Monday, June 7, 2010

Cars and the no-choice syndrome

World Streets gives considerable time, space and thought to the whole complex tissue of the relationships that exist between people and cars. Auto-dependence and freedome of choice. People and the ways in which they access and use cars. Their reasons for owning a car. And when it comes up, people vs. cars. Robin Chase, one of the founders of Zipcar has given a lot of thought to this too, and today shares with us some ideas about the inevitability of choosing cars.

The inevitability of choosing cars

- Robin Chase, Meadow Network, Boston, MA.

Infrastructure is destiny. And our insurance, safety, and legal systems, as well as our land and road use requirements are the infrastructure that that pushes us inevitably towards cars.

When we need to travel, most people in most countries have three transportation choices before them:

1. Walk or bike in unsafe conditions

2. Take mass transit that is infrequent, low quality, unreliable, and not point to point

3. Own their own car that delivers on demand, safe, and point to point travel
•These cars must be owned and driven by one person or household; sharing cars or rides for money is not legally allowed nor supported by the insurance industry.

•Commercial and residential real estate developments require accommodation for cars but not for other forms of transportation, and these car accommodations are almost always mandatory, not optional.

Is it any wonder that as soon as people can afford one or are old enough to drive one, the car is the mode selected? This is as true in Delhi as it is in Detroit. Some countries are better than others – the Dutch and Danish for example.

What can be done?

1. Make sure that there are safe walking and biking possibilities. I would further encourage the development of roads that are restricted to low speed and low weight vehicles. We accommodate not only feet and bicycles, but any vehicle that is relatively clean, slow, and light weight – with minimal safety requirements or licensing necessary. It doesn’t make sense that New York City will allow bicycles and pedicabs to use certain streets, but not lightweight and non-polluting CNG auto rickshaws that travel at similar speeds. We would see a boom of innovation and creative vehicles that can deliver more safe, convenient, point to point and personal travel options for this category of roads.

2. Redefine mass transit. In rich countries today, we have drawn very hard lines between personal and commercial vehicles, with the result that willing people with their own cars cannot fill mass transport gaps in exchange for money. Typically this is illegal and our insurance systems won’t support it. I can’t formally pay you $5 to pick up my mom and take her somewhere – even if you are going there yourself. I can’t let you drive my car in exchange for money.

Once money is involved – and why shouldn’t it be? – current laws define this endeavor as a commercial one and apply significant safety and legal structures that just don’t make sense. If we want to see more innovation in the transportation sector; if we want to enable more people to satisfy their needs without owning a car, we must let small
scale efforts flourish. Once a “small” business becomes a large one, we can apply safety and licensing laws that make sense for large volumes where risk is magnified. At small volumes, these rules are overkill.

3. Change the rules (insurance, licensing, parking) that assume one owner/one adult/one building unit/one car. We need to make sure that people can buy, or rent, or consume fractions of cars and parking spaces. If we don’t change these rules, we are forced to buy, consume, and park whole cars, whether or not that is what we want.

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About the author:

Robin Chase leads Meadow Networks, a consulting firm that advises city, state, and federal government agencies about wireless applications in the transportation sector. She is also founder and former CEO of GoLoco, an online ridesharing community, and Zipcar, the largest carsharing company in the world. Her blog Network Musings is available here -

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