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street intersection with the text: What we're missing when we talk about mobility

Frank Sinatra sang that if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere—that may be true, but I certainly didn’t feel that way after attending two recent conferences on mobility.  

With conference names like “Designing Cities” and “Disrupting Mobility,” I had high expectations. And they didn’t disappoint. Uber and Lyft were there. Google and Daimler were there. And, of course, the patron saints of urban transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan and Gabe Klein.

The National Association for City Transportation Officials (NACTO), the organizer for Designing Cities, is a membership organization that “represents large cities on transportation issues of local, regional and national significance,” while major universities like MIT, University of California Berkeley, and the London School of Economics helped plan Disrupting Mobility.

At the conferences, there was an undeniable energy that comes from such dedicated people tackling big problems. San Francisco has one of the best cheerleaders around in Tim Papandreou and Greg Lindsay of New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation played mobility matchmaker.

But as I reflected on my experiences there, something was missing.

Durham, North Carolina. Corpus Christi, Texas. Tallahassee, Florida. It’s awesome when bikeshare works in Boston and carsharing works in Chicago. But, in 2015, it’s also unsurprising. What about smaller cities?

I know why the focus is on the big cities. They’re sexy. They’re dense. If it can work in NY, it can work anywhere.

But can it? Will the same bus transit technology that works in midtown Manhattan work in Manhattan, Kansas?

After all, according to the Atlantic CityLab, the top 48 urbanized areas include half of all the urban population. But that still leaves hundreds of US cities with mobility needs that will need to be met in the coming years—cities that don’t have the head start San Francisco’s density affords.

The mobility needs in mid-size cities are different than those facing Los Angeles and Dallas. The mobility questions in places like Wichita, Kansas revolve around the chicken and egg problem: how does a community solve its mobility challenges when its existing mobility options are so poor that it disincentivizes political investment?

Right now, San Francisco and Washington, DC have an opposite chicken-and-egg problem: When a vast majority of those moving to town do so without a car, how much easier is it to produce a robust ecosystem of mobility options?

This conversation was missing from these recent conferences. That’s okay. They were great conferences and they tackled some important topics that made sense for their target audience. But I want to start the conversation around what has to happen in mid-tier cities where current fixed-route bus service satisfies neither dependent riders nor choice riders. Or where getting a Lyft from a driver named Buddy is still just getting a lift from a buddy.

Mid-tier and smaller city residents need mobility too. They probably need it more than the bigger cities. They won’t be the first places the big companies will look, but they still need mobility. And when we can help single parents in Waco, Texas and businesspeople in Charleston, West Virginia get access to jobs, education, and community, then we’ll know we can make it anywhere.

So what do you think is the first step to solving the chicken and the egg problem I listed above: how does a community solve its mobility challenges when its existing mobility options are so poor that it disincentivizes political investment?