Sustainability Plans vs Mode Splits: One Doesn’t Always Lead to the Other by Jessica Szeleg

SMCI 2017 portland

movmi’s SMCI 2017 provides a holistic overview of how 20 North American are positioned compared to their peers to attract shared mobility service provides. Deciding where to launch or whether to expand can make or break whether a new provider succeeds.

The Shared Mobility City Index 2017 looks at 5 key areas to determine how a city’s mix of density, parking pricing, current services, sustainability plans, and commute patterns will affect success. Making up 50 out of 100 points available is a thorough analysis of each city’s commute patterns and sustainability plans (each criteria worth 25 weighted points).

Interestingly, a good sustainability plan doesn’t necessarily mean a city will have a diverse mode split, and vice versa. Take, for example, Portland’s (#7) and Chicago’s (#5) scoring in the 2017 SMCI

Portland for SMCI 2017

Portland has long been a national leader in establishing progressive land use and transportation policies and has built a sophisticated network of transit, bike and light rail systems to get around. The City of Portland is currently in the early stages of updating their Transportation System Plan to implement initial steps to their 2035 Comprehensive Plan.

Portland’s draft Transportation System Plan is already a model for other cities and right away acknowledges that the future of their transportation system is by building a safer and more convenient way for residents to walk, bike, and take transit.

From Portland’s Draft Transportation System Plan: 

Portland is projected to add 140,000 new jobs and 260,000 new residents over the next 20 years. If in 2035 the percentage of people who drive alone to work remains the same as it is now (nearly 60 percent), traffic, climate pollution, and household spending on vehicles and fuel will all worsen significantly. In order to accommodate this growth, our transportation system must provide Portlanders safer and more convenient ways to walk, bike, and take transit for more trips.

Equally impressive, Portland was recently recognized at the C40 Mayors Summit in Mexico City with this year’s award in “Climate Action Plans & Inventories” for their 2015 Climate Action Plan. Portland has been a leader on Greenhouse Gas emissions for decades and has ambitious goals tied to moving people into energy efficient modes of travel, including electric cars, bikes, walking and bus.

US Census data though shows a different reality on the ground, literally. Portland is ranked #14 out of 20 for commute patterns compared to other cities in the 2017 SMCI. Based on the American Community Survey (ACS) projections for 2015, 62% of residents use a car for their travel needs. Granted, 7% of residents are biking and almost 6% are walking, which is much higher than many other North American cities. Transit ridership though for the metropolitan area is only hovering at just over 13%.

Portland’s commute numbers are surely bound to change drastically over the next few years with more investment in light rail, multi-modal infrastructure, and a resident population that has long supported a sharing economy. Supporting shared mobility and building denser communities are found throughout the spirit and narrative of Portland’s transportation and sustainability plans. As the vision of these plans become a reality, Portland’s mode split is bound to drastically swing away from a car centric reality.

The SMCI 2017 also identified some cities with impressive mode split numbers, but missing opportunities within their sustainability and transportation plans to compete with other SMCI North American peers.

Chicago for SMCI 2017

Chicago, for example, boosts a 33% transit, 2% bike, and 6.4% walk mode split. With less than 48% of residents driving alone, Chicago ranked #6 out of 20 for commute patterns in the SMCI 2017.

Regarding Chicago’s sustainability plan though, a lack of emphasis, or at least prioritization, on shared mobility within their transportation and sustainability plans ranked Chicago #14 out of 20 for Sustainability.  This doesn’t mean that Chicago’s 2015 Sustainable Chicago Plan is not ambitious or progressive enough; in fact, it’s quite a good plan. What the plan doesn’t do though is prioritize shared mobility as a means to meet climate change goals, thus missing some valuable points in the SMCI ranking.

Providing special permits for free floating or station based car sharing is part of the equation to providing a robust and efficient transportation network for citizens. Compared to other peer cities in the 2017 SMCI, Chicago’s Commute Pattern score ranked higher than their Sustainability score.

Portland and Chicago are both leaders for their transportation and sustainability plans, but the SMCI 2017 allows for a deeper dive into what makes a city attractive for new providers. Knowing what the barriers to entry might be (low density, commute patterns that favor car ownership, or lack of car sharing parking policies) can help a new provider determine what challenges there might be unique to each city before deciding to launch.

For city policy makers, finding opportunities within any available planning document to acknowledge and prioritize shared mobility will also create a more favorable market for providers to launch in. Ultimately, an easier permitting process, provisions for curbside use and parking, and clear guidelines on geography and expansion will create more interest among operators.

Everyone can agree that options are a good thing. By focusing on improving mode-splits and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, cities can help guarantee shared mobility as an attractive and environmental responsible way to travel.

~ Jessica Szelag is a transportation and land use professional who loves cities. Jessica worked on the update to the 2017 SMCI report and currently can be found in Anchorage, Alaska focusing on bike and trail policies.

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