How Parking Can Solve the First and Last Mile Challenge
First and Last Mile Commuting
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 (as 80% of Canadians[i] and Americans[ii] do), 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[iii], transit will continue to grow in importance. There are lots of articles already touting that the personal vehicle is falling (or has fallen) as king of transportation (like this one about Barbara Gray). 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. This makes public transit inconvenient, because on average, people in the US are only willing to walk a 1/4 mile to get to transit[iv]. This would be alright, except that 72% of people don’t live within that range[v]. In Canada, we might be slightly more willing to walk (even though it’s really cold up here in the winter?!), as per the chart below[vi].
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? Well, that’s the focus of this article. 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, and the signing of the Interstate Highway Act in the 1956[vii], 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[viii], and 72% of trips 3 miles or less are taken by vehicle[ix]. Before cars, people still managed to get their groceries and run their errands using other means of getting around.
People are driving so much that traffic has become a serious problem. Commute times have risen 20% since the 80’s[x]. There’s even an annual study to see how much time people in any given city spend in traffic (check it out here). Turns out, in the US people spend about 9% of all driving time in congestion[xi]. This equates to an average of 42 annual per-person hours, at a cost of $3 Billion to the economy as a whole[xii].
With over 286 million cars on the road in Canada and the US[xiii], all this driving results in a whole lot of parking – 95% of a vehicle’s life, to be specific[xiv]. To put some numbers to the parking industry, parking management will be worth over $7 Billion by next year[xv] while smart parking will be worth over $5 Billion by 2021[xvi]. 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[xvii] (you can have a peek at the chart in the endnotes if you’re interested). 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[xviii]. And that’s based solely on gas and parking costs! Of course this varies from city to city. Check out the chart below to see where your city lands and how much you could be saving.
I think by this time I’ve harped enough on how important public transit is, and how commuting alone via personal vehicle isn’t effective or sustainable. (As an aside, if you’re still not convinced, have a look at this guide on how to tell if you really need a car.) 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 needss to address 3 key factors: distance, modal integration, and network quality [xix]. 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 have people simply walk to the nearest transit stop. But walking is hard. Many urban neighbourhoods are low density, making things further away. Sidewalks everywhere are often disconnected, end abruptly, or are in a state of disrepair. There is little to no signage directing pedestrians, and certainly not indicating where the nearest transit stop might be. When you do use a sidewalk, you likely need to cross the road at some point – and the crosswalk situation is just as bad. They’re poorly signed, disregarded by motorists, and never in the place you need them most. And aside from all of this, in a really selfish sense, it would imply that people aren’t driving, and therefore aren’t parking. Not good for us parking professionals.
Enhanced Transit Options
So, what if we added more transit stops? First, there’s the issue of funding – can a city afford that increase in 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)[xx]. That’s an $11 Million net benefit.
For argument sake, let’s say your municipality is not prepared to make that investment. So, fees would have to be passed on to the users. Often, the people who need and use transit the most can least afford it[xxi]. Imagine spending 10% of your income just to take the bus? That’s a reality[xxii] for way too many people. Alternatively, transit oriented developments and zoning changes are effective ways to put people close enough to walk to stations[xxiii]. These are being developed in many cities around the US and Canada[xxiv], and are certainly growing in popularity. However, they will take time to build and prepare for people to live in.
Another solution to the FMLM issue is private transportation planning – as in having a private bus transporting people to/from a specific location. For example, companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook have buses that pick up employees from around San Francisco and take them to work[xxv]. This solution is used by universities, colleges, employers, hotels, airports, etc.[xxvi]. 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, what if we offered a shuttle that took people from our parking lots on a short loop around the downtown area of the city. Users could enter their destination as they park (since they are already using you app to pay – I hope), and the shuttle driver could have the most efficient route mapped out automatically and ready by the time everyone boarded. This would be great for us as we’d have all the commuters parking in our lot, paying us 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.
Let’s take this FMLM solution in a different direction. What if people used alternative methods to get to their desired stations – like skateboards, scooters, rollerblades[xxvii], segways, airwheels, motorized longboards[xxviii], or scoot bikes[xxix] (yes, these are all real things)? Although they can be great options for students, the average working adult isn’t apt to ride around on any of these things out of genuine concern for looking ridiculous and unprofessional, and therefore not wanting to be seen on them. On a more objective note, these modes of transportation may require sidewalks or other currently lacking infrastructure to be able to use them.
You may have noticed that bicycles weren’t part of that wheeled list. That’s because it’s a sincerely viable option for commuters. Bike share programs operate with varying degrees of success[xxx], 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). So for our benefit, let’s focus on the bicycles people own… and park.
Now We’re Actually Going to Talk About Bicycles
Bicycle commuting rates in the US aren’t setting any volume records (with the exception of Portland and Minneapolis with rates of 7% and 5%, respectively[xxxi]), but they are certainly showing substantial growth. If you take a look at the top 12 cities for bike commuting growth (including Boston, New Orleans, Washington, Chicago and Philadelphia), they’re averaging over a 246% increase for the past decade[xxxii]. In Canada, 1.3% of commuters (or roughly 200,000 people) get to work by bike[xxxiii].
So, you solve your commute challenge by riding your bicycle either to the train station or to your destination. Now you need parking for it. One major drawback to cycling is the lack of safe, secure parking[xxxiv]. This is a great opportunity for the parking industry to offer a solution. We could easily section off and secure a small area of one (or each) 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. What if you were to provide the Cadillac version, which included a change room and a shower? That’s certainly worth a premium price. As parking service providers, you could offer the same amenities you do for drivers (like air for your tires, or emergency phones) with no added cost to you. This added cost might deter some cyclists from parking their bikes with you. With a little incentive from the city, cyclists could reduce the financial burden by using the bike parking expense as a tax write off, just like commuters do with a transit pass.
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. Check out this case study on Beijing as a great example.
Of course by this point we’ve all heard of Uber. The rideshare net I’m casting here is more aligned with the literal definition – as in sharing a ride with someone. We’re going to lump carpooling, vehicle sharing, transportation network companies, and ride sourcing all together to encompass as many variations as possible.
The Downside for FMLM
A couple glaring disadvantages to ridesharing exist. First, some people see sharing the ownership or use of a vehicle as a status indicator; there is a cultural stigma around it that prevents many who would benefit from this type of transportation from using it as they don’t want to appear less wealthy or privileged than others. 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 – in fact, 20% of US families don’t have a credit card[xxxv].
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 really expensive endeavour. Sharing the cost of ownership might be the only financially viable method to commute for low income families or individuals (as this can save up to $700 per month[xxxvi]). 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)[xxxvii].
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, Altamonte Springs, Innisfil, Summit, the Bay Area, and Edmonton. For cities not quite ready to make that leap, there’s always the option to integrate Uber into their public transit apps[xxxviii]. This is beneficial for commuters as they’re able to travel more seamlessly. It’s also valuable for the city as they collect a plethora of data about transit station usage and patron habits[xxxix]. With all this being said, the parking industry might as well start to embrace the idea of rideshare, because it’s becoming part of the transportation network whether we like it or not.
How Parking Fits In
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 tactics will help keep your parking lots full of customers as society evolves to accommodate the share economy.
The Other Side of the Coin
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 (adapted from this excellent fact sheet):
- 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 and engine is way more efficient than 6-10 vehicles personal vehicles with 5 commuters each (as if that’s happening) driving to the same destinations. A bus will have lower total emissions, result in fewer vehicles causing traffic delays, etc.
- Rideshare and transit serve people at completely different times of the day: Transit has peak hours from 7-9am and 3-6pm, Monday to Friday, to accommodate the masses. Rideshare caters to those travelling at off peak times or on weekends.
FMLM Ideas Worth Sharing that Didn’t Fit Anywhere Else
Earlier in this article I mentioned that having a smartphone would be pretty 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. Read more here.
Did you know there’s a company who helps you start up and power your own autonomous mobility service? It’s called RideCell, and it even helps you verify potential customers before letting them use your service. Read more here.
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. Read more here.
I will admit that I’m a bit of a day dreaming optimist. 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[xl], without giving up entirely on public transit and driving to their destination.
Another factor is that 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[xli]. With demand decreasing, and therefore the impact of accommodations for FMLM commuters decreasing, is it even cost effective to offer alternatives to diving?
I’ll just assume (*cough cough*) that you are as passionate about this topic as I am, and therefore would like some additional reading on the topic. Your wish is my command! First, if you want a helpful summary of the FMLM concept there’s this article. Second, here’s a book called The End of Traffic and the Future of Transport (you can guess what it suggests is the future).
You could also check out agencies and organizations dedicated to solving transit issues and improving life in cities, including TransitCentre, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, or the National Association of City Transportation Officials.
Finally, you can read about some fun projects to encourage people to take transit through ioby’s trick out your trip campaign. Maybe you want to peruse through suggestions to improve bus service. If you’re more into cycling, you can also have a peek at this case study on how folding bikes could have a big impact on the viability of cycling and how to implement a program with incentives in any municipality.
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. Overhyped are the benefits and joys of cities like Houston, Pittsburgh, St Louis and Kansas City building astronomical highway miles per person[xlii]. 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.