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Jan 20, 2017

Test-driving Mobility's Future in Boulder, Colorado

 

With car ownership expected to peak as soon as 2020, it is clear that our mobility future is rapidly shifting, changing how we get from point A to point B. It is a critical time for cities to research and pilot new business models and methods to help people move around. In Colorado, the City of Boulder is doing exactly that with its new mobility services pilot. Integrating lessons learned from these pilots into future planning is necessary for urban centers to remain not just vibrant and competitive, but safe, clean, and healthy as well. 

Boulder (pop. 107,000) is home to innovative and inspiring ideas. In 2011, the residents of this city at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains decided to municipalize their electric utility to ensure greater progress toward their high renewable energy targets. Now, with population and job growth soaring, they are starting to tackle personal mobility. For the 2016 holiday season, the City of Boulder, Downtown Boulder Partnership, Rocky Mountain Institute, Commutifi, Lyft, Uber, and zTrip gave visitors and locals a new opportunity—Door to Downtown, Your Ride Downtown, or “d2d” for short. 


Discounted Rides to Improve Efficiency and Convenience

This pilot gives riders going to downtown Boulder $5 off a ride with their preferred rideshare partner—Lyft, Uber, or zTrip. These rides to downtown are automatically discounted after registering for the program, and return rides home are discounted with a minimum purchase from a participating merchant. This gift may not sound as exciting as a new mountain bike, but it gives downtown Boulder customers a chance to experience the future of personal mobility while testing a new approach to moving people through the city. In doing so, Boulder is taking the first step toward a more efficient, more convenient, and cleaner transportation system in both the near and long term.

In the near term, the primary motivators behind Boulder’s d2d program are improving parking availability, enhancing safety, and bringing more customers to downtown businesses. Parking in downtown Boulder is a challenge for customers, commuters, and traffic planners alike. 

In the long term, Boulder estimates it will need an additional 2,700 parking spaces in downtown to meet expected parking demand in 2035. Meeting this requirement will cost $40–$67 million and require approximately $800,000 per year for maintenance and operations. These structures would consume valuable real estate and might become stranded assets when mobility as a service (MaaS) becomes more common in the near future, reducing the need for personal vehicles. The inexorable reality of MaaS is detailed further in RMI blogs on commuting, data interoperability, RMI’s work with Austin, and work by the Department of Transportation

“This pilot is already proving that you can support small businesses, ease the burden on limited parking, and improve mobility through ride sharing,” says Gabe Cohen, general manager for Lyft in Denver. “We are excited to continue to work with the City of Boulder, Downtown Boulder Partnership, and Rocky Mountain Institute to expand upon this model.”
 

Testing demand for mobility services at cost parity to personal vehicles

The long-term opportunity d2d presents is equally exciting. To date, great research has been done to understand how the cost of a mobility service affects demand. However, in practice (at current prices) door-to-door services are more expensive than operating a car in most situations. The d2d pilot offers a unique opportunity to test the demand for new transportation options when they are essentially the same price as driving and parking. For the first time, we can test the price elasticity of demand for mobility services. 

The total cost of owning (e.g. depreciation, registration, insurance) and operating a personal internal-combustion vehicle is approximately $0.60/mile, not including parking and the personal value of time spent driving or stuck in traffic. This means that a 10-mile round-trip to downtown Boulder costs a total of $10, including parking. Even if we only consider operating cost and parking, that trip is approximately $6. Many drivers don’t think about this cost because they are so accustomed to driving they do not consider alternatives. The d2d program lowers the cost of mobility services to be the same as driving and parking for the average Boulder resident.

"We’re excited to be a part of the Door2Downtown pilot,” says Dave Britton, general manager for Uber Colorado and Utah. “This is an important step in advancing mobility as a service, helping citizens rethink their transportation options while promoting economic growth for an important and vibrant part of Boulder."

Of course this means nothing if new mobility services are not at cost parity with incumbent options. However, as the price of electric drivetrains and automated driving technology decreases, the cost of MaaS will fall as well. In fact, a recent RMI report, Peak Car Ownership, found that the cost of shared, electric, autonomous mobility services will be equal to the total cost of owning, operating, and parking a car as soon as 2018 (the figure below shows the cost breakdown).
 

When we hit this price level, people could save money (and time and the frustration of sitting in traffic) by using automated mobility services instead of owning a car. Given the flurry of research and product development in this area by rideshare companies, technology companies, and auto manufacturers, this is a near-term reality. But despite the compelling financial savings, will people actually make the switch? Boulder’s d2d program offers the chance to test just that. 


Mobility partnerships in Boulder and beyond

The d2d program is also pioneering new ground for public-private partnerships by using rideshare and taxi partners to bring customers to downtown businesses. Bill George, president of operations for zTrip, says, “zTrip is very proud to participate and provide Boulder with the nation’s first taxi/TNC service.” Trials of related programs are being run all across the country. In Philadelphia, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority partnered with Uber this past summer to provide discounts for passengers to get to commuter rail stations. On the Front Range of Colorado, Centennial has partnered with Lyft to bring commuters the last mile to-and-from their homes and jobs and the Dry Creek light rail station, providing a compelling alternative to the gridlock on I-25. And in downtown Denver, Denver Union Station has partnered with Commutifi to improve curbside management and multimodal access for the station’s 14,000 daily passengers. “The City of Boulder and Denver Union Station are clearly thinking ahead of the curve when evaluating all modes of transportation within their districts to see how last-mile and door-to-door solutions could reduce traffic, pollution, congestion, and parking demand with this data,” said Rich Schmelzer, CEO of Commutifi.

The d2d program is for a limited time only (through Valentine’s Day, 2017), and provides a maximum of five rides per person, so customers are unlikely to ditch their cars just yet. But it does provide more possibilities in the menu of options available to get customers downtown, and gets patrons acclimated to the idea of mobility as a service as a convenient and economic alternative to cars. To date, more than 4,000 people have registered to participate in this program. It would seem the citizens of Boulder are willing to try the future of mobility. Are you?

 

Image courtesy of iStock.

 
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