Cities Need Allies To Hit Sustainable Mobility Goals

Data-sharing with private sector can get more commuters on mass transit and help mobility providers find new business avenues

September 25, 2023
Mobility breakfast roundtable Christine Harada, senior advisor in the White House Office of Federal Procurement Policy, emphasizes the benefits of public-private partnerships at an Oliver Wyman Forum roundtable on sustainable mobility.

Cities have a long road ahead to meet their climate goals, but not much time to get there. To accelerate change, they should collaborate more closely with the private sector, which can provide much of the data, services, and funding needed to make urban mobility networks more sustainable, according to transportation experts who participated in an Oliver Wyman Forum Climate Week NYC roundtable.

The herculean efforts needed underscore the need for collaboration. Cities account for about three-fourths of global carbon emissions, and the mobility sector is one of their largest emitters. Yet no city is currently on track to meet their 2030 emissions goals and many still rely heavily on personal car use, according to new Oliver Wyman Forum research of 12 global cities that was unveiled at the roundtable.

It will take innovative yet realistic steps to reduce urban mobility carbon emissions by 50% by 2030, the target set for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, said Andreas Nienhaus, partner and co-lead of the Oliver Wyman Forum’s Mobility initiative. “Cities need real advice on how to transform their mobility networks,” he said. “It’s not realistic to tell everyone to stay home or walk.”

Reducing personal car use will bring cities much closer to their emissions goals. In many cases, that means strengthening the appeal of mass transit and sustainable ride-sharing. The private sector can bring the expertise, services, and data to achieve those goals.

“You need innovation from business and new solutions,” said Jens Nielsen, CEO of the World Climate Foundation. Those solutions include getting different types of transit to work together so that people can combine bikes and mass transit, say, for their journeys, he added.

Christine Harada, who works to speed approvals of government infrastructure projects as senior advisor in the White House Office of Federal Procurement Policy, said cities need private sector involvement and partnerships for successful mobility transitions because of the massive investment required. “If the business case doesn’t work out, it’s not going to happen,” she said.

Funneling travelers to mass transit

When it comes to sustainably moving large groups of people in cities, all roads should lead to public transit. The private sector can act as an enabler of greater public transit use by funneling travelers to stations more conveniently, rather than acting as its competitor. That emphasis can open new revenue streams for ride-sharing firms.

Erin Abrams, chief legal officer of Via Transportation, a transit technology company, explained how Via transitioned from a consumer ride-sharing business to a B2B enterprise software service. “We sell these services to public transit and government authorities,” Abrams said, “so that they can become an extension of public transit, rather than a service that only wealthier people can afford.”

Cities can encourage other businesses, like real estate developers, to seize on the economic potential that shared mobility can bring to public transit. Tom Wright, President and CEO of the Regional Plan Association, a non-profit to improve economic health in the New York metropolitan area, said his organization’s study found that reusing transit station parking lots for real estate development could create more than 250,000 homes. And that close proximity to transit stations would encourage more commuters to ride rather than drive.

Empower mobility networks with data-sharing

Imagine if cities had a view of real-time mobility data that acted like a Wall Street stock ticker. City authorities who ask themselves, “How are my roads looking today?” could use real-time data to greatly improve their decision-making in managing traffic flows, said Kaan Ozbay, an engineering professor at New York University and director of C2SMART, a transportation research consortium.

For cities to realize that vision, they need to engage the private sector to share data. Cities that want to reduce personal car use and boost public transit can, for example, share ridership data with mobility providers. “Finding routes that are more efficient to take more people at once and replacing empty, fixed route bus lines would help,” said Abrams. “It may be better, instead, to have an on-demand van that would be full of passengers.”

The explosion of artificial intelligence (AI) can also shape better mobility models. David Shmoys, professor and director of the Center for Data Science for Enterprise and Society at Cornell University, explained how AI is changing the game of forecasting mobility behaviors and demand. “For ride-hailing firms, answering how many cars you want on the road or how to price for that is all dependent on an algorithm of demand.”

Enhancing mobility for the social good

Data can also play a role in enhancing mobility for the public good in a way that benefits both cities and business.

Consider Citi Bike, a New York-based bike-sharing service. Shmoys, an advisor to the service, explained how the bike provider was able to use data to make a real change in commuter behavior that benefits the public good. Its “Bike Angels” program incentives riders to take bikes from crowded stations to those that are running low in exchange for rewards like gift cards or ride-hail credits. 

But for all the data sharing and innovative business solutions, there may be no greater driver for public good than societal pressure. “At Via, we envision a world in which single occupancy trips are looked at as the new smoking,” said Abrams. “There’s a social stigma attached. Taking affordable, sustainable modes of public transit is now encouraged by social pressure.”