Los Angeles to issue one-year dockless mobility permits

28th February 2019 Jonathan Andrews

Jonathan Andrews spoke to Seleta Reynolds, General Manager of Los Angeles’ Department of Transportation, on the sidelines of GSMA’s Mobile World Congress

The city has just closed applications for one-year dockless on-demand personal mobility permits, what were the reasons for the permits?

In the last couple of years, the City of Los Angeles witnessed an explosion of dockless, on-demand mobility products and services. In order to better understand the implications of this technology on the city and its citizens, the department is administering a one-year dockless on-demand personal mobility permit.

Applications closed on 15 February and we received 11. About seven or eight of those same companies had permission to operate on a conditional basis, so we’ve already seen what it’s going to look and feel like. They applied for permission to operate about 38,000 dockless devices. If they had maxed out their total number that they were allowed we could have got 160,000. The fact that they only applied for about 38,000 tells it is an emerging industry and has supply chain challenges. It is still trying to sort itself out around who the major actors are but it is a great opportunity for cities as we have a moment here where these companies that we directly regulate, they have to come to us and ask for permission. We can require that they apply with our mobility data specifications and start using that as a sandbox, so if we are able to play around with some of that city operating system idea with something that is low stakes like a scooter or bike then it starts us to get ready for what is coming next–autonomous vehicles, air taxis or drone delivery. Someone has to be the central nervous system for all of those different fleets as they move in and around the city and we as the city think this is the beginning for us to be able to do that.

Could you explain further the city’s mobility data specifications?

We published a year ago a set of open APIs on mobility data specifications for mobility as a service providers. We had been thinking over the last three to four years how the city is going to manage its digital infrastructure. Right now you have multiple companies that use apps in order to deliver goods and people, whether it’s Uber and Lyft or Amazon, or Bird and Lime etc.

There is a tremendous amount of investment in mobility in cities and for cities to be able to be the owner of the digital version of our city is really critical because without that we can’t manage it. If you have a Google maps or an Apple maps version of the City of Los Angeles, none of them are fully accurate because the city changes on a daily basis. We need to figure out how do we become the entity that manages that and how can we open a two way channel of communication so that if an Uber or Lyft wants to pick up or drop off a person on the curb, it pings the city and asks if that curb space is available and the city responds with a yes or no and with pricing information. I think it will need 5G, but in order for us to build out that code base, and to partner with other cities and develop something that works for everyone, we can’t wait for 5G, we have to start now.

Are they sharing that data?

As an emerging industry they are kind of all across the board. In San Francisco and West Los Angeles if you open up the Uber app, it will offer you a choice of an Uber or a Jump bike. In Sacramento they are moving more trips on their Jump bikes than on the Uber driver platform, so more people are choosing bike. Those kind of insights and trying to understand, if that is the case, then where do people want to ride and how can we make investments in the street to make it safer and more comfortable for people to ride. It is a virtuous circle, because if it is comfortable and safer then more people will ride, the more it feels like something everybody does and it just grows from there.

The closed panel session here at Mobile World Congress was about 5G in the city, can you tell us what was discussed?

GSMA and Boston Consulting Group did a study, soon to be released, where they identified some of the barriers to 5G deployment in cities. They pointed out that there is no example yet of deployment at scale and not enough smart city examples deployed at scale. A few reasons for this include public acceptance, and one was also about how cities and private companies haven’t yet dissolved some of the barriers between them. There is still this age-old public-private tension and we talked a lot about those things. Cities and private companies really haven’t internalised each others’ challenges to take them on as their own to solve. Cities need to think about how can we become investors in the deployment of the technology. Private companies need to understand that they are going to need to co-design solutions for cities. They can’t show up with something that’s already baked.

What’s your experience been like in rolling out 5G in Los Angeles?

Cities have a moment that we can take advantage of where there is an incredibly high level of competition to be first mover and to get products to market and so it is an opportunity for us to say, ‘Oh great we have a valuable asset in our infrastructure, how can we unlock value for the people we serve?’. In LA it is going really well with both companies [AT&T and Verizon]. But what the challenge is for both of those companies is that we are trying to do something new. And whenever you do something the first time, the first one to do it has to solve all the problems for everyone else that comes behind them, so it goes more slowly than everyone would probably like and it probably is more time consuming but in the end we are hopefully coming up with a repeatable process.

Los Angeles will host the 2028 Olympic Games, what are some transport initiatives you are looking at?

We have a lot of different projects and programmes and ideas. One is our electric vehicle car-sharing programme, which is a PPP. We have a company that is putting in the charging infrastructure and operating the car sharing service. As the city we are responsible for both making it streamlined and easy for them to put those chargers in and also to bring a community to the table. To have a citizens advisory group that is really instrumental in designing that whole programme so it works for people living in that neighbourhood. It has brought out some surprising use cases that we wouldn’t have come up with on our own.

We are experimenting with other forms of lighter on demand transit. We have a couple of micro transit pilots in downtown and on the west side of LA. You can put into your phone where you want to go and reserve a seat on a shuttle that is less expensive than an Uber or Lyft. It’s not quite door-to-door but it is less expensive for us to run than a 40-foot long, fixed route bus.

We are beginning to iterate and play with those ideas and at the same time we are starting to grow this code base which we think will eventually represent this ‘digital double’ of our infrastructure. If we are successful with the APIs we are using, then if you are a mobility as a service and you come to LA, as long as you comply with our mobility management specifications, then you can operate in the city of LA. Giving the private sector that predictability will really result in an explosion of innovation. I hope that in 10 years’ time LA is a place where getting behind the wheel of your personally owned vehicle is the place of last resort because you have so many other amazing ways of getting around.

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