Monday, September 27, 2010

Sharing: Strategy for a Small Planet

- Keynote address by Eric Britton, Co-Chair of the World Share/Transport Forum, to the first international Share/Transport Conference. Kaohsiung. 16 Sept. 2010

I appreciate this opportunity to share with this distinguished international audience by way of introduction to the presentations and discussions that will now follow a few words on why I think that the concept of more and better sharing of scarce resources of all kinds is an important concept for quality of life for each of us on this small and shrinking planet. And to talk with you as well briefly on why I have come to the conclusion that the transport sector gives us a great place to start both to do a lot more sharing and to learn about why we human beings like, or don't like, the idea of sharing things. Let's start with . . . ourselves.

A love affair:

Why we love our cars (bicycles, tracks, boats, etc.). Why we love our privacy. Why we love our freedom of choice. And above all, we love . . . ourselves.

Let's take the example of people and cars: the attitudes that many of us express when it comes to the idea of owning and operating our own car, that is to say our very own one or two personal  tons of rubber, glass and steel which we will then drive on a public road.

If you ask an American, Frenchman, or pretty much anyone on this planet who may have a shot at owning a car and driving and parking it, while paying only a fraction of its total cost . . .  And if you ask them what they think about our concept of carsharing for instance, they will explain to us patiently that Americans (or French or  or . . . ) love their cars and that they are too individualistic to share.  What is strange about this is that after working on these issues in more than thirty countries for as many years I have never had a response from reasonable non-specialists  on this subject other than the above. We love our cars. We love our privacy. We love our freedom of choice.

In such a world the idea of sharing transport in many ways looks like it is going to be a very hard sell.   But what exactly is the world in which we live today? Certainly a rather different one from that which was in place when all these basic habits originally took shape. In fact if we think about it, we have here a situation in which we have 21st century challenges, but are thus far stuck with 20th century mindsets.

The world in 2010 – The number game

Let me start by give you my thoughts on a literal  handful of numbers. They go like this: 7, 1, 20, 5, (something like) 1

  • The first number is 7. In fact it's actually seven billion. The population of this planet sometime in the latter half of next year.  That's a fact. You can count on it. A big number which is getting a lot bigger every day.

  • The second number is simply 1, unity. That is the total number of planets we have to live on. Unlike the population explosion, this is a number that is not going to change, at least not in a positive sense. In fact many important things that we depend on for both life and quality of life are in diminishing supply on this small fixed planet: the quantity of fresh water, reserves of fossil fuel and natural resources, and of course many more. Moreover as a result of the combination of our ever-growing numbers of humans and the ways in which we use these resources and interact with our environment, the planet is coming under severe pressures on many fronts.

At its simplest if we put these two numbers together, we get a feel for the "fair share" of each person on the planet of the available resources. For me, for example, may fair share would be something in the area of   .00000000014285 of all scarce resources. Since I cannot really get my mind around the exact size of my share, I can at least understand from all those zeroes that my fair share is probably not being to be a very big number when it comes to many of these scarce resources and environmental impacts.

When we put these two numbers together and consider them as a sort of unity, we can see that we are going to be forced one way or another to make a number of changes. And it is not going to be a matter of choice. Now these may either be changes that we decide to make, hopefully with a strategy and view of creating a happier and healthier planet and better lives for all. Or of course we can do what we have done thus far – namely , continue to push blindly  ahead, building higher walls, pulling up the ladders, changing nothing for as long as we can  . . .   and waiting for the future to happen to us.

In sum, we have some choices to make. One way or the other.

It seems as if we have a problem  here.  But let's continue to make our way down our little list.

  • The third number is 20 . . . but in this case it's actually twenty percent.  This is approximately the relative importance of the transport or mobility sector in this greater whole. One way or another this number keeps cropping up: the sector's  share of GHG emissions, fossil fuel consumption.  overall resource take, investment requirements, and the long list goes on.

Moreover, this is an especially troubling twenty percent because we can see that the amount of activity in our sector is expanding at sharply growing rates.  The number of cars. The number of kilometers driven. Lost time in traffic. Increasing costs. Health impacts, and more. So we have what is already in itself an important slice of our too-small planet syndrome, but it is made worse yet by the fact that all this is deteriorating at an accelerating rate.

Some good news before we come to our real traffic stopper number: There is one surprising thing about the transport sector that seems to have escaped the attention of the experts and the policy makers, and that is that it also holds the key to the problem. And not only for the transport sector itself, but also – if only we can get good at it  -- it holds out some excellent lessons for the other sectors that make up our lives, that other eighty percent. We will have a look at this shortly

  • The 5 is, in fact, more than five . . . trillion. What exactly is that? That is my personal rough estimate of the number of major trips that are made by individual citizens each year – think of a work trip, medical visit, trip to find and carry water and firewood, soccer mom's taking the kids to their next organized sport session, and the like. There are more than five trillion of these taking place each year – which gives us a feel for the dimensions of our challenge.

Now what is interesting about these trips is that virtually all of them are decided and carried out in our pluralistic democratic societies  by individuals citizens, acting on for their own reasons and in their own (if they are lucky) good time.

A huge proportion of these trips are executed by people who are walking or using non-motorized transport. But if we recall that there are about one billion motor vehicles on the road, we can see that there are major challenges on all sides. The crux of the remedial policies in this sector in our pluralistic democratic societies is that they require of our leaders that we find ways of understanding and influencing many billions of mainly minute and personal decisions made by individual citizens and groups with very different views on the topic of how they are to get around in their daily lives. This is a long way from, say, buying "clean fuel" garbage trucks or buses.)

  • And finally that last 1. In fact in this case it's a bit more than one.  You can see it for yourself.  All you have to do is to walk out your door and find a spot next to a busy street or highway in Kaohsiung, LA, Delhi, Paris or your own city. Get comfortable and start to count the number of people you see in each passing vehicle. If it's a car, taxi, or truck the average is not much above one. If it's a bus, most buses in most places anyway, you will see that during much of the day there are plenty of empty seats (with of course the huge exceptions that you and we know about.)

That of course is just a visual hint, but we also know that the statistics bear this out.

What's the lesson? We need to get better at providing high standards of mobility, but the only way to do this is to use the infrastructure and the vehicles more effectively.  And this is where the concept of share/transport comes in.

Sharing in the 21st century - Will it shape our cities?

Share/transport — the largely uncharted middle ground of low-carbon, high-impact, available-now mobility options that span the broad range that runs between the long dominant poles of “private transport” (albeit on public roads) and “mass transport” (scheduled, fixed-route, usually deficit-financed public services) at the two extremes. The third way of getting around in cities?

After many decades of a single dominant city-shaping transportation pattern - i.e., for those who could afford it: owning and driving our own cars, trucks, motorcycles and bicycles, getting into taxis by ourselves, riding in streets that are designed for cars and not much else -- there is considerable evidence accumulating that we have already entered into a world of new mobility practices that are changing the transportation landscape in many ways. It has to do with sharing, as opposed to outright ownership. But strange to say, this trend seems to have escaped the attention of the policymakers in many of the institutions directly concerned.

However transport sharing is an important trend, one that is already starting to reshape at least parts of some of our cities. It is a movement at the leading edge of our most successful (and wealthiest and livable) cities -- not just a watered down or second-rate transport option for the poor. With this in view, we will come together to examine not just the qualities (and limitations) of individual shared mobility modes, but also to put this in the broader context of why people share. And why they do not. And in the process we will stretch our minds to consider what is needed to move toward a new environment in which people often share rather than necessarily only doing things on their own when it comes to moving around in our cities worldwide.

The concept of shared transport is at once old and new, formal and informal, but above all one that is growing very fast. Something important is clearly going on, and the Kaohsiung event will look at this carefully, in the hope of providing a broader strategic base for advancing not just the individual shared modes (e.g., car/share, ride/share, bike/share, street/share, taxi/share, etc.), but of combining them to advance the sustainable transport agenda of our cities more broadly.

Are we at a turning point? Is sharing already starting to be a more broadly used and relevant social/economic pattern? Is there an over-arching concept which we can identify and put to work for people and the planet? And what do you need to look at and do to make your specific sharing project work?

These are some of the issues that we shall be examining with prominent invited guests from the fields of economics, politics, psychology, who will join transportation experts in Kaohsiung City to discuss these trends.

Share/Transport Highlights.:

You may not have noticed it but there is a worldwide boom going on in share/transport. The following diagram (adapted from an old faithful about paratransit which dates back to the mid seventies) is intended to give a global idea of how the share modes fit in with the other ways of getting around in our cities. Let's have a quick look at the main elements in this "new" mobility strategy. One by one.

Here in Kaohsiung in our meeting that opens today, we will be looking at some of the major share/transport modes: Car/sharing (Session I), Ride/sharing (Session II), Taxi/sharing (Session IV) and Bike/sharing (Session III). Beyond this our invited international experts, panelists and Young Scholars will also be spending some time assessing the state of the art for street/sharing (Session VI), as well as a more technologically oriented groups looking into the potential for ICT (Information and Communications Technologies) at the core of many of these approaches (Session VII))., and a special session The Mayor's Roundtable (Session V).

Two quick points in closing about these share/transport modes. They are not just bright ideas or possibilities for the future. Rather they have considerable and fast growing presence in the mobility systems of huge numbers of towns, cities and even rural areas worldwide. For example: we have repertoried more than one thousand currently operational carsharing systems, in addition to which they are surely as many informal small-scale examples of this approach to transport sharing.  Share/taxis? Tens of thousands of them in myriad and ever-interesting forms in countries all over the world. And when it comes to sharing bicycles, well in addition to the working systems you can see today here in Kaohsiung and in Taipei, there are hundreds of similar systems in the "formal" sector, and probably a lot more examples in the informal sector.

The point is this. Share/Transport systems are already in place world-wide, they are providing concrete evidence that they can work, and anyone who looks carefully at most of them can also spot ways in which they can be improved. Which of course is a key element of the share/transport agenda and challenge.

One final point of caution before I turn over the meeting to the technical sessions and workshops. And that is the importance of bearing in mind that the business models that are getting the most media attention are those which are coming out of the "Global North". Just because they are the ones that are being most discussed should not be taken as meaning that they are the best way to develop shared transport in other often very different environments. Since most of the people on this planet live in the Global South, it would be surprising if we are not going to see new sharing models coming out of this part of the planet.

To know more about that, let us now turn our attention to the working sessions that are going to look at each of these components of the share/transport environment in detail.

Off we go.

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For full details on the meeting and the collected working papers and presentations, go to And for ample coverage in Chinese,

Authors and Speakers - Kaohsiung 2010
(See full profiles under Task Force and Young Scholars sections of the site.)

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