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.



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