St. Stephen’s Community House sits among single-family homes, recycling plants, wrecking yards, shipping centers, and parks, all occupying the Linden neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. Begun as a Catholic social center in 1919, it has morphed into a gathering place that helps local residents connect with jobs, medical care, supermarkets, and transportation. And just as in its early days, the center also helps them connect with one another. So it is that at 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday in October, about 150 people gather to hear city officials present a reinvention scheme. Even the standing-room section is crowded.
A screen displays a slide deck for a 10-point strategy—called the One Linden Plan—to improve this historically underserved low-income area. Onstage, hip-high cubes show photos of happy kids clinging to smiling parents. While Linden is just a few miles from the city center, transportation options from here—to jobs, doctors, even grocery stores—remain mostly limited, slow, inaccessible, unreliable, or a combination of those factors. One Linden aims to change that.
In Columbus, as in many cities, the people who would benefit most from public-transit improvements—people with lower incomes, minorities, residents with disabilities, the elderly—often have difficulty accessing it. The world might be stuffed with bike-shares and scooters, but trendy wheeled devices serve primarily the young, solo, and able-bodied. Meanwhile, as urban areas get more expensive, poorer residents are often pushed even farther out. Cities struggle to get everyone from place to place without clogging freeways, spewing air pollution, consuming fossil fuels, or further disenfranchising anyone.
In places like Linden, the biggest problem is often getting to or from a transit station in the first place. Urban planners call this the “first-mile/last-mile problem.” Here, remedies will include a trip-planning app that incorporates all available modes of transportation, whether scooters, bikes, or ride-shares. Most of these options typically require smartphones linked to credit-card accounts, leaving out portions of the population that have neither. But several of the proposals detailed in One Linden don’t require a bank account or phone plan. Officials also promise transportation hubs that link the different transport modes, and offer extra help for pregnant women and people with cognitive disabilities.
In the auditorium, the residents are attentive, hopeful—and dubious. It’s not the first time they’ve heard great-on-paper strategies. Many stay on the page. Some worry that if the improvements actually happen, it will just catalyze gentrification, destabilizing the very people whose lives should improve.
Knowing these doubts like the potholes on a familiar street, Lawrence Calloway, a South Linden commissioner, turns the meeting into something of a pep rally. “Can you all say, ‘Linden’?” he asks from the stage.
“Linden!” the crowd yells.
“LINDEN!” Calloway calls, louder.
“LINDEN!” they respond, louder still.
He smiles. “This is what we’re talking about,” he says to them. “Our community.”
Calloway asks the crowd to raise their hands if they provided input or helped shape the plan. Most of the hands go up. He nods. “It is an instruction on how to use every last nut and bolt and piece of wood and metal and brick and mortar to make sure this thing works,” he says of the plan. “So if you didn’t see yourself in it, maybe you need to mention how you can be in it.” Cue murmurs of approval.
Calloway ends by once again saying the community’s name. A cheer of “Linden! Linden! Linden!” rises like an approaching train.
Afterward, people disperse to knotty circles of conversation. Nicole Williams is hanging out near glossy, novella-length copies of the plan. Two-tone eye shadow applied in vertical patches gives her a tiger-like aspect. A friend asks after her son, and Williams turns her wheelchair to look around the room. He’s here somewhere, she says, smiling.
But Williams and her son almost didn’t make it tonight. She had scheduled a ride for 5 p.m. with a van service for people with disabilities. It didn’t show up till 6 or so, well after the meeting had started. While she waited, her friends started texting her. “They’re talking about you!” they said. Williams has been active in the transportation initiatives, and she missed her onstage mention—all because of a way-late ride.
This, of course, is part of the whole thing. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, cities must provide transportation for people with physical or cognitive impairments. But such specialized services are often less reliable than buses, which Williams can and does sometimes ride. But the fare box next to the driver blocks her access. The maneuvering makes her nervous. Once, avoiding the box, she broke the glass on the bus door. “I was just so embarrassed,” she says. “You know? I was just so embarrassed.”
Her solution is simple: “Everything should be made for everyone.” She says it with the same conviction that the community just chanted, “Linden!”
In an urban-utopia vision of the future, everything is made for everyone—and involves fewer personal cars, which pollute the air, contribute to climate change, keep us sedentary, and create cortisol-boosting gridlock. Multiple studies suggest that switching to alternatives—walking, biking, public transit—increases physical and psychological well-being, and even reduces mortality.
The main challenge to getting around without your own car remains the gap between home and public transit, and between a transit station and an office, factory, store, or friend’s place. Depending on where you live, that could make getting around difficult to impossible. In Franklin County, where Columbus is, it contributes to an infant mortality rate about 1.3 times the national average. According to city data, 7.1 infants died per 1,000 births between January and October 2018 in the county, and the rate is 2.3 times higher for black infants compared with other ethnic groups. The problem arises in part because mothers can’t make it to medical appointments—a first-mile/last-mile issue if there ever was one.
Cities and companies are slowly chipping away at the obstacles. In many urban areas, you can now rent a bike to begin or complete your journey. Some places, like New York City, subsidize them for lower-income residents. On-demand services like Uber and Lyft come when you call, and sometimes cost less than traditional taxis. And then, of course, there is the Great Scooter Invasion of 2018. Across the U.S., electricity-jolted Razor-style scooters have sprung up rapidly. After registering, you can pick them up and drop them off around town. But these modes usually require credit cards, bank accounts, smartphones, the ability to stand or pedal, and confidence riding in traffic. And you have to go it alone, without company or cargo. That leaves out much of the population much of the time. It amounts to discrimination, witting or not.
That’s something Sarah Kaufman, associate director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University, has examined empirically. Her research found that almost 75 percent of New York’s Citi Bike riders are men. A 2017 review of 54 research studies suggested that women want more separation between their bikes and traffic. Moreover, women are often on daisy chains of errands and caretaking trips shuttling the kids or buying food; many studies show that even in relationships based on egalitarian ideals, women do more of the housework and childcare. So while scooters and bikes might be great for riding home from happy hour, they’re subpar with kids or cargo. “These new modes are hard for people who have responsibilities other than themselves,” Kaufman says.
Creating systems that work for everyone is the basis of an approach called universal design. In 1997, a group of engineers and designers at North Carolina State University established its seven basic principles: that facilities and services should be equitable; flexible; simple and intuitive; include easily perceived information; tolerate errors; require low physical effort; and provide size and space for all users. When transportation engineers implement accessible ways for more people to get around, they are embracing the spirit of that philosophy.
Some cities have begun to make accommodations. In Hangzhou, China, you can rent bicycles with kid seats. Fortaleza, Brazil, has child-size bikes. In 2018, Detroit offered ones with hand pedals or cargo carriers in a pilot program. But pointing to individual examples at all means that the distribution of last-mile wealth still has a long way to go.
The U.S. Department of Transportation is trying to help midsize cities with these disparities. In late 2015, it launched the Smart City Challenge, offering a competitive $40 million grant to municipalities that want to modernize and data-drive their transportation. Out of 78 applicants, Columbus won the money with a proposal that focused on Linden and its last-mile problems.
Two years on, much of what Smart Columbus has achieved, including in its work with One Linden, remains invisible from the outside: PowerPoint presentations, meetings, back-end app development, building permits. But over the next two years, the city—using federal money and $10 million from Vulcan, the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s investment and philanthropic arm—promises to build better, more-accessible transit hubs, user-friendly software to help everyone get around, and smart systems to collect data on how people use it all in order to make ongoing improvements.
Right now, the Smart Columbus staff is trying to get both buy-in and input from residents. Part of that happens inside a very visible building called the Smart Columbus Experience Center. Located downtown next to the winding Scioto River (about a 15-minute drive, an 18-minute walk plus a 17-minute bus ride, or a $14 Lyft trip from St. Stephen’s), it’s a sleek-looking black beast of a building, curved at one end. Inside, there’s a showroom with demo technology and electric cars that people can take out and test-drive. Behind this display space, the Smart Columbus team toils in an open office. A glassed-in conference room says “Connected” on its door. There are many bagels.
Brandi Braun, the city’s deputy innovation officer, sits in the Green Room, so called because of its vivid chlorophyll-colored wall. She explains that a lot of people are expected to move to the area by 2050—up to 600,000, based on data from a regional planning commission. Braun looks excited and afraid, like someone locking in the harness of a roller coaster. “We can’t build our way out of that,” she says. Car lanes, she means.
What to do about it? “It can be easy to immediately think of the tools—like the sensors, the data, the internet of things, the whiz-bang,” she says. And she does tick off those toys: ad hoc devices that can give older cars intelligent features such as collision-avoidance, or traffic signals networked to buses, and an operating system that collects anonymized data for researchers who will use it to keep the inevitable traffic flowing.
But more important to neighborhoods like Linden are Smart Mobility Hubs, every-mode gathering places where a person can grab a bike or a scooter or a bus or a ride-share or a pay-by-the-hour rental car. In the hub at St. Stephen’s, residents will be able to charge devices at USB ports while using free Wi-Fi. Or peruse job boards and community events at kiosks not unlike those interactive guides in fancy malls. They’ll be able to load cash onto transit cards—all without a bank account or data plan. An app will let users map out multi-leg trips using every service the city has to offer. So, if you want to ride a scooter to a bus and then walk to the pharmacy and ride-share to pick up your kid from school, the app will let you organize and pay for all of that, no credit card required. Six such hubs across Columbus will link Linden, specifically, to loci of education, jobs, and commerce.
It’s a start. But it’s not going to equalize areas of the city overnight—or ever, necessarily. Which is hard, when expectations are so high. “There is this perception that we’re going to have flying cars and light rail, and we won’t have traffic in four years,” Braun says. That’s not true, of course. But the goal is to help people who’ve been left behind in the past, whether Lindenites, the elderly, or those with cognitive disabilities.
In 36 other cities around the U.S. last fall, there was a multi-modal transit initiative that wasn’t aimed at disadvantaged populations and didn’t come courtesy of the government. It was offered by Lyft, the $15 billion ride-hailing company that also owns the nation’s largest bike-share operator, Motivate.
The program provided 1,900 participants across the United States and in Toronto with ride credits and passes for cars, scooters, and public transit…if the winners promised to not use their cars for a month. It didn’t change any infrastructure or shift policy; it was just a sweepstakes. But around 130,000 people signed up for the chance to solve their personal last-mile problems.
In a lot of ways, Denver’s Grace Orders was an ideal winner: She already had a Lyft account, so she wasn’t going to let her vouchers languish. And she was already a ride-share convert. Orders works at a health-tech startup downtown, in a co-working space a block from a 1.25-mile-long pedestrian mall, which has several nearby train stations and a free bus that stops every block. But she doesn’t live near a train stop, so every morning she took a Lyft Line—the kind you share with other riders—to avoid a nearly $30 parking fee if she drove to work.
During the free trial, she continued to do that—but instead of taking a Lyft home, she’d step aboard a scooter, ride it to a park near her house, then walk the rest of the way. She started batching her grocery and social trips so she didn’t have to call multiple cars. “It helped me really plan my day and think about what I was going to be doing with errands,” she says. “Also to be more efficient with trips, just more thoughtful about it.” It didn’t change her life much, and she’s probably not going to continue to spend $700 a month on Lyft services, but it did make her rethink her relationship to her vehicle—as in, maybe she shouldn’t own one at all. “Having a car is a cost that can be a little ridiculous,” she says. Maybe she could Lyft-scooter-walk all the time, and not pay for an automobile that often sits unused.
Carmakers can see that mental calculation happening and are trying to respond in ways that will keep them relevant if someday a 1-to-1 ratio between people and cars is no longer the American Dream. GM’s Maven program links car owners and some lessees to drivers who want to rent their wheels short-term. Volvo’s M will give subscribers on-demand access like that of Zipcar. Ford bought big into an autonomous-vehicle software company.
But perhaps a failed pilot program by Ford tells the real story: In 2016, the company launched a scheme that let three to six customers share the same lease. After three months, no one—no one!—had signed up.
In general, ride-sharing schemes don’t actually prompt many people to give up their cars. Data from a 2016 UC Berkeley study, supported by the DOT and car2go, a pay-by-the-hour rental service, suggested that just 2 to 5 percent of car2go members stop owning autos because of ride-sharing options, while 7 to 10 percent chose not to buy one at all. On top of that, companies like Lyft might actually make city driving worse: A July 2018 report by Schaller Consulting found that of U.S. city dwellers using “transportation network company” (TNC) cars, 60 percent would have walked, biked, or stayed home if they hadn’t been able to summon a ride, and 40 percent would have sparked up their own vehicle or taken a cab. “TNCs are used instead of personal autos mainly when parking is expensive or difficult to find and to avoid drinking and driving,” the report states. For every mile a Grace Orders didn’t drive, a TNC gigger drove 2.8 miles—meaning that TNC systems actually increase vehicle use by about 180 percent.
Ride-shares, then, do not represent an unalloyed good, and on their own are unlikely to help people navigate cities in new ways. But they and the bike and scooter and whatever-comes-next companies they buy up are going to be part of the first-mile/last-mile ecosystem. And so some cities are helping to make them work for people with lower incomes, as last-mile options. St. Petersburg, Florida, subsidizes Uber rides to and from transit stations. Meanwhile, Detroit and Austin, Texas, have autonomous shuttles. Columbus recently introduced such a service downtown, and expects to add one in Linden by year’s end. But there’s more to a city than its most crowded corridor.
In an office park about 10 miles from downtown Columbus (a 25-minute drive, a $20 ride-share, or a 1.25-hour bus trip), you’ll find Arc Industries North, which helps connect people with cognitive and physical disabilities to jobs. Inside, Jose, 48 , whose last name is withheld to protect his privacy, shows off a film he made about the internships he held this past summer. From the other side of the table where he sits, occupational-therapy student Olivia Vega smiles as pictures flash on his computer screen: Jose handing out maps to zoo-goers, Jose mugging next to a tiger or working with the city parks department. The images transition to slides of white text on blue background, explaining the work he did. What goes unmentioned is the difficulty Jose faced getting to and from those jobs.
That’s where Vega came in. Her program at Ohio State University partnered with Smart Columbus to tailor a navigation app for residents with cognitive disabilities. Last summer, Jose and the other interns began testing the app, called WayFinder, and offered suggestions to its developers.
WayFinder—made by AbleLink Technologies and available nationally—is like a customized Google Maps. It displays routes that caretakers and travel trainers preprogram in, following GPS waypoints along the way and enhanced by text, vibrating alerts, audio cues (“You’re halfway to work” and “This looks like your stop, but don’t be fooled”), and pictures of landmarks.
Jose finds WayFinder far better than conventional map apps: “What GPS does is get people lost,” he says. With this app, “you say, ‘WayFinder, show me the best way to get to’ a specific place.” Like the mall. “And it takes you directly to the mall.”
Before WayFinder, Jose stayed close to home—inside a small radius that included a Panera Bread, Walmart, and Half Price Books—all places he could reach on foot. Now he can go wherever the bus goes. He found out he likes antique shops, Tim Horton’s, and the Ohio-themed food truck downtown.
“I’ll definitely keep using it,” he says of the app. “Especially here in the city, or if I want to take a tour of a national park. I really want to see the Smithsonian.”
City residents with physical disabilities, like Nicole Williams from Linden, still face challenges. If her son misses the bus, there’s no reliable way for her to help him get to school. She can’t ride a scooter or a bike, or drive a car. Paratransit rides aren’t dependable. Waiting for an accessible ride-share takes much longer than a regular one, an issue at the heart of several lawsuits against Uber.
In the end, transportation that works for people who face impediments of any kind—whether they have a disability or they just don’t have a car—benefits everyone. When you fix the first and last miles of any journey, for anybody, the rest of that journey, and the destination, are more accessible, no matter who you are or where you want to go.