Americans in Transit: Unlocking the power of the city’s mobility ecosystem

The Future of Cities Following the release of our handbook for city problem solvers with the Boston Consulting Group and the Center for Urban Innovation at The Aspen Institute, we're continuing our quest to understand what it means to innovate with intention to achieve the best possible outcomes for city residents.

We talked to dozens of city leaders from across the U.S. to develop our handbook for city problem solvers, The Future of U.S. Cities, and learned the many ways that cities are innovating with intention. Building on those learnings, we’ve become increasingly interested in mobility – the ready access to cost-effective, convenient transportation options and the power it may have to transform life in cities. This series looks at the challenges and indeed opportunities for transportation systems in cities, and how many are putting their residents at the heart of mobility solutions.

“You need to make sure you’re not just driving technology to problems that don’t exist. We need to make sure we are tackling the most important problems that residents have.” Mark de La Vergne, Chief of Mobility Innovation, City of Detroit, MI

We’ve come to the end of this three-part series on Americans in Transit, where so far we’ve heard from city governments who are creatively engaging residents to shed light on new problems in their transportation systems and shown how residents’ voices are used to create bold, mobility visions that city actors can rally around. We now turn to how city governments are sharing power creating a culture of innovation that enables residents, the private sector, and community organizations to work together to achieve their vision. 

Before we dive into this final step, I want to underscore the importance of the first two. There is a tendency to overlook them and jump right into solution mode once you hear about a problem. I encourage you to resist this urge. 

If you have not taken the time to seek out the perspective of those most impacted by the problem, you run the twin risks of misunderstanding the root causes and moving forward with an idea that may not have public support. To create the conditions for effective ideas to emerge and flourish, it is critical that city governments intentionally involve residents from the very beginning. 

Bolstered by a broad reservoir of support and equipped with a rallying vision, city governments can be seen as more legitimate changemakers. In the transportation sector, which is heavily influenced by a broad ecosystem of actors, city governments must play a central role in driving technology and innovation towards the mobility challenges that matter most to residents. 

With the significant role mobility plays in inequality and ecological change, however, it is important to acknowledge that city governments cannot tackle this complex challenge by themselves. We’ve seen that city governments across North America are starting to serve as convenors and steerers, unlocking the power of the mobility ecosystem the group of actors who have high levels of influence over mobility challenges and who are highly impacted by these challenges in a way that serves three main objectives:

  1. Leveraging diverse yet complementary capabilities within the city; 
  2. Creating conditions where anyone can be a changemaker; and
  3. Building a movement towards a common goal.

Cleveland, Ohio, for example, partnered with the social sector and the community to help achieve their mobility goals. In partnership with the Cleveland Climate Action Fund, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, and ioby – local organizations that maintain strong relationships with the community – the city hosted 12 workshops in 12 different low-income neighborhoods. Through the workshops, they encouraged over 300 residents to bring forward their ideas for climate action, including sustainable mobility, and provided funding to the most promising projects

One idea came from a young student, who launched and led a project that established a bike library for their school. Another resident-led project is Open Streets Cleveland, a day in the summer where streets are closed to cars and opened up to cyclists, walkers and even dancers. By partnering with organizations with established community ties, the city provides residents agency, and even funding, to help shape a more sustainable, inclusive future.  

Another city that serves as an example is Detroit, Michigan who formed a multi-sectoral partnership to tackle mobility challenges in their city. The Detroit Mobility Initiative, a public-private initiative spearheaded by the Boston Consulting Group, demonstrates how a city can create enabling conditions that empower a diverse group of community stakeholders to innovate with intention. Grounded in the problem that “mobility can limit residents’ access to jobs, health care, education, and civic activities”, the initiative brings together partners that “bring specific and complementary expertise covering the full mobility ecosystem to the table.” 

Partners include New Economy Initiative (NEI) a community foundation initiative that focuses on inclusive entrepreneurship, General Motors the second largest local employer, and the city’s Office of Mobility Innovation a department launched to add new types of mobility services and technologies to the city. While companies like General Motors bring powerful technological capabilities, NEI a group that seeks to represent all residents also has an important seat at the table. Early evidence suggests that the approach has proven to have a positive impact: the group implemented six pilot programs to launch in a six-month period, while setting a public-private partnership model they have actively encouraged others to replicate across the world.

A final example comes from Vancouver, Canada who I featured in my last post for their ambitious vision that prioritized residents and the environment. Dale Bracewell, Vancouver’s Transportation Planning Manager, explained that to achieve that vision, the city moved away from traditional procurement practices and towards a “call for innovation”, where private sector partners are invited to pitch how they can drive public good. 

Their people-first vision steers private sector partners but also allows for flexibility and adaptability, recognizing how rapidly their mobility landscape changes. The city intends to continue creating a “new, adaptable environment shared with private companies,” where everyone can play a role in achieving their bold sustainable mobility and safety vision.

These city governments understand that to change a system as complex as mobility, power must be shared among those who are most knowledgeable about specific challenges in their community. Shifting to a mindset that anyone in the community can drive change not just those at the top opens up the doors for more ideas to emerge and momentum to build. This momentum is necessary given the need for bold action to tackle challenges head on.

Proactively listening to residents, setting bold missions informed by what they have heard, and unlocking the power of the ecosystem are just a few of the ways that city governments are stepping up to drive mission-aligned mobility. We want to hear from you to uncover more! Tell us what you thought about the series and any ideas it may have sparked.

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