Cities wising up to disruptive transportation tech: ‘Why should they use our public right of way to become billionaires?’

TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond, Portland Metro Deputy Director Margi Bradway, LA Metro CEO Phillip Washington speak with moderator Jennifer Wieland of Nelson Nygaard. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

As cars clogged Seattle’s streets, desperately trying to escape a rare snowstorm, transportation experts high above discussed the future of urban mobility.

Transportation leaders from West Coast tech hubs gathered Friday afternoon to explore technology’s impact on how we get around as part of the 2019 State of Downtown event, hosted by the Downtown Seattle Association. And one thing quickly became clear: Cities are wising up to the tactics of transportation technology companies.

“The private sector is going to keep disrupting transportation,” said Margi Bradway, Portland Metro’s deputy director for transportation planning. “It’s going to happen again and again and again.”

Joining Bradway on the panel were Kevin Desmond, CEO of Vancouver’s transportation network, TransLink; and Phillip Washington, CEO of LA Metro. They all shared how their cities are reining in mobility tech companies, known as transportation network companies, or TNCs, to use the municipal lingo.

“We’re exploring the regulation of TNCs, the Ubers and Lyfts, and the idea is, why should they use our public right of way to become billionaires?” Washington asked. “They’re contributing to congestion, they’re using public facilities, streets, curbs everything else, and we get nothing for it. We want to incur a fee on rides.”

Bradway jumped in: “Oh we have a nice healthy fee … it makes millions for the City of Portland.”

Years ago, ride-hailing companies often bamboozled city officials, often launching their services without asking for permission. Many cities are determined not to be caught off-guard again as a new generation of tech startups seeks access to public streets.

The new mavericks are dockless scooter and bike-share companies like Lime and Bird — though Uber and Lyft are also moving into micro-mobility. Seattle went through a long and careful pilot before adopting a permanent dockless bike-share program. The city says it isn’t ready for scooters, and explicitly warned companies that operate those services not to try launching without permission.

A Lime scooter and Lime bikes in Seattle (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Portland also took a cautious approach to scooters. The city permitted a limited number of Bird, Lime, and Skip scooters on city streets for four months, requiring the companies to share detailed data on ridership and safety. Now Portland transportation officials are recommending that the city launch a longer pilot for rentable electric scooters in 2019.

“For the Portland region, scooters ended up being an amazing low-carbon option that was popular, the safety data was pretty good on it … it is replacing Uber and Lyft trips downtown,” Bradway said.

Vancouver, B.C., still doesn’t allow ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft to operate, but the Canadian city is laying the regulatory groundwork for those services. Desmond said he and his colleagues are working on regulations that would charge Uber and Lyft higher fees during peak travel hours.

“We’ve had private conversations with both of those companies and they’ve very privately said, ‘Yeah we can accept that,’” he said. “We don’t like it but we can accept it.’ ”

There are limitations to how strictly cities can govern transit tech companies.

“The legal hook we have to regulate these is either traffic safety or public safety,” Bradway said. “That’s all we’ve got.”

The key takeaway from the discussion: cities are getting savvier, looking ahead more strategically and acting faster when it comes to the companies building businesses on their streets.

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