Friday, June 19, 2009

Drive Train Technology vs. New Mobility

- Chris Bradshaw, Ottawa, Canada

The real efficiency in transportation will come from social innovations, or should I say, return to social practices. As a former carshare provider, I consider sharing to be mankind's oldest technology. "Technology?" Yes, because it takes some invention to get it to work so that it is sustainable -- so that it doesn't self-destruct.

When sharing occurs on a small scale -- within the family or between neighbours and friends -- it needs little technology other than people being kind and attentive to a small number of others. Simple individual memory keeps track of favour and payback. Many cars are shared on this informal scale.

When it occurs at a larger scale, more formality is necessary. And there is a role for electronic/communications technology and formality of roles. Who owns the cars? Who makes sure they are roadworthy? Who makes sure each user pays his rightful share of the common costs? Who decides whether rules on access are being followed.

More complicated? Yes, but also more flexible and more powerfully efficient. The informal method can only handle maybe three drivers, and what happens when two of them want the vehicle for the same time slot?

Formal sharing can handle the 20-60 users that currently is the rule, and that is for a boutique market that hasn't yet led to land-use reforms that will squeeze out distance for all people's trips. It is also before we get advanced carsharing in which several members going the same way simultaneously can share (trans-seat,' see next), and at the destination, the car is released for another route and driver, rather than sitting idle, thanks to each leg of the trip being separately reserved.

Our suburbs and our competitive consumption patterns ("I have more/better 'stuff' that you.") have done a great deal to make sharing a dirty word.

People have been coached by champions of consumer growth to protect their privacy, no matter how lonely that makes them. And how expensive it is to acquire so much stuff, most of which is not the right model for the buyer, is under-utilized, and is ineptly maintained? People drive cars alone not just because they want fast, no -wait transportation; they also are buying privacy (and if many other people are seeking the same on the same section of road at the same time, the no-wait criterion will vanish). Many, much of the time, don't even want to share a ('their') car with other members of the household.

But we are seeing with the internet that people who are guarded in their dealings with neighbours and friends are quite open with complete strangers in the anonymous world of the internet. Formal carsharing uses this propensity to provide essentially anonymous sharing, mediated by a computer and its service organization. My concept of transit, which I have dubbed "trans-seat," uses shared vehicles to allow this sharing to expand from consecutive to simultaneous, but without the ridesharing experience which tries to create an instant community, but soon becomes 4-7 people plugged into personal MP3 players and phones.

It seems that people are more keen on being open to strangers when they aren't trapped into a repetitive situation. This is the market which "trans-seat" will try to tap, making it a kind of sharing between ridesharing and transit. With each seat accessible to the outside via its own door, there will not be any need for sharing physical space inside the vehicle. There will also be no "standing" area -- either you have a seat or you are not a passenger (no second-class patrons).

Reservations will also be possible, so that a trip across town via several vehicles, for a small fee, can be seat-guaranteed (including a bicycle seat) for each 'leg' of the trip.

The 'trans-seat' vehicle's driver, another member going somewhere, but who meets higher driver standards, will get a break on his travel fees for doing the extra chore of piloting (although not going off his route, as those accessing a seat will walk to a 'pod' -- pedestrian-oriented depot -- on the nearest arterial on their own (taxis and valet carsharing/rental will still do the door-to-door thing).

These are some of the elements of sharing in transportation that I have been thinking about. They are all intended to squeeze out all the extra metal and space that are not productive. That re-establishes walking as the primary mode for neighbourhoods, transit and 'trans-seat' for inter-neighbourhood travel in cities, and common-carriers (bus, train, boat, plane) for the rarer long trips.

There won't be much room for the personal car, except in museums. If we get it right, people will find more freedom and enough privacy to make them wonder what was it they saw in having, maintaining, storing, and earning money to transform public thoroughfares and semi-public parking lots into private spaces, especially when they have to pay the piper for the privilege.
About the author: Chris Bradshaw retired from city & regional planning in 1996, and co-founded Ottawa's carsharing company, Vrtucar in 2000. He has been an advocate for walking and pedestrian rights for 30 years. In retirement, he is championing a society-wide transition to a second-generation version of carsharing (integrating car-sharing, taxis, ridesharing, car-rental, and delivery). He lives 'car-lite' in downtown Ottawa with his wife of 40 years.

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