Friday, January 21, 2011

Ridesharing Institute – Contribution to today's TRB discussions

Dear Paul, Susan, and other TRB friends having a look at this proposal this afternoon in DC. This is an excellent first-cut proposal and food for thought on a very important policy topic -- and I want to get firmly behind the basic concept right now.

I wish I could be with you for these important discussions because like at least half of you in this audience I am firmly convinced in the potential for ridesharing in its many diverse forms as a vital and critical means in the process of moving from unsustainable to sustainable transportation. [I am sure that much of what you find here is well known to most of you. But here I am at my desk in Paris and I want to share my best thoughts with you on this. So off we go.] However before I launch into a few recommendations and suggestions, I want make sure that I keep the main thrust of my eventual contributions at the basic strategic level. It may ultimately turn out that it's a good idea to go to a bricks and mortar institute somewhere doing something -- but let me first see if I can reach back a bit into what I see as the underlying strategic issues and choices in an attempt to get a bit of perspective on the fundamentals.

Let's start at the beginning.

I. Ridesharing is not an "option"

a. The core to our 21st century sustainable transport strategy has to be to find ways to get more people (and goods) into fewer vehicles (major VMT reductions), -- and all that without any sacrifices in terms of efficiency, economy, or quality of life. Indeed we should be targeting improvements for the vast majority of all people on all those important scores and others (increased personal contact, neighborliness, better feeling for citizen action and initiatives, etc.)

b. We are thus talking about ridesharing.

c. Ridesharing is NOT, as often has been the position of just about all concerned in the past, a detail, a nice little mobility option and it would be neat if it could be put to work here or there when certain special conditions exist that permit it to do a defined job.

d. Ridesharing is, it has to be, a central, a vital component of our nation's, of our world's sustainable mobility strategy.

e. Since we have massively overbuilt our road networks in the vast majority of cases – if we take into consideration the low level of efficiency of their present use – this means that we can work with what we have and just have to see how we can combine technology and organization to get this "new" transport mode to take its full and necessary place.

f. The second and parallel gross example of systemic inefficiency is our present transportation delivery chain are all those private cars that site around 95% of the time taking up space, and in all to many cases when they finally hit the road are cruising with the classic 1.2 riders per car.

g. Now all that remains to be done is to show how we can put 1 and 1 together and get 3. Which is basically what ridesharing is all about.

It's important we are in agreement on this, and if there are other thoughts on it I for one will be very glad to hear and think about them. Because if what I am saying here is in fact true – and I really believe it to be the case – then it literally moves the lines on the field and changes just about everything about the importance of this proposed initiative.

Are we in agreement on this?

II. What is ridesharing?

As a quick reminder, ridesharing can take place in three main patterns:

Class 1. People riding on public transit;
Class 2. People participating in formal planned ridesharing programs;
Class 3. All those good citizens who one way or another climb into a car together at a given time for their own good reasons and somehow negotiate with the driver to get where they want to go.

And if we cast our thoughts back on this for a moment to create some kind of ridesharing supporting structure, I think it will be useful to keep in mind that the great bulk of the attention of such an initiative should be to the two latter categories. Why?

This is not to demain the importance of getting more people on board public transit, which is real and certainly worthy of attention and resources. However it is my conviction that the PT sector by and large already has the institutional structures and at least a known path to the financial resources (though everyone quite reasonably wants more). Beyond that this is an era of innovation in the PT sector which is increasingly dynamic, on the lookout for new service and technology packages.

However this is definitely not the case for the second and third kinds or ridesharing indicated here, so if we are to figure out ways of how to support these two other rideshare modes, our efforts should be directed at improving our understanding of and the performance of these last two.

III. Class 2 ridesharing: Some basic ridesharing truths

1. Overall, it has to be said that what we are calling Class 2 ridesharing has not worked very well to now. (An awful lot of hard and often smart work has been put into it, but the bottom line traffic, environment, etc. numbers are not really being impacted in any fundamental way.)

2. Moreover, once one peels away from PT as ridesharing, it is the Class 2 projects that tend to get most attention. That is almost certainly a pitfall to be avoided.

3. Class 2 ridesharing will have an important role as part of the solution, but it is only a part of a much greater whole.

4. On the other hand there is quite a lot of it that is going on in Class 3, but much of it not for a variety of reasons as yet visible or recorded in the stats. (Let's see if we can keep our eye on this.)

IV. Class 3 Ridesharing – Casual, ad hoc, "lastminute dot com", etc.

Just by way of brief reminder, here is a quick first list of some of the ways in which this service pattern gets played out:

• Shared taxis (lots of ways of delivering these services
• Private or free small buses, public van services
• Local blogs and bulletin boards, electronic and other
• Hitchhiking and its variants
• Slugging
• Carshare extensions

V. The technology core of 21st century ridesharing

It's that small computer in your pocket. (This is a 21st century logistics, communications and social networking issue. And if we can't handle this then we are licked.)

VI. The research core

I hope that we will be able to distinguish between passive 20th century after the fact research. What is needed in terms of the research component is that the research team becomes part of the feedback process. All these projects are for the most part going to be feedback intensive and dependent on logistics, that generate real time and quasi-rt data as the project and service move along. So I vote very much that e get out of the ivory tower and on to the street.

VII. Institute?

My first reaction to this – probably wrong – is that sounds a bit too much like bricks and mortar. I realize that we need to have in mind a shared mental image for what we need to do to help ridesharing to become a fundamental underpinning of sustainable transport as it should be, but for my part I would hope that we can first create a consensus as to what the key pressure points are here that, once understood, we will be able to organize into some form of 21st century collaborative work and communication structure.

VIII. The Great American Backwater.

Another fundamental point that I as an American who has lived and worked more than half my life outside of the US am obliged to make – and that is that the States are a bit of a backwater when it comes to sustainable transport implementations in just about any form I can imagine. That is not intended as an insult or even as an accusation; it is simply a statement of fact.

Why do I bring this point up? Well, to me at least it suggests that if you limit your attention and program to what is known and going on in the States alone, you are going to miss the boat.

My recommendation: From the beginning plan and implement your new program as a collaborative international undertaking. In this way you will stand to learn a lot, maybe teach others here and there, and to support and inspire -- a great way of moving ahead.

IX. Closing thoughts and recommendation

This is an extremely important proposition and I hope that the panel will get strongly behind it, above all at the strategic level.

This is no time to be timid or bureaucratic. We should be ready to push hard to get this basic idea up and running with a minimum of wasted time. (Our responsibility for sustainability is neither abstract of timeless: it comes heavily encumbered by a clock and a calendar. Anything that we do not do in the next one to five years is an excuse. Every day we continue in the old unjust mode, is a lost opportunity for all those who are not doing well by them,. And of course for the planet.)

This is an extremely valuable and timely initiative I propose that DOT, FHWA and maybe some others should get ready to stump up some amount, say $100k, to get the ball really rolling on this. After a six month run-up of a pilot/demo, we and others who know ever more about all this should get together for a couple of days and see if we can make some wise recommendations about where to take it from there. (And for my part I would be pleased to lend a hand if useful and to be part of the solution.)

Eric Britton. Paris. 20 January 2011 via World Streets

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