Scooters, Bikes and Buses: Reclaiming Pilot Projects for the Public Good

Photo by Sergio Ruiz

This article was adapted from a post on the Law and Political Economy blog.

Hidden beneath the buzz about how technology is transforming urban transportation is a quiet revolution in the way cities manage their streets. In the face of rapid change, cities and transit agencies are increasingly relying on pilot programs to introduce new modes of transportation and new uses of streets and other public spaces. The pilot approach — form a question, test and evaluate — is well-suited to helping cities address the current dynamism in urban transportation. Pilot approaches have been used by cities of all sizes to introduce everything from dockless bike sharing and autonomous buses to delivery robots and smart streetlights.

Yet pilots today are too often focused on responding to technology trends — and not necessarily on meeting the needs of cities and the people they serve. Pilots allow companies to deploy their technologies before all the impacts are known and require just a permit instead of a lengthy planning process. Cities benefit from this approach because it gives them a means to manage the introduction of a new product on their own terms — as the City of San Francisco did when it required all scooters to come with locks, to prevent sidewalk clutter. Pilots give cities a safe space to try new approaches while managing the potential chaos of new technologies — and without giving up their mandates to spend public funding wisely, exercise regulatory authority and pursue the public’s interest.

But this reactive approach can reduce pilots to implementing someone else’s technology — not necessarily innovating new approaches to meet the policy goals of the transportation system. Even though many pilots have admirably prioritized city goals and policies such as equity, access and environmental justice, these goals are often ancillary to the pilots’ primary purpose of integrating new products into public spaces.

To help cities and transit agencies fulfill their mission to help people get around, make streets safer, reduce traffic, facilitate higher-density growth and improve quality of life and public health, pilots need to progress from their current orientation toward technology and instead focus on cities and people. Rather than reacting to change, pilots can empower cities to steward the emergence of a new transportation ecosystem by setting terms, conditions and goals for using streets. It is not the job of cities and transit agencies to do product testing for technology companies, nor should public agencies conduct pilots merely to signal their relevance in the face of rapidly changing technology. To move from today’s technology focus to pilots that are centered on cities and their people, public agencies should evaluate how each stage of a pilot can be designed to better serve city and community interests. Here are three ways cities and transit agencies can rethink pilots.

1. Frame pilots around the city’s goals — and don’t assume technology is the answer to achieving them.

Whether they’re the product of reaction or active stewardship, pilots tend to assume technology as the solution to the question at hand. For example, an app or small vehicle may be the answer to the vexing problem of getting people to and from train stations, but so too may be different transit fare products or more legible maps. Yet these more basic solutions aren’t as novel, so they’re often overlooked. In many cases, the city or transit agency staff designing the pilots do not have authority over those pieces of the transportation ecosystem; their purview limits them to technology-based pilots.

Furthermore, pilots do not absolve a city or transit agency of the need to foster innovation in its own regulatory and organizational structure, which may also be a source for new solutions. Pilots may emerge in response to technological trends, but they are nonetheless situated within a city and its existing efforts and affairs. This broader context should be at the forefront of a pilot’s conception process.

2. Design pilots to have people-centered metrics and parameters. 

Many cities and transit agencies have placed equity at the forefront of their pilots by mandating affordable and equitable service — particularly for cost-burdened communities and communities of color. They are refusing to let new mobility leave anyone behind.This is commendable, and a prime example of how cities and transit agencies can design a pilot’s parameters and metrics to meet agency goals. Safety, accessibility and fairness to riders should be other non-negotiables. Cities and transit agencies should also think critically about how to design pilots so that people — and not technology — are at the center of the experience. For example, performance measures that prioritize increasing the number of riders and those that prioritize improving the transportation experience will beget very different pilots. Pilots provide an opportunity for cities to move from a pure focus on transportation as a utility to one that accounts for people’s expectations and needs.

3. Design pilots to allow for ongoing refinement and iteration.

Pilots are by their nature finite: There is a testing period followed by an evaluation period, after which the new technology is either adopted or not. Designing pilots to support ongoing refinement and reevaluation can move the value of a pilot from simply creating buy-in for an idea to broader goals of ongoing understanding and learning.

One way to do this is to build prototypes before the official pilot begins. Prototypes are low-resource, quickly deployed versions of a policy or product that can be used to run experiments, test and decide whether to invest more fully. They offer a way to make an idea “real” and to explore social and technical feasibility before heavy investment. Whereas pilots are often concerned with final outcomes (success or failure), the purpose of prototyping is learning. As such, prototypes can suggest better ways to pilot.

At the very least, to ensure that pilots stay true to their flexible intentions, they should be structured to give cities and transit agencies a certain amount of leeway to make incremental, responsive changes outside of standard bureaucratic processes.These processes exist for important reasons, but they can nonetheless stymie quick refinement and iteration if the pilot plays out differently than anticipated.

This new era of urban transportation is in its infancy. Transit agencies and cities are only beginning to use pilots to understand how to integrate new technologies. But just as cities are starting to experiment with these regulatory tools, they are already under threat from preemptive state laws that threaten to strip cities and transit agencies of the flexibility they need to discover innovative approaches.

Instead of taking away cities’ ability to innovate, states can find ways to support and foster innovation. To succeed as stewards of a new transportation ecosystem, transit agencies and cities will have to take on a new role: that of facilitator, innovator, coordinated planner and quick-response, proactive regulator. This new role requires not only new skillsets but new mindsets as well. Since not all cities have the resources to broker good contracts and create substantial pilots, mechanisms for learning and sharing findings will be critical. States and regional agencies should focus on supporting and partnering with local transit agencies. State-level innovation initiatives are imperative to providing cities the flexibility and resources they need to meet the expectations and demands of a changing transportation landscape.

* Arielle Fleisher is SPUR’s transportation policy director. Chris Chou is an associate attorney at Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass focusing on land use, infrastructure and other regulatory issues.