Archive for January, 2011

Focus on the Seats


Eric Britton, of Paris, wants to start a ridesharing institute to focus on the way technology can better utilize cars in cities, both the excessive time they sit parked and empty and the time they are on the road mostly empty, being driven by people who eschew less space-frugal modes because they require waiting and physical exertion.

An example of the mis-use of the seats in cars is the fact that, in the same areas as walkers claim there is too little public seating and weather protection, there are many parked cars, which have both.  I sometimes, during orientation of new members to Vrtucar, would point out that their membership gives them access to our entire fleet when they might need a place to sit, some warmth or cooling, or protection from someone following them, either at the car’s station or at a place the user had parked it — without a reservation (since they would not be driving the car).

Another sign of the need for improvement is the fact that many people use transit have to stand during peak periods, due to demand exceeding the supply of seats.  The standing position on a bus allows the weary ‘strap hanger’ to view the cars passing from an angle that shows all its seats, and how many are empty.  In Ontario several years ago, I was running for the provincial parliament, and used to comment that the government of the day required school boards to close schools that were less than 90% full, but continued to build and widen roads to accommodate cars that were mostly 80% empty.

This problem needs some analysis.  The Britton piece divides ridesharing into three types: 1) formal transit, 2) formal ridesharing (daily commuting to work or school) as well as one-off ride arrangements for longer, usually inter-city,  and 3) the various informal (less planned) forms such as hitchhiking, slugging (getting/giving rides to avoid prohibitions for a certain bridge or section of roads which bar or charge drivers driving alone), and taxis.  He suggests that this latter category will grow with the arrival of various technologies that will allow for less planning of travel so that it is more truly demand-responsive without needing to have a personal car which is kept within 50 metres at all times.

I agree.  There are several efforts to use linking and tracking technologies to bring vehicles and their drivers together with those looking for a ride in the same direction and time-frame (,;;;   These are efforts to go beyond category 2 which are either regular and local or irregular and long-distance.

The success of any such system depends on a number of things: 1) high frequency to reduce waits, 2)  security to take the worry out of sharing a car with strangers, 3) easy but predictable payment for the ride (and revenue for the parties providing it), and 4) providing riders some modicum of privacy and autonomy.

The first criterion — high frequency — requires a) high percentage participation of cars on the road at any moment, b) the ability of a central system to track these cars and the utilization of its seats, and finally, c) the ability to break down trips  — those by the car and those by the potential riders — into segments, to allow a greater number of matches (so that riders may ‘transfer’ more often, but with the high frequency, waits will be minimal).

To get the first requires either for the government to require such access and provides the IT to support it, or it will need to ‘incentive’ drivers to participate by charging much more for the space  they occupy, both while driving and while parked (even if the parking spot at the home is off the street, as this still causes sprawl and its access via a laneway also takes away on-street parking spaces and city revenues).  Drivers will be further inventivized to add the IT devices, since there will be personal benefits and the city will get many as well.

The second pre-condition for reducing waits to almost nothing is to allow trips to be ‘deconstructed’ into segments.  For this to occur, drivers will need to make their trips — departure times, route — known to a central control, but only at the time they start their ignitions (via a point-and-click screen).  Potential riders will do the same a little more formally, via their cell phones, by marking a starting point and end point along with a start time.  The system will find matches between trip paths and the ‘desire lines’ of riders.  The system will display on their cell phone the several options (most of which will include some walking at the front and end of each; while door-to-door will usually be filled by a taxi-like service), from which the requester will select one.  The drivers whose vehicles are ‘encumbered’ by the choice will get in-vehicle messages to stop along the way for pick-ups and drop-offs, never needing to leave their route (unless they offer that service — for a premium).

Each time a rider enters a vehicle, it will be within a security bubble that uses the person’s electronic ID card with password, after which the door for that seat will unlock.

Once in the car, privacy will become an issue.  This will be provided by interior dividers that can be opened and closed as desired.  This implies a interior design different than now, which will be part of the cars of the future, since shared use by strangers will become an ordinary requirement, just as is access to wi-fi and other comforts.

Finally, payment will be invisible and automatic, since the ID card will identify how payment will be made, and the driver — depending on the arrangement with him or her — might get a small or large part of the payment.

Such a system should also allow for tracking of each of the seats on transit vehicles as well.  What transit does best is provide frequent service on main corridors (high-density land uses, especially rife with non-residential destinations), and the system should be able to mix-and-match rides on transit with rides in private and shared cars, presumably the latter covering the parts of the trips that are through lower-density sections (while walking is for streets and pathways even further afield.)

Put the ‘sit’ in transit’: And the system might finally deal with the injustice of people on transit not finding a seat during peak periods but having to pay as much as those who do: the sensing devices will be able to distinguish between those in a seat and those standing, and docking their accounts accordingly.  It should also not be difficult to charge by distance rather than a flat rate for a ride or for a series of boardings within a set period of time, thereby eliminating another injustice (in fact, those who get the seats are usually those who board at stations/stops further out, who  get the longer rides).

So, if we really, really want cars to be reduced in numbers without traveling to be reduced below what we need, we have to get smart about making sure every seat is used as much as possible.  There will be fewer drivers — which, in cities is more anxiety-producing than enjoyable, anyway — and more people using their travel time to relax and/or work, time that would otherwise not belong to them.


Car-Dependent or Addicted to Driving?


I just finished reading a book about reversing our addition to alcohol.  The Easy Way to Stop Drinking, by Allan Carr, the Brit who owns a string of schools that give his EasyWay course on quitting smoking, is very interesting.  He contends that there are no drinkers who have full control of their drinking, and that is because of the ‘brainwashing’ adults in our society are exposed to which make drinking seem beneficial.   It made me, a champion of ‘alternative’ transportation, and for 16 years, a person who lives ‘car-lite,’ (which means without a ‘resident’ car), salivate with the thoughts that there might be a way to get people to eschew their car-wanton ways.

If the automobile had been introduced in urban areas first, and if the bicycle had not made auto-mobility popular first, we might have seen the talents of Daimler-Benz, Ford, Olds, Panhard, and Sloan aimed towards replacing the trams of cities, instead of the much more challenging job of building a consumer product that required individuals to a) lay out a quite large sum of money (long before consumer credit), and b)  take on the chores and responsibilities of teamsters, the people who drove us and our goods around, and tended to the skittish creatures that pulled the wagons.

As far as I can tell, cars provide only three benefits over walking: a) faster speeds, b) greater capacity to carry cargo, and c) the ability to shut out the ‘elements’ (both weather and various ‘undesirables’).   It took awhile for designers and engineers to achieve much of an advantage, and it was not all that apparent at that time that any of these things were that important.  Distances were not that great, as people lived in compact communities with transit; when one had to carry something big enough to call ‘carge,’ one called for a cartage service; and they never really considered shutting out the weather and ‘undesirables were a fact of life, and everyone learned ways to minimize their intrusions.  Ford wisely aimed at the rural market, providing a tool that could power many farm functions, as well as take the family and surplus farm products, to the nearest town with rail service.  Cars in cities were only toys.

What Carr makes clear in his book is that alcohol’s unique quality — to reduce the sensations from the body — was interpreted by those promoting it to be an advantage.  It was used over the ages, long before their were businesses built on peddling it, to escape depressing conditions, at least for awhile.  Sometimes the experience gave the imbibers insights to their problems so they could be solved, but too often, they were left with only a hangover, and an attitude that things were not that bad, after all.  Yes, alcohol makes things worse,  but it provides the unique capability of providing a way to avoid seeing that reality.

Driving cars does much the same thing.  Car-dependency is specifically a reference to cars creating longer distances in our lives, distances that are most easily overcome by — what else! — more use of the car.  Likewise, using a car to transport one’s store purchases has caused the stores to stop providing (free or at any price) delivery services — and we have much more residential space per person in order to store the many more items we each own.  And as to ‘undesirables,’ the massive use of cars has reduced the safety of public places, both the consequences of irresponsible use of driving force and the opportunities for those wanting to rob or attack others to do so.  Driving creates conditions that more driving is uniquely positioned to protect us from — albeit not to solve.

It is that theme of dealing with feelings that I addressed in my 1997 paper, “Using our Feet To Reduce Our Footprint.”  I suggested that modern times has plagued us with a new illness: resentment.  The world of large-scale institutions and experts makes us feel that we have no control, and that we are insignificant.  This emotion, like all of the rest, is a motivator, urging us toward a resolution, avoiding resignation.  The appropriate resolution is to either increase out own potency to be a ‘big fish in a big pond,’ or to re-situate our life to find a ‘pond’ where we can be sufficiently efficacious to meet our needs (hearth-health is dedicated to getting this right).   Drinking is one way to make us feel OK with this state of affairs, but so is driving.

I identified seven ‘rewards’ we give ourselves — or sometimes accept from others, usually the very parties that control us;  and numbing our feelings, as alcohol does, is only one of them.  The others are: controlling others, risking one’s assets, impressing others, touching ‘greatness,’ escaping pressures and boredom, and diverting our attention.   Faith Popcorn pointed to another when she introduced the idea of ‘small indulges.’  Drinking is useful as a reward provider, but not as much as owning and driving a car.

Society has devised the greatest means of scrutiny of driving and owning a car than for just about anything else, including drinking in Ontario.   And for good reason; cars kill and main, and their high value and mobility demand state protection.

Driver accountability, for most of the device’s first hundred years, consisted mostly of fear of being seen doing unseemly things with our car in the heart of our community; but that has diminished both due to the lack of any ‘eyes on the street’ (provided mostly by pedestrians and residents looking out from their homes or yards) and the realization by drivers that most of their driving is done in places where they enjoy blissful anonymity (thanks in part to police not caring about citizens’ reports of drivers acting badly).

Congestion is an increasing problem, but the carmakers have made it less apparent, thanks to layering on many amenities that allow the car to be almost as much fun to be in while stopped as while traveling the maximum speed limit (plus the guaranteed police tolerance of another 20%).  These features and accessories can easily increase the base price of the vehicle by 50-70%, all of which have higher profit margins than the base car, a fact that further reflects the ‘small indulgences’ aspect of rewards.

If we look at the ultra-rich, we see the old pre-auto practices still in place: these people are driven to various destinations blithely ignoring the excitement of moving in what are usually very ho-hum traffic conditions, reading a newspaper or being pampered by a staff member in the backseat.   They don’t worry about the road conditions, about where to park, or about what is making a funny noise from under the hood.  They use cars to get places, and don’t confuse driving in traffic with any personal rewards at all.  If they want to ever drive, they use a different car that they store at a private race track where they can have the road to themselves for a couple hours at a time.  Their chauffeured car impresses, but does so anonymously, since the tinted rear windows mask their identity, and they would never use a vanity plate to take credit for their pampering opulence.

Since I am a proponent of not just living car-lite but of a vision for the future where the self-driven urban traveler is relegated to bicycles and what I call ‘bringhies,’ I would like to start a movement of people trying to quit driving, and cease their serial purchases of cars.   Like Carr, I need to find the ‘hooks’ that the industry and society use to get us to want dearly to do both, and unmask them, so completely that each person experiencing my lecture will want to join me and bring common sense to our population and community to our cities and towns, once again.

Maybe Carr would like my new slogan: “Don’t Drink OR Drive!”

Any thoughts on how to do this?