Forget Public-Private Partnerships. Share data and transport innovation will follow

Uber. Image: Getty.

“To help close the gap between public transit and your doorstep, we’re teaming up with Amtrak,” announced Lyft, Uber’s largest competitor, earlier this month. The partnership will allow Americans to ditch their cars and let the sharing economy deliver them seamlessly to and from the train station. Compelling, right?

For urban policymakers, maybe not.

Public-private partnerships (we can debate whether Amtrak is public or private later, rail nerds) seek to solve the first/last mile problem, and they do it very well. Multi-modal transport helps users overcome the friction of reaching a public transport hub, tempting many out of their cars.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) in Florida was amongst the first to launch such a scheme, named DirectConnect. The Authority pays up to $5 towards journeys made with Uber, a local taxi service, or a wheelchair-accessible taxi firm within designated zones, encompassing poorly served residential areas and starting or finishing at DirectConnect stops, mostly at the ends of bus lines. The scheme increases passenger numbers on primary bus services at a fraction of the cost of maintaining poorly performing branch lines, freeing up public resources to be deployed more efficiently elsewhere.

Schemes like this mean fewer cars and so less air pollution, more road space, lower demand for parking space, and lower atmospheric carbon emissions. What’s not to like?

Well for one thing, there’s little to suggest that this sort of multi-modal travel requires formal partnership: 25 per cent of Lyft’s journeys in Chicago are to a public transport node. Likewise, 40 per cent of Uber’s journeys in London start or end within 200 metres of an underground stop.

Data released by the firm last year after the opening of London’s Night Tube illustrated the dominance of these multi-modal journeys even more clearly. The number of journeys to or from an underground station during Night Tube hours has risen by 22 per cent since the service began. What’s more, pick-ups in Central London have fallen, while pick-ups at stations beyond the centre have risen by up to 300 per cent and 63 per cent on average. Clearly, consumers are well ahead of Lyft and Amtrak.

Click to expand. Image: Uber.

All this suggests that formal public-private partnerships may be unnecessary: if consumers can organise their own multi-modal transit, what need is there for expensive service integrations?

And by providing high quality real time transit data, metropolitan governments have reduced the need to partner with private companies to improve urban transportation. Applications such as CityMapper in the United Kingdom and Transit in the United States depend on free public-sector data showing, for example, when the next bus is due. Given access to open data, companies like these can give people the information they need to link multiple modes of transit.

Coupling its own data on urban transit with that made available by the private sector, CityMapper has gone so far as to provide its own ‘public’ transport service, or ‘social hyper-local multi-passenger pooled vehicle’, as the company calls it. The Night Rider, a 9pm to 5am bus route running through the heart of East London, from Aldgate to Highbury and Islington underground stations via Shoreditch and Dalston, will service an area neglected by public transport at night, a boost to the local economy along the way.

Image: CityMapper.

So what need is there for the public sector to partner with private companies, in an age of open metropolitan data? Principally, to ensure that no one is left behind.

Services like Uber require users to own a smartphone and have the ability to operate it, to have a bank account and to be comfortable making payments via an app, to be able bodied (very few ridesharing vehicles are accessible, leading to court cases across the pond), and, of course, to have the money to pay for what is ultimately a taxi, however cheap. Schemes such as DirectConnect allow the public sector to ensure that multimodal transport is accessible to the poor, the disabled, and those uncomfortable with smartphones by uniting public transport with accessible private vehicles that can be ordered by telephone and paid for with cash.

Partnerships like that between Uber and Transit, within the private sector but underpinned by open source public sector data, help us to navigate the multimodal city more efficiently than ever before. Public-private partnerships, on the other hand, are useful only in that they guarantee service accessibility – an aim that could perhaps be achieved by other means.

Alfie Shaw tweets as @shaw_alfie.


 

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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