As a long-time telecom analyst, I’ve done numerous projects and written countless reports about the ‘last mile’ problem. In fact, one of the most promising use cases for 5G is using wireless to get from a fiber drop (or small cell) to the home, since FTTH has proven so cost-prohibitive. But Tim Bajarin’s Techpinions column on Monday, “How Scooters Are Rewriting our Views Of Personal Transportation”, got me to thinking about an equivalent problem that exists in how we get from A to B – and how electric scooters, bike/e-bike sharing, and the like can help with that ‘last mile’ challenge. Tim wrote that his Element folding scooter has helped with that ‘last mile’ in certain instances. I’d like to expand on that concept in this column. And introduce another metaphor: The Third Lane.
Two weeks ago, in a column on “Tech’s Unintended Consequences”, I wrote, as a prominent example, about how Uber, Lyft, and the TNC are creating enormous congestion problems in major cities. At the same time, investment in public transportation has waned, leading to a vicious cycle of higher fares and declining service. But these ‘personal transportation solutions’ (PTSs) could be part of a broader solution for the last mile, and in a way that enhances, rather than eviscerates, our current transportation infrastructure. Consider public transport, particularly in close-in suburbs (rather than cities, where more is walkable). Often, a bus or a commuter train drops you a couple of miles from your final destination. Which is where TNCs have proven valuable, but also clogging roads that were never built to handle that sort of volume. Or think about how, in Silicon Valley, there’s a train that connects the major towns (Palo Alto, Mountain View, etc.) but from there people have to fan out to offices from A to Z. Or in my home town of Boston, where an entire new neighborhood and series of office buildings (the Seaport) was built, employing tens of thousands of people, but requires a 1.5-2 mile walk, often in crappy weather, from the closest subway station. The TNCs (and private shuttle buses subsidized by companies) have come in to fill that gap. But they are not a viable long-term solution for so many one-of, one-person, short-haul trips.
This is where these ‘third option’ solutions such as bike sharing, e-bikes, and electric scooters can help fill an important gap. While they might not be optimal for a commute of more than 5 miles for most people (and the bike lane infrastructure might not exist for that entire route), they’re perfect for a couple of miles. The issue is, what part of the road can they use? They’re not permitted on sidewalks. And in many cities, there aren’t adequate (and protected) bike lanes. As a result, the percentage of people who use PTSs is limited to about 5%, mainly zealots and the fearless/intrepid.
So I’m going to borrow a concept coined by Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, who described his cafes as ‘The Third Place’. If PTSs are going to be a viable component of a multi-modal transportation solution, they need a safe and enjoyable passage from parking junctions and transport stops to their final destination. I call it ‘The Third Lane‘. That means reconfiguring or building a protected road lane or part of a sidewalk that radiates out to places people live, work, and play. We might not be able to build safe lanes everywhere for each person’s individual commute, but we can think about corridors that serve large clusters of people. In addition to being protected, these lanes need to be properly surfaced, since scooters and bikes can’t handle potholes, sewer ruts, and the like, in a way that cars can.
A critical piece of this is that municipalities have to be part of the overall planning. We can’t have Lime, Bird, etc. barging in, and then getting regulated after the fact, having befriended no one. Think about downtown Atlanta as an example. There’s a MARTA stop in Buckhead (with no parking), and then there’s probably 100,000 people employed within 2 miles of that station, at numerous office building clusters. What if they added a lane/path/portion of sidewalk along key corridors that people could use PTSs that they reserve in advance, to within a couple hundred meters of their final destination? And, as an alternative/supplement, a system of buses along dedicated lanes that run in a loop, sort of like the airport rental car shuttle?
This mentality exists in some of the denser, more forward-thinking cities. In places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, all four modes of transportation are on relatively equal footing, from a planning perspective: car, public transport, bike/PTS, and pedestrian.
So, my message to the Limes and Birds of the world, with your dockless PTSs: use your goodwill, your data, your AI, and your tens of billions in valuation to work with local governments to create viable ‘third lanes’ along key corridors. Pick a couple of signature projects, where there are large numbers of workers who need to get a couple of miles from a transport or parking hub: South Station to the Seaport in Boston; Buckhead in Atlanta; Georgetown in Washington; from downtown Miami’s emerging multi-modal hub to the Brickell area, etc.
I realize it’s not easy, and that in many cities, finding the ‘real estate’ for that third lane is a big challenge. But it would be great to try this, in a greenfield sort of manner, in a few spots where it’s both viable and serves enough people where we could gather some good data. Sort of like some of the larger scale ‘smart city’ demo projects that have kicked off in places like Amsterdam and Toronto.