On May 20, the long-awaited Metro Expo Line will begin service to Santa Monica. With its first riders, the trains will carry an unknown impact on transportation and mobility across greater Los Angeles. Santa Monica city leaders are optimistic that the Expo Line will attract visitors and residents to move into and around the city, complementing mobility options that include the Big Blue Bus and the new bike-share program. Yet recent reports suggest that transit ridership across Los Angeles County has generally decreased, even as new lines such as Expo have opened. And it is unclear whether increased ridership will improve commute times, a major source of frustration for a great many people.
What, then, are the benefits of improving transportation infrastructure? Instead of considering urban mobility in isolation, viewing it as a key component of community wellbeing may be an instructive way to assess the impact of Expo and other infrastructure efforts. Mobility — or lack of it — can impact several key dimensions of wellbeing, including residents' sense of place and satisfaction with their built environment. For instance, most Santa Monicans drive to work alone, which adds stress and eliminates opportunities for social connection that might come from carpooling or public transportation. Also, traffic congestion or unaffordable transportation options affect economic vitality and opportunity. In contrast, a comprehensive network of integrated transit could help support and attract businesses and employees.
As people and jobs increasingly migrate to urban centers, challenges and opportunities around urban mobility will increase accordingly. Anticipating these changes, the City of Santa Monica is looking to better understand the mobility patterns of its residents and visitors, and what opportunities and new solutions may result. This focus on transportation and how it impacts the lives of Santa Monicans is a natural extension of the Wellbeing Project, the City's ongoing initiative to improve resident quality of life and wellbeing.
Data is critical to such efforts. While local policy-making typically relies on administrative or survey data, municipalities are increasingly exploring alternate sources, such as social media. RAND has been working with the City of Santa Monica to identify how insight from nontraditional data can be used for wellbeing and civic policy-making. We used Twitter data to extract insight about Santa Monica residents' sense of community and social connectedness. Foursquare “check-ins” at places such as public parks and restaurants showed us when and where people gathered in shared spaces to socialize and make connections.
Measures of public sentiment and behaviors can help estimate wellbeing and political will, and track the impact of policy initiatives. Similarly, data about mobility preferences — transit use, walking vs. driving — could be used to help make Santa Monica a more attractive proposition for residents, visitors, and employers.
Extending these wellbeing efforts, RAND and the City of Santa Monica are exploring how alternate sources of mobility data (e.g., from mapping or ride-sharing services) can help inform Santa Monica policies and projects to improve mobility, and the associated community and economic opportunities. Traffic pattern data — aggregated and anonymized — should help address questions of how technology can be used to solve urban mobility challenges. These questions include, for instance, how Santa Monica residents use the many available mobility options (e.g., walk, bike, public transit, car) to access the city and surrounding regions, and what barriers/opportunities impact this usage. A particularly timely question is whether the opening of the Metro Expo Line is used more by Santa Monica residents to connect to the surrounding region (outbound usage), or as a resource for bringing visitors to the city (inbound usage).
The use of such urban mobility data is gaining traction, but largely missing from wellbeing measurement. For instance, city commuter surveys are common, revealing times and modes of transportation when commuting to work, but do not show how Santa Monica residents travel in the rest of their lives. Linking how these mobility measures influence community wellbeing could help demonstrate the value of infrastructure investments.
Santa Monica city leaders have been at the forefront of using wellbeing information to improve the lives of city residents. With a clearer picture of mobility patterns, Santa Monica could improve existing plans. For instance, “first/last mile” information — that is, getting people from transit stops to their final destination — would identify and prioritize pedestrian or bike routes or bus service upgrades that tighten transit connections. Insight into locations and distribution of walking/biking/transit trips to and from Santa Monica would support incentives and programs to encourage active transportation. Vehicle flow data would allow signal timing adjustments in recurring traffic bottlenecks, suggest where traffic calming would reduce unsafe traffic speeds, or identify frequently-abused residential streets for possible diversion methods. Or, as the mayor of Beverly Hills proposed, a municipal fleet of self-driving cars could shuttle people to and from transit stops.
Improving our understanding of urban mobility — including new transit options that, like Expo, expand regional access — should help urban planners and leaders measure the potential links to community wellbeing.
Douglas Yeung is a social psychologist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a member of the Pardee RAND Graduate School faculty.
This commentary originally appeared on Santa Monica Daily Press on May 6, 2016. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.