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1000 Words: Susan Shaheen on Shared Mobility Equity

By: Approved by Dr. Susan Shaheen, Edited by CALCOG on Apr 05, 2018
Susan Shaheen Speaks

Dr. Susan Shaheen is an adjunct professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a research engineer with the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at UC Berkeley.  She is a co-author of the Federal Highway Administration primer Travel Behavior: Shared Mobility and Transportation Equity.

Shared mobility—the shared use of a motor vehicle, bicycle, or other mode that allows users to obtain short-term access to transportation on an as-needed basis—can have implications on access and mobility for users in terms of transportation equity. A maxim often drawn from the sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King is that "our lives begin to end the day we become silent on things that matter." As our transportation industry faces disruptions from sharing, automated, and electric vehicles along with other Mobility on Demand (MOD) providers, we must remain vigilant to providing fair access to our evolving transportation systems.

Shared mobility has the promise of improving access to our jobs, healthcare, goods and services, and social connections. There is reason to be optimistic about the potential shared mobility services have to bridge equity gaps in a rapid, cost-efficient manner. It can improve mobility for those who are unable to access private vehicles and encourage more shared trips, potentially reducing household expenditures, vehicle miles traveled, and greenhouse gas emissions.  

But our diversity--geographic, economic, and social--creates challenges. Currently, shared mobility users tend to be younger, more educated, have higher incomes, and are less diverse than the general population. Older adults, low-income individuals, rural/suburban communities, and minority communities are less likely to use shared mobility. Some of this distribution is a result of reluctance of users and less market diversity but de facto "redlining" (lack of service in certain communities), limited internet, and lack of access to banking services also play a role.  

Shared mobility providers, advocacy groups, and researchers are continuously trying to address these barriers to ensure that shared mobility services improve social accessibility through community engagement, improved product design, and marketing. Recognizing social challenges, public agencies and service providers could shift from prescriptive outreach requirements to performance-based community engagement metrics that allow for flexibility in ensuring broad participation.  

I recently collaborated on a FHWA project to address these kind of transportation equity issues. We developed the STEPS framework. (Read: STEPS to Transportation Equity). STEPS stands for – Spatial – Temporal – Economic – Physiological – and Social. The table below summarizes the opportunities, challenges, and explores some policy options for each factor.


STEPS with the Shared Mobility Opportunities and Equity Challenges.  

Equity Barrier Type Defined Opportunities & Challenges Policy Options

Factors that compromise daily travel needs (e.g., excessively long distances between destinations, lack of public transit within walking distance)

  • OPPORTUNITIES: (1) Public transit operators & ridesourcing for first and last mile partnerships; (2) Microtransit for lower density areas
  • CHALLENGES: (1) Higher operating costs in lower-density exurban and rural settings; (2) Limited curb space for increasing variety of mobility services
  • Require operators to locate services in "gap" neighborhoods as a condition for operating in public rights-of-way
  • Build risk-sharing partnerships between providers and public agencies to locate vehicles in less profitable areas
Travel time barriers that inhibit a user from completing time-sensitive trips, such as arriving to work (e.g. public transit reliability issues, limited operating hours, traffic congestion)
  • OPPORTUNITIES: (1) Dynamic microtransit; (2) Late-night ride-sourcing & shuttle services; (3) Commuter carpooling services
  • CHALLENGES: (1) Wait-time and travel-time volatility on congested roadways:  (2) Unpredictable wait times due to supply fluctuations
  • Require self-service shared mobility (e.g.,carsharing) be available 24 hrs/day
  • Facilitate off-peak commute partnerships between employers and shared mobility operators for late-night workers
  • Expand high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane approach to surface streets for approved pooled services during peak period travel times
Direct costs (e.g., fares, tolls, vehicle ownership costs) and indirect costs (e.g., smartphone, Internet, credit card access) that create economic hardship or preclude users from completing basic travel
  • OPPORTUNITIES: (1) Shared mobility subsidies for low- income users; (2) Multiple payment options for shared mobility services: (3) Multi-modal hubs with Wi-Fi access

  • CHALLENGES: (1) Credit card payments; (2) High cost for longer distance and peak demand trips; (3) Maintaining affordability while providing livable wages 
  • Reduce fees when services clearly benefit low-income users
  • Subsidize access to shared mobility for qualifying users
  •  Offer alternative access modes ( telephone concierge, SMS text access, etc.) that do not require a smartphone
  • Switch payment to account-based systems that allow users to transfer public transit subsidies to other services
Physical and cognitive limitations that make using standard transportation modes difficult or impossible (e.g., infants, older adults, and disabled)
  • OPPORTUNITIES: (1) Older adult-focused shared mobility services; (2) Voice activated mobility app features

  • CHALLENGES: (1) Maintaining legacy technology access; (2) Ensuring adequate driver training
  • Define multiple tiers of accessible vehicles to expand services for users with special needs  
  • Wheelchair accessible
  • Assisted rides for users who can ride as passengers in standard vehicles but need assistance at either end of a trip (door-to-door)
  • Ambulatory services for users who can ride as passengers without assistance but may need other assistance (e.g., voice activated apps)

Social, cultural, safety, and language barriers that inhibit a user’s comfort with using transportation (e.g. neighborhood crime, poorly targeted marketing, lack of multi-language information)

  • OPPORTUNITIES: (1) Ridesourcing app interface that minimizes sociodemographic profiling; (2) Targeted outreach to low-income and minorities; (3) App information in user’s native language

  • CHALLENGES: (1) Attracting marginalized groups; (2) Driver prejudice against riders; (3) Providing security at un-manned vehicle stations
  • Shift from prescriptive outreach and engagement requirements to performance-based community engagement metrics that allow for flexibility in ensuring broad participation

  • Require ongoing evaluation and refinement of services until equity goals are achieved


This is just a few ways the STEPS framework can be applied to assess potential gaps and identify solutions for equity challenges impacting shared mobility. The growth of shared mobility services and options provides opportunities to expand transportation equity; meeting these challenges requires coordination among multiple stakeholders on a wide range of issues that cross silos and areas of expertise.

Perhaps the most immediate challenge is what defines equity when thinking about mobility.