Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Ridesharing Institute II. If you will, but Public Transport on the first line please

In yesterday's feature which was intended to inform the exchanges at this week's TRB session concerning the eventual creation of a continuing program to support and expand ridesharing as a central sustainable transport policy, the point is made that the project should concentrate whatever resources it can stump up on ridesharing, as opposed to traditional public transport which has its own institutional and support system (for better or worse) while ridesharing from a policy and institutional perspective is still an orphan. But Simon Norton begs to differ:

I would like to record my strong disagreement with the statement that class 1
ridesharing (public transit) needs less attention than the other 2 classes
(formal and informal car based ridesharing).

In the UK the idea that public transport has a path to financial resources is a
sick joke. Many of our local authorities are intent on going back to an era when
it was supposed to be able to operate without support. I don't think there's
anywhere outside London where the public transport system is based on a real
assessment of what is needed to provide a real alternative to driving. In fact
the figures in Paul Mees's book show that this is true in English cities. (See World Streets article at http://worldstreets.wordpress.com/2010/11/08/beyond-the-automobile-age/, which also provides details on how to order the book.)

In the UK public transport certainly doesn't have the institutional structures
required to make it work. Buses are deregulated and trains franchised in such a
way as to ensure fragmentation.

Yet as the book points out rural transport in Australia is even worse than it is
in the UK -- and my experience of the US and Canada suggests that this is true
there too.

My impression is that many ridesharing programs target journeys that can be made
by other modes of transport, even if less conveniently than by car. Indeed I
recently received an email from someone who is trying to promote such a scheme.
It should be remembered that there is no environmental gain if someone goes in
the car of someone else who needs to make the journey rather than in a bus or
train, or on foot or bike. In fact there can be a loss if the bus or rail
service is marginal (as almost all are) or if the driver is deterred from
thinking of transferring to alternative modes (e.g. because half his/her costs
are paid by the passenger).

Is there a single car based ridesharing service anywhere -- other than in some
less developed countries where motorists are expected to give lifts -- which
offers a reliable service, not dependent on advance booking, to anyone who needs
to make a journey in a given area ? This being what is provided by public

The interests of sustainability and the environment require that public
transport becomes the "default" mode of getting around, with cars generally used
only for specialised types of journey for which public transport is unsuitable
-- or, in many cases, components of such journeys. Within this framework there
is certainly a role for ridesharing. For example if a school is organising an
outing for its pupils, they may need to be picked up and/or set down at the
school (or some other location if the trip uses scheduled buses or trains)
outside the times at which the pupils normally travel to/from school.
Ridesharing is an obvious means of reducing the number of cars needed to get the
children home.

However in general ridesharing does not challenge the principle that the car is
the default mode of transport, even if it slightly reduces the number of cars
needed to cater for people's journeys. As such, at least until it achieves a
scope comparable to that of a public transport network, it perpetuates
discrimination against those who can't or don't want to drive.

I may say that I recently came across an advertisement for a rideshare scheme.
This was posted on a pedestrian/cycle route which may be under threat of
closure, leading to the headquarters of the local council which is planning to
phase out all support for non-commercial bus services. The subliminal message is
"we're not interested in whether you can walk, cycle or catch a bus, because you
can always rideshare". I may say that I am sure this message was not conscious
-- the route is not owned by the council who therefore don't have any direct
control over whether it stays open -- but I still found it worrying.

Note that in this it is quite different to carsharing/car clubs/community car
hire, which work by enabling people to give up car ownership, which they will
want to do if most of their travelling can be done by other means leaving only a
minority for which they will use their car club membership. Though to be really
effective it needs to proceed to the next stage whereby accommodation for
privately owned cars is reduced, and few places seem to have got that far.

Simon Norton

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Dr. Simon Norton is a mathematician at Cambridge University with a long term involvement with sustainable transport. In particular he is Co-ordinator of the Cambridgeshire Campaign for Better Transport, part of the national environmental Campaign for Better Transport . His particular interests are the development of integrated rural bus and rail networks, and the reduction of traffic and aviation levels which will both improve people's quality of life and mitigate climate change.

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