since 2013 and currently has over 40,000 users in the area, this new and improved digital hub will add even more transportation options to its current offerings.
Citing the recent growth of car ridesharing as well as shared bike and scooter systems, Move PGH underscores the need for a central place to find availability and pricing across all transportation options. Though Pittsburgh has been ranked as having the 15th best public transit system in the country and currently has 134,717 workers living within a half mile of transit, Port Authority has actually cut several services and routes over the last decade and saw sharp revenue drops during the pandemic.
Those cuts, paired with Pittsburgh’s hilly topography that can make walking or biking more difficult, mean that the 20% of residents without a car still struggle to get to work, the grocery store or other essential destinations. Transportation problems are inherently equity ones too, as over 65% of Pittsburgh’s low-income households don’t have access to a private car according to Move PGH.
One solution that’s gained popularity in recent years is what’s called Mobility as a Service, aka MaaS, which is the use of a digital platform to allows passengers to plan and pay for transportation across a wide range of public and private options. Such services could eventually make individual vehicle ownership obsolete.
Mobility as a service, ultimately, is about making sure people have access to the transportation services that can help them get around, easily, affordably, sustainably, when they need them.
“Mobility as a Service, ultimately, is about making sure people have access to the transportation services that can help them get around, easily, affordably, sustainably, when they need them,” said Transit Communications Lead Stephen Miller. “And so the City of Pittsburgh’s approach here was to really look at Mobility as a Service as a way to get these private companies and the public services that are available to really connect together and make sure that people in Pittsburgh have a way to access all of these together, rather than everybody kind of doing their own thing.”
While already a popular approach in Europe — with Helsinki planning to eliminate the need for personal cars by 2025 — Pittsburgh is the first city to adopt this approach in the United States. But Miller wasn’t surprised to see the local community pioneer this program. Unlike larger cities that often have a variety of extensive public transportation options, midsize cities like Pittsburgh have become more dominated by cars, giving local governments more urgency in connecting residents to alternative choices.
“It’s really forced a lot of cities and transit agencies in these types of midsize cities to think really creatively about how they can improve their services, and how they can be really thoughtful and creative about shifting trips to more sustainable options,” Miller said.
There are unique technical considerations as Mobility as a Service becomes widespread. A growing standard used in the field is the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), which several public transportation options, including Port Authority, have adopted as a way to share information with navigation apps like Transit or Google Maps. Meanwhile, many bikeshare companies use General Bikeshare Feed Specification (GBFS) while ride-hailing and taxi companies use General On-Demand Feed Specification (GOFS).
These differences aren’t a problem, Miller said: “Because each mode of transportation has different needs, it makes total sense that there would be different data standards for transit, scooters/bikeshare, and on-demand services.”
Ultimately, all of these mobility pieces should be able to speak the same language and connect together so people can easily make these trips.
But there’s a challenge in making sure these standards are adopted broadly within the transportation field.
“Ultimately, all of these mobility pieces should be able to speak the same language and connect together so people can easily make these trips,” he said.
Beyond making transportation more accessible to residents, Mobility as a Service has the potential to significantly reduce emissions — a critical and persistent issue for Pittsburgh, which the American Lung Association recently ranked as the ninth worst city in the country for air quality.
Part of those pollution issues are undoubtedly associated with the heavy use of cars here. A September 2019 report from mobility analytics company INRIX showed that 23% of car trips in Pittsburgh were less than one mile, while 50% were less than three miles.
Miller sees Move PGH and future work in Mobility as a Service as a way of resolving that classic last-mile problem in transportation.
“Those are distances that are easily covered by either walking or biking or electric scooters or public transit,” he said. “And so making sure that we build up these options and make them easy enough to access for people so they’re not just grabbing the car keys to go a mile down the road is really important to shifting those trips to more sustainable modes.”Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
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