July 18, 2019

This FUSE-produced story was originally published on Next City.

Fifteen years ago, hailing a ride meant flagging or calling a taxi. Predicting when a bus would arrive was anyone’s guess. And renting a bike required a trip to the local bike shop.

Today, it’s a wildly different scenario. More than one third of American adults and more than half of young adults have used a ride-hailing service such as Uber or Lyft; transit apps track public transportation vehicles in real-time to alert users; and more than 84 million shared bike and scooter trips were taken in 2018.

Although tech advances are giving people more options to move around than ever before, vulnerable residents, many of whom already face mobility barriers, are becoming further marginalized. People with low or no income, for instance, are finding it difficult to access services that require a smartphone and bank account. Transportation infrastructure also often fails to account for the needs of seniors and people with disabilities.

  • Partner with relevant civic agencies and community organizations to identify key audiences.
  • Meet with local businesses, community organizations, and residents of different cultures, languages, and abilities to learn about their needs.
  • Prioritize equity and inclusion when setting goals and requesting contracts for public-private partnerships.

Like other cities across the country, Minneapolis knows it has to address the impact of fast-changing mobility tech. Ride hailing, shared scooter and bike services, transportation apps — these all are available in the city. And as its population continues to grow — since 2010, an estimated 46,804 people have moved to Minneapolis, bringing the population to more than 429,000 — the city is working to address its most pressing community needs.

To avoid becoming a city filled with congestion and gridlock, the Minneapolis Department of Public Works, led by Robin Hutcheson, director, is developing a 10-year Transportation Action Plan, which is connected to the broader Minneapolis 2040. “Transportation has become a field of exponential technological change. To resist the reactionary mode that tends to come with rapid change, Minneapolis has to first define what is most important to us as a city, and then find the matching approaches in technology to help us meet those goals,” Hutcheson said.

To help the city set its path, Hutcheson brought on FUSE executive fellow Danielle Elkins, who has worked with local governments on infrastructure issues for more than a decade, to focus on how to make advanced mobility technology work for all Minneapolis residents. “Cities must be thoughtful about how they prepare to adopt new transportation technologies — anything connected, autonomous, shared, or electric,” Elkins said. “For the longest time, we’ve prioritized moving cars over moving people. And we’ve seen the disparate outcomes of prioritizing cars within the city in terms of emissions, traffic crashes, and pedestrian fatalities, all of which tend to be worse in lower income neighborhoods.”

Every morning, Vernon Smith gets out of bed at the Our Saviour’s Housing shelter and heads to the Minneapolis Central Library. The shelter closes at 8 a.m., and the library opens at 9 a.m., giving Smith an hour to make the 20-minute bus ride into downtown Minneapolis. Once the library officially opens, he gets in line at the front desk for a day pass. If he’s lucky, he’ll secure a spot on one of the couches and get a few more minutes of rest. “People walk the floors all night,” Smith said of the shelter, where he has been staying for the last three months. “I can’t rest.” 

On one of these trips to the library, Smith met FUSE fellow Danielle Elkins and her colleague Alexander Kado. Elkins is working with the Department of Public Works to develop a 10-year Transportation Action Plan for Minneapolis that lays the foundation for new mobility technologies — ride hailing, automated vehicles, and other concepts that are reshaping transportation now and in the years to come. 

Elkins and Kado were at the library to solicit community feedback for the plan. Smith sat down at the table, drawn by the hot coffee and free breakfast on offer, and they started to chat. “We were talking about how hard it is for him to get around, and what things he would like to see,” Elkins recalled. “He explained every barrier that he encounters.” 

Smith has been homeless for more than three years. He uses a walker, which makes it hard for him to get around on public transit. His health is poor, so he has to travel frequently for medical appointments. He is currently unemployed and completely unbanked — in his wallet was a debit card that expired in 1999. He has some cash and a smart phone that he received through Lifeline, a government program that provides discounted phone services to low-income subscribers. But his phone was low on battery, so they helped him find an outlet to charge it. 

At one point, Smith asked if Elkins and Kado could download the ride-hailing apps Uber and Lyft to his phone and show him how to use them. But they couldn’t set up the accounts, because Smith didn’t have a credit card. He had a reloadable transit card to ride the bus, but he didn’t know how to add money to it. 

Kado arranged for them to meet Smith again a few months later to help him navigate some of these hurdles. They went together to a local Walgreens and bought an Uber gift card, a temporary fix to his desire to participate in ride hailing. They also purchased a Visa MyVanilla Pre-Paid card, which proved to have more associated challenges than expected. Elkins had researched the best card options in advance, and all have monthly, transactional, and reloading fees. And if the card drops below $25 in value, the Uber and Lyft apps will no longer count it as a viable payment option.

Their next stop was the Metro Transit Store to register Smith’s transit Go-To card and sign him up for the Transit Assistance Program, which would give him access to $1 discounted fares. After the difficulties with the Visa card, the ease of this experience excited all three. They also visited the nearest light rail station, where Elkins helped Smith learn how to add cash to his reloadable transit card. 

Spending the day with Smith gave Elkins and Kado a crucial window into the challenges that many Minneapolis residents face. It also crystalized the need for more education and awareness around how to access advanced mobility services, especially in underserved communities. Elkins is now exploring how to better connect the Metro Transit TAP team to shelter and library case workers who are already serving as resources for people in need of support. The city also plans to work with its shared mobility providers and Metro Transit to explore other relationships and pilots for financial mobility programs. 

“Spending time with Vernon really opened my eyes to how incredibly difficult it can be for him to just get around town,” Kado said. “Every single transportation trip he takes is filled with countless physical, financial, and technology related challenges. I have a great deal of respect for Vernon and his ability to navigate these never-ending challenges with such optimism, patience, and humility.” 

The experience also underscored the many, often overlapping barriers that people face — poverty, homelessness, lack of access to formal financial channels, physical challenges, mental illness, justice involvement, and more. Enhancing mobility for these residents demands cross-cutting solutions, strong interagency collaboration, and public-private partnerships that put a premium on equity. It also means letting go of basic assumptions, such as equal access to banking.

“Vernon is a really good example of someone who faces so many unnecessary challenges every day,” Elkins said. “So the key questions for us to answer are: What barriers can we remove, what connections across agencies can we make, and what data might help us find a solution, so that at the end of the day we’ve improved his quality of life?”

Minneapolis is working to build a modern transportation system that puts people — from all walks of life — at the center. To help meet this goal, Elkins has been exploring how to remove barriers that prevent the city from achieving more equitable outcomes.

Seeking Diverse Voices

To hear directly from residents, businesses, and community organizations, Minneapolis hosted eight community workshops. For a diverse range of perspectives, the city connected with communities of different cultures, languages, and abilities, hosting small group discussions on transportation topics. The Department of Public Works collaborated with the city’s Neighborhood and Community Relations Department and partner agencies to identify key audiences and to prioritize engagement with groups that have been historically underrepresented in transportation decision-making processes, specifically communities of color, including the city’s large East Asian, Somali, and indigenous populations. The city also issued a call to community-based organizations, individuals, and artists for engagement services designed to broaden community input. 

Before you think about technology and innovation, you need to know and understand what your communities’ priorities are and what you value. Then you can create the policies, the systems, the infrastructure, the ordinances — whatever is needed — to get the outcomes your community wants. — Danielle Elkins, Minneapolis FUSE fellow

At one community workshop, Elkins and her colleague Alexander Kado met Vernon Smith, a man who had become homeless after the factory he worked at was moved to a suburb of Minneapolis and he could no longer get there. To better understand his transportation challenges, the pair spent a day with Smith (see sidebar, “A Day in the Life”), which led to some important insights. “Everything came back to one single thing,” Elkins said. “If you don’t have a credit card or a bank account, everything is a million times harder.” 

According to an FDIC report, 1.5 percent of households in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan area were “unbanked” — did not have an account with a bank or similar financial institution — in 2017. After spending a day with Smith, Elkins and Kado realized that financial inclusion must also be addressed when considering transportation challenges. One solution already being implemented: The city’s bike share provider Nice Ride is partnering with the nonprofit Prepare + Prosper to provide a low-income rate and the ability to access bikes to those who are unbanked. 

In trying to understand the needs of underserved Minneapolis residents, FUSE fellow Danielle Elkins (left) spent the day with Vernon Smith, who is currently homeless, and helped him with various transportation issues.

Thomas Fisher, director of the University of Minnesota’s Design Center and whose research includes urban design, believes this kind of bottom-up approach to the changing mobility landscape is essential. “The sharing economy in some ways represents a questioning of top-down expertise, which often leads to solutions that are siloed and abstract,” Fisher said. “When you start from the perspective of people and the difficulties they’re actually facing, you come up with very different answers.” 

Elkins and Fisher are on the steering committee for a grant that Hennepin County, which encompasses Minneapolis, is seeking in partnership with the University of Minnesota. Under the grant proposal, the research team would link the data systems of several city, county, and state agencies — transportation, public works, human services, public health, to name a few — in order to break down the silos that limit interagency collaboration. 

“Transportation people don’t necessarily talk to people in human services who are trying to find shelter for individuals who are homeless,” Fisher said. “But our train system is basically becoming a homeless shelter after 2 a.m. A lot of people sleep on the trains. So, one of the things we’re starting to wonder is, why don’t we just be honest about that and provide sleeping accommodations on the trains for people who have no place else to go. Instead of building very expensive homeless shelters, it could actually be a lot cheaper to just put some sleeping cars in the transit system.” 

The project would be one of the first to explore what a modern transportation system would look like if it were designed to meet a range of community needs beyond mobility, especially for the most vulnerable. Fisher envisions a future in which cars and buses will double as meeting rooms, food shelves, even mobile obstetric units. 

Alexander Kado (left), who works for the City of Minneapolis, walking with Vernon Smith.

“We’re starting to see a lot of the things that now happen in buildings starting to move into vehicles,” Fisher said. “A lot of this is looking at existing assets and how to repurpose them based on what people actually need, rather than thinking that every problem has to have a discrete solution. Frequently, everything you need is right in front of you if you simply think about it and use it in new ways.” 

To explore more ideas and coordinate local and regional efforts around advanced mobility, Elkins is partnering with other regional stakeholders to host a series of workshops. One will cover data sharing — its benefits, as well as how to implement data sharing across divergent networks. Another addresses the possibility of mobility hubs, which are physical locations that provide access to multiple modes of transportation — trains, buses, and shared rides, bikes, and scooters. Hubs could also provide related resources, such as information kiosks, charging stations, and maps. A third workshop will focus on curb management, because an increase in shared rides, last mile delivery, and drop offs is already having an enormous impact on how the curb is used. 

Incentivizing Equity

Minneapolis is also making equity and inclusion a priority in setting goals with public-private partnerships. When selecting its roster of electric scooter suppliers, for example, the city evaluated each company on its commitment to equity, which was a requirement in order to bid. 

The city also created incentives for these businesses to be inclusive. Typically, with a capped number of scooters allowed in a city, most suppliers seek to maximize the number of scooters in the densest areas of the city, with limited or no focus on low-income neighborhoods. To address this disparity, Minneapolis established minimum daily distribution requirements for low-income, nonwhite majority neighborhoods and a maximum on the number of scooters that can be distributed in downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. 

To support this broader distribution, the city is also working with the scooter companies to engage with underserved neighborhoods about the companies’ low-income options and options that don’t require a smart phone for access. The city has also established evaluation milestones for the pilot that will be used to determine whether to raise the number of scooters allowed. 

When private companies depend on access to public spaces, cities have significant leverage to develop incentives that reduce mobility barriers. But cities need to lay the foundation. “It’s not one size fits all,” Elkins said. “Every community is different. Before you can even really think about the technology and innovation, you need to know and understand what your communities’ priorities are and what you value. Then you can create the policies, the systems, the infrastructure, the ordinances — whatever is needed — to get the outcomes your community wants. Unless you’ve thought that through, I would argue you’re probably not ready to start implementing new mobility solutions.”

Another key challenge for cities such as Minneapolis is balancing short-term priorities — fixing potholes, adding bike lanes, removing snow — with long term ones, such as supporting 5G cellular network capabilities and electric vehicle charging infrastructure. “All of this is changing so quickly,” Elkins said. “Convincing people to think 10, 20 years ahead when the day-to-day transportation needs are so important is very hard. But we need to be doing both so that we can guarantee the outcomes that benefit our residents the most.” 

One solution? Build infrastructure that is flexible and adaptable to anticipated changes, Fisher said, so that it can eventually be repurposed for something else. He cites the example of multi-level parking garages. “There should be no more parking garages with sloped floors, because those parking garages in, say, 15 years, may need to become light industrial buildings or affordable housing,” he said. “By making certain decisions now, cities like Minneapolis can create a lot more opportunities for the future.”


Rikha Sharma Rani is a Bay-area based writer and journalist. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, CityLab, Politico Magazine, and more.

[Photo credit: Joe D.]