8 key take-aways from Rail-Volution

September 24, 2019

Rail-Volution is an annual gathering of individuals who are passionate about building livable communities with transit.  For the first time in it’s 25 year history, Rail-Volution was held outside of the USA in Vancouver, BC. The city welcomed over 1,300 people from September 8th-11th for three action packed days of talks, discussions and mobile workshops. With the financial assistance from the conference’s scholarship program, our Bike to Work Week Manager, Rowena Farr, was able to attend on behalf of HUB Cycling. Here’s eight key things that she learnt during the conference:.


Mobility is a fundamental human right 

As one of the keynote speakers, Jay Pitter, pointed out, public transit is not about moving people from, “point a to point b” but is instead intrinsically “tethered to freedom”. This feeling was echoed in TransLink’s talk about their fare review consultation where they identified “mobility as a basic need.'' Building effective transit is inexplicably linked to associated issues such as housing and jobs as well as social mobility. The more options people have when it comes to transit, the more choices they will have in other areas of their life. 

Cities are being more intentional in the way they are deploying micro-model transport 

The private sector has set an expectation over the past few years to customers which has ‘disrupted’ the public sector when it comes to public transit. This has been especially the case within the micro-mobility sector (e.g electric bike share and scooter schemes). Microbility often has relatively ‘ad hoc’ infrastructure which could be used to its advantage at first in order to trial and be ‘agile’ with roll outs. However, our cities need to be more intentional at the RFP/quote stage when initially choosing service providers to ensure that both parties are going to benefit. Ensuring micro mobility is equitable via affordable rates, for example, is key. 

User experience is key, as is public perception 

There is a public perception crises when it comes to transit in a lot of cities in North America. Planners really need to use and experience the services they are looking to improve in order to identify what exactly it is about existing services that are problematic. How can we trial this approach? Go for a walk around your neighbourhood and envision an environment that you would prefer to walk/cycle/transit in. There is also a huge potential to learn about how to pitch the benefits of transport from private companies who are coming in and implementing a user-experience focussed approach.

‘Middle Modalism’ is growing 

Middle Modalism (for example, Cargo Bikes) is growing in North American cities and we need to be prepared to adapt. One speaker commented how NACTO is a little behind on this and how we need to be prepared to move away from single use (e.g one person on a bike) to multi-use (e.g cargo bikes and carrying more than one person) in our bike lanes. There is a huge opportunity here for citing the benefits of protected bike lanes. As our bike lanes move from single to multiple-person use space (e.g cargo bikes with family members on the back) how can infrastructure keep up? 

Public and private partnerships are key 

Public and private partnerships are key when it comes to making technology and transit accessible. An increasing number of micro-mobility and ride-hailing operators offer community discounts, but they need to work with local partners in order to implement, otherwise, communities won’t experience the benefit. Bridging this gap is key. 

Pilots are great but real change takes time

Transit pilot programs, such as introducing a bike share scheme to a community, can be great in positioning a change but often these pilots are only funded and planned to last a year despite the fact that it often takes generations to learn and fully implement these changes. Give it time. For new transit options, there often needs to be an onboarding process and public educational piece. Innovation also doesn’t necessarily need to be a mode; it could just be a new communication program about an existing transit option. 

We need sustainable micro mobility options 

One speaker mentioned how lots of the technology behind micro-mobile options, such as electric scooters, sadly aren’t built to last more than 2-3 months. This came as quite a shock to me as they are often perceived as ‘rechargeable’ and ‘electric’ . Similarly, ride-hailing services could arguably be seen as unsustainable if they are taking a single driver and passenger. Instead scooters could be built to last and lifts could be shared. Lyft was cited as offering shared journeys to local transit stops in areas that are underserved by public transit, for example in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

City newcomers need to be educated on local transit

Lots of North American cities have increasingly transient populations who will need to be educated on transit options. The Mountain West was mentioned as a location in one talk as a popular location for people to move to, but as somewhere where newcomers tend to shy away from using transit. New city dwellers need to be educated from the offset on the transit options available to them beyond immediately purchasing a car when moving somewhere new. 

We need to think about future service users 

We need to stop thinking about expanding services not just for those who are already served but for future service users. The more options customers have to link into transit networks, the more likely they are able to utilize transit. One of the most exciting opportunities within this is how people connect up the ‘first and last mile’ of their journeys: a role which cycling can play an important part in via bike shares at transit stations for example. 

Thanks for bringing such an awe inspiring conference to Vancouver, Rail-Volution! I’m already looking forward to seeing how challenges identified play out and the role which cycling can help play in addressing some of these.