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Fixing the first and last mile problem

Category: Wider impact
Published: 12/08/2016

Nebraska’s nMotion is so serious about transforming the way it moves that it has put together a 25-year strategic plan to modernise its transport network. It’s as comprehensive as they get, which is why, as part of its efforts to facilitate a seamless and convenient travel experience, it understands that the first and last mile problem needs to be considered. That’s multimodal in its truest sense.

Introducing the first and last mile

This fundamental part of a commute requires a brief explanation. It represents the points in a journey that takes individuals to and from mass-transportation centres. So, for example, this could be the journey you make from your home to a train station and then from the train station to your place of work. And back again.

It’s often just too far to walk to a mass-transit station

As a one-off, this is a tolerable experience, but on a regular basis, it can be hard going. Unfortunately, for many commuters, this twice a day (at a minimum) commute is unavoidable. We have to move.

It’s now such a problem that it has been described as the “first and last mile problem”. It’s a fairly modern phenomenon too, having emerged over the past half century as cities have grown and grown. As Elizabeth Deakin, professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley, explained to the BBC in 2012, nowadays “it’s often just too far to walk to a mass-transit station”.

An important part of the multimodal future

If we’re truly going to embrace fluid, multimodal mobility, the first and last mile problem has to be addressed. Cities need to be more people-focused, positive, green and empowering. Coming up with short distance travel solutions will play a big part in making this happen.

Any innovation in this area, however, must satisfy three particular criteria, as outlined by nMotion. This includes distance (from start point to transit hub to end point); modal integration (between all stages of a journey); and network quality (again, from start point to transit hub to end point). Here are a few ways in which improvements can be made.

Bikes: Resurgence of a classic

first and last mile problem solved with bikes

Cycling has returned with a bang. And, all over the world, cities have responded by developing the infrastructure needed for cyclists to get around safely, including investing in the bikes themselves (think the Vélib’ in Paris, Santander Cycles in London, Biketown in Portland).

Beyond cities, organisations are getting in on the act. Take Heathrow Airport. In May, it appointed its first airport cycle officer – the first at any airport. The goal is to get more of its staff cycling to and from work.

“[It] is uniquely placed to deliver changes to the cycling experience in the area,” explained Sustrans, the airport’s partner in this scheme. “Of its 76,000 employees, as many as 16,500 live within 5km of the airport, a distance that could easily be cycled.”

Compact electric rides: A future staple

first and last mile problem

Certain technologies, while clearly useful, struggle to take off because they are anachronistic. Electric kick scooters are a good example of this. Earlier this year, they were described by Wired as being useful but uncool. They may well be handy, portable and effective, but they still sit uncomfortably in our collective mindset. We’re just not ready for them.

Nevertheless, electric kick scooters are a viable solution to the first and last mile problem, as are a host of other alternatives increasingly known as personal electric mobility devices (PMEDs). This includes, among other things, motorised skateboards, segways and airwheels (also known as electric unicycles).

These modes of transport cut journey times and add a sense of dynamism to the commute

These modes of transport cut journey times, add a sense of dynamism to the commute and, over the long-term, demonstrate real value for money. If indeed they do gain popularity, there will need to be investment in infrastructure that supports this form of transport. For example, last year in the UK, the Crown Prosecution Service said that self-balancing scooters “are illegal to ride in public” – both on the road and on a footpath. These kinds of policies are not favourable to seamless movement.

Smartphones: Endless possibilities

first and last mile problem

You may be curious as to how smartphones can offer solutions to the opening and concluding stages of a trip, as, after all, they don’t immediately come across as being particularly relevant. However, they are the gateway to better travel.

This is thanks to the apps your device is capable of hosting, all of which offer services and benefits that belie their weight in megabytes and gigabytes. For example, with a swipe and couple of taps, you can summon a share ride straight to your door, figure out where the nearest bike-share docking station is, or arrange a guaranteed parking space for your car a mile out from your destination (and enjoy being chauffeured to and from this endpoint).

More and more, we’re going to be relying on our smartphones to help us make a decision – on any given day – about how we’re going to respond to the first and last mile problem. In fact, the range of choice afforded by technology will make it less of a burden and instead transform it into something we look forward to.

Start well, finish well

We’re only beginning to scrape at the surface of the wider mobility revolution but there is already much to be positive about. And while we’re right in focusing on the core aspect of the journey – which is usually the longest part of your commute – we mustn’t overlook the parts of a trip that lead in and out of it. They can make or break your experience of getting around. Any value you add to the first and last mile can be a game changer.