By Chelsea Webster
Let’s start the first mile of this journey by setting a goal for reading this article: learning what first mile and last mile means in relation to transportation, and finding ways for the parking industry to embrace (and maybe even capitalize) on this growing urban challenge.
The Rise of Public Transit
If you live in a city, you likely understand that public transit is an important part of city life. As more of the world’s population moves into cities, and cities aren’t able to accommodate the demand for individual cars and parking, transit will continue to grow in importance. There are lots of articles already touting that the personal vehicle is falling as king of transportation. As this process happens, it will be even more critical to make taking alternate methods of transportation as easy as possible.
If you’ve ever tried to take public transportation, you’re likely aware of a big setback inherent in any transit system: it doesn’t come right to your door.
So, if people aren’t willing to walk to the “nearest” transit stop, but still want to take the train or subway or express bus, how do they get to that transit stop? The process is called first mile (getting from your house or starting point to the transit stop) and last mile (getting from where transit lets you off to your actual destination) commuting.
We Love Our Cars
Thanks to the automobile revolution, we’ve seen the personal vehicle have a massive economic impact. Highways were built, automotive factories churned out vehicles of all sorts, and a whole new parking industry sprang up – all of which created hundreds of thousands of jobs in Canada and the US. With the ability for the average person to own a vehicle, people had the freedom to live and travel to places previously unimaginable. And of course with this increased freedom came a reliance on personal vehicles.
But as time moves on, our preferences and habits change, and cars are used in very different ways. Nowadays, we’ve become lazy because of our cars. Don’t agree? Well, 50% of all car trips are less than 3 miles, and 72% of trips 3 miles or less are taken by vehicle. Before cars, people still managed to get their groceries and run their errands using other means of getting around.
With increased driving comes traffic problems. Commute times have risen 20% since the 80’s and, in the US people spend about 9% of all driving time in congestion. This equates to an average of 42 annual per-person hours, at a cost of $3 Billion to the US economy as a whole.
With over 286 million cars on the road in Canada and the US, all this driving results in a whole lot of parking – 95% of a vehicle’s life, to be specific. To put some numbers to the parking industry, parking management will be worth over $7 Billion by next year while smart parking will be worth over $5 Billion by 2021. Given these numbers, it’s safe to say that the parking industry can definitely be a lucrative business. So all this driving – and parking – really is a big deal.
Why FMLM Matters to Parking Professionals
First mile and last mile (FMLM) journeys represent a huge challenge for cities, for transit systems, and for people. The easiest way to get to a rapid transit station is by driving there – which is what 57.9% of people actually do. So why should an individual switch from the convenience of driving their vehicle to the inconvenience of using public transit for any portion of their commute? The biggest incentive is (unsurprisingly) financial: the average annual savings of using public transit rather than driving a vehicle for your daily commute is $9,738, based solely on gas and parking costs (varies from city to city).
So how can we, as parking professionals, nurture the parking industry, and keep our jobs, while helping solve the FMLM problem?
To start, any viable FMLM solution needs to address 3 key factors: distance, modal integration, and network quality. That means the closer transit stops are, the easier they are to get to. The simpler it is to switch vehicles, the more willing people are to do it. And the better the transit system is, the more likely people are to use it.
The simplest, most obvious suggestion is to simply walk to the nearest transit stop. But, many urban neighbourhoods are low density, making things further away. Sidewalks are often disconnected, end abruptly, or are in a state of disrepair. Directional signage indicating where the nearest transit stop is located is lacking, and proper crosswalks are as bad, being poorly signed, disregarded by motorists, and never in the place where they are most needed. And aside from all of this, it would imply that people aren’t driving, and therefore aren’t using parking facilities.
Enhanced Transit Options
So, what if we added more transit stops? First, there’s the issue of funding – can a city afford the increased costs for planning, staffing, additional vehicles, etc.? Your initial response may be NO. But consider that one study in DC found that a $13 Million investment in pedestrian infrastructure would result in a $24 Million savings in related expenses (like emergency services, road maintenance, and health care costs). That’s an $11 Million net benefit.
What if the municipality is not prepared to make that investment? Fees would have to be passed on to users. Often, the people who need and use transit the most can least afford it. Alternatively, transit oriented developments and zoning changes are effective ways to put people close enough to walk to stations. These are being developed in many cities around the US and Canada, and are certainly growing in popularity. However, they will take time to build and prepare to be livable.
Another solution to the FMLM issue is private transportation planning – as in having a private bus transporting people to/from a specific location. Companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook have buses that pick up employees from around San Francisco and take them to work. This solution is used by universities, colleges, employers, hotels, airports, etc. It’s a great way for companies to ensure their patrons arrive at their doors (and not a competitor’s).
To apply this enhanced transit idea to the parking industry, consider this scenario: a shuttle service that takes people from your parking lots on a short loop around the downtown area of the city. Users could enter their destination as they park (since they may already be using an app to pay), and the shuttle driver would have the most efficient route mapped out automatically and ready by the time everyone boarded. Parking operators would have all the commuters parking in their lot, paying to do so, and solving the challenge of travelling that last mile between parking and your destination. I’m guessing that commuters would happily choose you over your competition if you provided that value-added service.
Bike share programs operate with varying degrees of success, and are for the most part well received and well used. But these programs don’t provide much benefit for the parking industry (unless you own or operate it). In Canada, 1.3% of commuters (or roughly 200,000 people) get to work by bike.
One major drawback to cycling is the lack of safe, secure parking. This is a great opportunity for the parking industry to offer a solution. We could easily section off and secure a small area of our facilities and charge a fraction of the price to park a bike as we do to park a car. And that could be for the basic level of service. With services included such as a lockable storage, change room and shower, a premium price could be charged. Amenities already in place for drivers (like air for your tires, or emergency phones) can be provided with no added cost to you. With a little incentive from the city, cyclists could even benefit by using the bike parking expense as a tax write off, just like transit pass commuters.
Of course, there are obstacles to bicycle commuting. Two main issues are the lack of availability of infrastructure to safely ride, and the attitudes and awareness of drivers. Over time though, stereotypes and perceived inconveniences will dissipate.
We’ve all heard of Uber, but for simplicity we will align with the literal definition – as in sharing a ride with someone – including carpooling, vehicle sharing, transportation network companies, and ride sourcing all together to encompass as many variations as possible.
A couple glaring disadvantages to ridesharing exist. First, some people see sharing the ownership or use of a vehicle as a status indicator. Second, due to the on-demand nature of this form of transportation, most ridesharing require users to have and use a smartphone, with a data package or Wi-Fi connection, and a credit card to attach to an account. This may not be available geographically or financially for some potential users.
Driving a personal vehicle directly to your destination is often the fastest way to get there. But owning that vehicle, especially when it’s parked most of the time, can be costly. Sharing the cost of ownership might be the only financially viable method to commute for low income families or individuals. In some ways, ridesharing competes with public transit (a more direct and timely route to your destination), although mostly it’s a good compliment (less expensive, covers areas not served by transit).
Despite these factors, some cities in the US and Canada are financially committing to helping citizens use rideshare for the FMLM of their commute via public transit. A few examples of cities providing Uber subsidies are Philadelphia and Edmonton. For cities not quite ready to make that leap, there’s always the option to integrate Uber into their public transit apps. The benefit for commuters is seamless travel, and cities benefit from collecting a plethora of data about transit station usage and patron habits. The parking industry may want to embrace the idea of rideshare, because it’s becoming part of the transportation network whether we like it or not.
For parking professionals, the bottom line is that fewer vehicles are actually driving to or stopping at parking lots. Here are some ideas on how we can encourage ridesharing for the FMLM journey without losing parking customers:
- Offer discounted rates for vehicles that arrive and park with multiple passengers (good for carpoolers)
- Offer a VIP pickup and drop off zone with a monthly membership fee (good for ride sourcing drivers like Uber and Lyft)
- Set up accounts with ride share companies to offer them monthly billing and special parking locations or access (good for the parent company who owns a fleet and pays all out of pocket expenses like Car2Go)
- Provide a park-and-ride set up with a minimal fee but value-added services like free Wi-Fi, charging stations, a car wash, or live transit information feeds
Using these kinds of strategies will help keep your parking lots full of customers as society evolves to accommodate the share economy.
I know not everyone will agree that ridesharing is the future of public transport – and for good reason. All of the options mentioned are best not as the only option, but as a piece of a complete solution. Below are the top 3 cases against relying solely on rideshare for first and last mile transportation:
- Not everyone will fit into rideshare vehicles: There are just too many people that commute, and there isn’t room for everyone in the existing Uber supply of vehicles.
- Bad transit is still better at moving people than good rideshare vehicles: A bus that fits 30-50 people and requires only one driver is way more efficient than 6-10 vehicles personal vehicles with up to 5 commuters each, driving to the same destinations.
- Rideshare and transit serve people at completely different times of the day: Transit has peak commuting hours to accommodate the masses. Rideshare caters to those travelling at off peak times or on weekends.
More FMLM Ideas Worth Sharing
Earlier in this article I mentioned that having a smartphone would be critical to accessing ride source options. Interestingly, Uber is trying out a program in conjunction with Fulton County, Georgia, that offers a phone-in option to book an Uber ride. The phone number connects people with a dispatcher, and is being trialed for rides to and from a seniors centre.
There’s a company who helps you start up and power your own autonomous mobility service called RideCell, and it even helps you verify potential customers before letting them use your service.
Commuters aren’t the only ones looking for FMLM options. Delivery services (FedEx, UPS, etc.) are investigating ways to make their processes more efficient, cost effective, and streamlined.
There certainly is a case against making changes to accommodating FMLM commuting. First of all, people may not even be willing to make connections between various modes of transit. In general, users are only prepared to make one transfer between public transit vehicles, and agreeable to wait only a short time between these vehicles without giving up entirely on public transit and driving to their destination.
As transit options increase, the price increases – and therefore the cost of the service increases. Since demand for public transit is quite elastic, as the price to the end user goes up, demand goes down. With demand decreasing, and therefore the impact of accommodations for FMLM commuters decreasing, is it even cost effective to offer alternatives to diving?
Hopefully you’ve managed to find some ways that parking can become part of the solution to the FMLM challenge. The sharing economy is just getting started, and we’re going to see all kinds of industries evolve thanks to this change in resource usage. Applying the concept to commuting in big cities is a natural fit, especially as cities grow and people change their minds about the place their car holds in their lives. Welcome to the newest iteration of public transportation, where people are socially and financially conscious of the choices they make and the impact they have on their city, the environment, and their communities. ν
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