The City as a Platform: How Cities and New Mobility Services Can Work Together

William PeatmanBlog

city as a platform

Many cities have been caught off-guard by the arrival of shared mobility services on their streets. New York City, for example, has stopped issuing ridehailing licenses after data showed that the services had added thousands of vehicles to city streets and significantly worsened congestion. San Francisco hasn’t stopped issuing licenses, but a report by the county’s transportation authority found ridehailing businesses were responsible for more than half of the county’s growing traffic woes.

Then came scooters, undocked two-wheelers that users can rent by the minute, and leave anywhere. These businesses have caused chaos in many cities, with the vehicles being used on sidewalks, left in doorways, and sometimes vandalized. “Only now, after a summer of scooter mayhem, are many cities starting to cope,” USA Today recently reported.

One way for cities to cope is for agencies to see themselves as akin to technology platforms, enabling multiple services to operate with consistent guidelines. That’s what Seleta Reynolds, General Manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation told the audience at LA CoMotion, a mobility conference and showcase held in Los Angeles in November of 2018.

Certainty and Consistency
“We will never be a product company, but we need to think like a product company,” Reynolds said. “The way Google and Apple invite innovation on their platforms is that they have terms and services that the companies agree to and then they can sell their products in the app store. As soon as they violate those terms and conditions, they are out of the app store.”

“We in cities have tried to regulate the device, the thing that showed up, instead of thinking about how we can put ourselves in the correct seat around the business model,” she said. “In Los Angeles, we’ve been thinking about how we can behave more like a product company to invite innovation on our app store but express our policy through technology.”

What the businesses want, Reynolds pointed out, are certainty and consistency. That’s what policy can create.

The city as a platform is not necessarily a new concept. For centuries, cities have enabled a mix of public and private services designed to enhance the quality of life for their residents and visitors, transportation being a critical one—others include healthcare, public safety, and social services.

Platform Defined
What is a platform? Sangeet Paul Choudry co-chair of MIT’s Platform Strategy Summit, has a website devoted to the subject. He calls the platform “a unifying framework for digital business models.” The goal of a platform is to “enable interactions between producers and consumers,” by “providing a central infrastructure on which participants create and exchange value.”

The city as a platform—or at least the department of transportation as a platform in the case of Los Angeles–may indeed be a framework that can facilitate the introduction and coordination of new mobility services into urban centers. Instead of regulating in reaction to the next device, or thing that shows up, the smart cities of the future can offer a more streamlined process for launching and managing new services.

Uniform Requirements
A uniform set of requirements for offering mobility services on the city’s “app store” could help make services more efficient. In New York, for example, one study found that ridehailing vehicles travel 2.8 miles for every mile of personal driving they replace. That’s because vehicles are empty much of the time, in part due to an oversupply of vehicles and drivers. The services are unmanaged, and congestion is one result—evidence that the platform is not exchanging value to all stakeholders.

The same study found that public transit is declining as people opt for private alternatives. One of the terms and conditions cities might enforce could be to coordinate with public transit for first and last mile solutions at peak hours rather than compete with public transit, taking more vehicles off the streets and adding capacity when and where it is needed most.

For this model to work, Reynolds points out, cities will need sincere partners—that truly work together to achieve shared goals. “Cities will not be able to just regulate our way toward the future we desire,” she said. “We must figure out a way to partner toward that future. The trick is finding the companies that understand the meaning of partnership,” which, says, requires trust, communication, and transparency.