Archive for December, 2011

Reducing “Auto” Driving


I spend a fair amount of time promoting the idea that there are just too many cars, each being used too little to justify its manufacture and parking ‘footprint,’ not to mention the excessive space they occupy while actually being used, usually with 4 seats and the trunk unused.  I usually point to people’s assumption that, to drive a car, requires that they own one.  OPOCO, the One-Person, One-Car Orientation, is the root of all evil.

But more and more, I am coming to the conclusion that insisting on driving oneself is just as much a problem. “Auto” driving is as much a problem as “auto” ownership.

A recent article from Chicago radio station WBEZ, on December 12th, points to the plans of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, to require all taxis to install GPS devices that are linked to their dispatchers, and for drivers to be subject to a new regulation to not drive more than 12 hours at a shift.  His ability to police the latter will depend in his ability to get the industry to buy into the GPS regulation. (

This is an important component of my idea that all cars should be required to have a similar “black box” to allow them to be monitored so that tolls could be charged and so that drivers could be tracked when they speed, run red lights, or make illegal turns — not to mention providing a “smoking gun” when collisions are investigated after the fact.  Even the car’s mechanicals could be monitored.

Although I figured that it would take decades to bring about my MASC (metered access to shared car) dream, it might be much less time to have the tracking system in place for taxis.  It is natural for taxis to lead the way, as they are a heavily regulated industry, since they are a public service that requires regulation.

Look at the bike sharing systems being parachuted into major cities around the globe: the bikes have informatics as good as any that Chicago’s taxis will sport, all for the same purpose: to track them in real time — although cycling lawlessness is less an issue.

But how do we get people to not want to drive as much or at all?  Younger people might have the answer.  As Grist magazine recently said (, “Amidst all the hand-wringing over distracted driving, one critical point is getting lost. The problem isn’t the texting, it’s the driving — and many younger Americans would rather do the former than the latter.”   Yes, thanks to new state/provincial laws forbidding the use of cell phones — or at least hand-held models — while driving, driving has become an either-or proposition.  When you drive, life is on hold.  This is a downer thought.  The article cites a Traffic Injury Prevention article that shows young people are not as interested in getting driver’s licenses today as earlier generations.  Grist also suggested that cell phones are replacing cars as means of keeping in touch with friends.  [Just a week ago the U.S. National Traffic Safety Board called for a complete ban on cell phones, as well as on any electronic devices, with the strange exception of GPS devices.]

Since part of reducing car populations is getting more people not just to share cars consecutively (car-sharing), but simultaneously (ride-sharing), there will be a reduced need to drive. Just find a car going your way– and that can be arranged by using an app soon to be created by some smart person for your smartphone –point to a destination on a map, and a list of available seats, including some on transit vehicles, will appear as options to choose from, complete with ETAs.  Just scroll to the choice and hit “send,” and it will coach you to walk to a point of pick-up.  They will also open the car door when the driver pulls over and make the payment at the trip’s completion as well.  The app will also use social media to provide “reputation-based” security for all participants.

The difference between my idea of  the above MASC service, which I call “trans-seat” (in which people transporting themselves in shared cars can opt to pick up others along the way), on the one hand, and taxis, on the other, is not just the higher cost for the latter and the fact that the latter offers door-to-door service, but the fact that the former uses a “volunteer” driver who is subject to the foibles of all people who drive themselves, while the taxi is driven by a “disengaged,” professional driver.

The “foibles” of voluntary drivers include: being anxious about being late, being subject to “ego” problems that lead to road rage, poorer quality (or  no) insurance; and driver behaviour (including maintenance) that in not as good, since the driver is accountable primarily to himself.  The taxi driver or chauffeur is professional, which means he is always aware that driving is his livelihood and that he is subject to extra scrutiny.  But he also drives more per day and this shows in his knowledge of roads, drivers, etc. to avoid problems and to deal with them more rationally and expeditiously.

There is one advantage for “trans-seat” drivers, vs. people driving themselves in their own car:  they are more likely to choose to drive.  Because trans-seat levels the playing field by making driving more of a chore (finding the car, picking up others along his chosen route) and riding a lot easier and nicer (e.g., always getting a seat, never having to park the car, E.G.), we can assume that those who choose to drive are simply more natural at it; it is less of a chore or trial to be bravely tolerated.

The ultra-rich already know all this.  They avoid driving by having chauffeurs on their payroll to do it for them.  Even before cell phones, they used their rides to do other chores that required undivided attention, knowing that the slightest glitch can cause them to lose time or drop a thought.  In fact, such people have the least romantic idea of driving, knowing that the open, winding road, while exciting, exists today mostly in car ads.

If one admits to thinking of those who drive for a living as being lower than oneself on the soci0-economic status “ladder,” one has to wonder why driving oneself is any more noble.  After all, driving is hardly an exercise in freedom, especially when done at peak hours, when it involves watching the car ahead with one eye, traffic signals and signs with the second, and the GPS/smartphone/stereo/passengers with the third :-).

If one responds with the rationale that a) it is safer to travel in a vehicle and b) the most responsive vehicle arrangement is OPOCO, one has to just hesitate to realize that, if data moved in the same way, we wouldn’t have the Internet or cell phones.  Our conclusion about needing our own car is just too inefficient (coupled to the fact that car costs keep going up, while telecommunication costs keep going down).  Could we not redesign our people-moving system to mimic the way data and parcels move in our society?   The advantage for moving people is that, unlike data and goods, people can move ourselves, and most people like to walk, as long as they don’t have to do it on roads where drivers are multi-tasking while driving.  That simplifies it and reduces its cost.

If the frugal nature of this doesn’t compensate for the chore of walking and managing a smartphone app, there is always a valet-ride service called taxis.  You can ride and have the vehicle all to yourself, just like the rich folks.

Trans-seat is the future.  Ironically, this is not far off in the future.  And what it looks like will not be that different from the urban citizens of 100 years ago had at their disposal, before it was corroded by the introduction of the most worshipped, but problematic consumer device ever (finding one’s car in a large parking lot or garage is one of the more recent wrinkles).   OPOCO has indeed allowed distance to be overcome (as if it were a plague), but it has, at the same time, spread out destinations such that a 10-minute walk of that time allowed one to reach about as many destinations as a 10-minute drive of today.

You say that the mind-numbing sprawl of today will never disappear?  It already is, as “intensification,”  main-street revitalization, transit-oriented development, and new urbanism are all booming, and off-grid “McMansions” are at the heart of the housing collapse.  Add to that the squeezing out of inefficiently-used automobiles and the higher driving standards that come from fewer people doing the driving, and you have the missing element of how to return to vibrant local communities peopled by those who rank walking above driving, and aim to live more locally.



Citizen Engagement and Lobbying


Ottawa’s mayor celebrated one year in office this morning by chairing the second meeting of the Governance Renewal Committee, which was created right after his inaugural, at his request.  The first time it met was less than two weeks before.

Today’s meeting was to deal with an ambitious plan to set up a sweeping lobbying registry to make the activity of influencing the City more transparent.  The representative of the Federation of Citizens Associations (FCA), Bob Brocklebank, opined that it would be more appropriate for Council to study the state of citizen involvement more broadly before coming to any conclusion about what it is about lobbying that needed fixing.

The plethora of citizens — and the absence of professional lobbyists — was due to the Mayor’s proposal to include volunteers representing community associations in the bylaw’s requirements for both registration and the filing of reports on each encounter with a councillor of senior city official.

Even though the mayor presented an amendment at the beginning of the meeting, the 13 presenters, according to practice, came ahead of committee debate and vote on the report, so the presentations took place, five minutes per, plus councillors’ questions.   I came 12th, speaking as a former community relations officer for the old Region’s planning department, as well as a representative of several community groups “lobbying” over city policy.

I agreed with Mr. Brocklebank that the cart was getting ahead of the horse.  I recounted my advice to community leaders during my career that they should, in every presentation, describe their own mechanisms for democracy: who they represented, what members’ dues were, how many joined, and how many participated in the association’s activities in other ways.  This displayed their credentials to speak for these other people; to show that they could make a difference in the next election if they felt they were not being heard fairly.  My experience was that councillors always considered these matters before giving “weight” to their expressed concerns.

Too often citizens representatives lost out to developer interests.  The latter work full time, and meet with councillors, one-on-one during business hours, out of the public eye.  Besides that disadvantage — which the lobby registry would address — these groups did not rate their importance high enough, I felt.  Communities do have financial interests in these matters, since city decisions can make many tens of thousands of dollars difference in its citizen’s  home’s value.  [This connection is why these groups were previously labels “ratepayer” groups (referring to paying taxes — although tenants pay indirectly through their rent)].

My first recommendation was that, if these groups were to be excluded, then the city should set up a separate registry for them, in which they would document their “bona fides,” their claims to legitimacy.  As one councillor pointed out during a question to another presented, some citizen groups are really fabrications of lobby campaigns, and council should know which they are.  I also wanted these associations to “up” their game by asking members for much higher dues and fighting more effectively for their interests.  Condominium boards — of which there are about 800 in Ottawa — can draw on hundreds of dollars a month from a membership that can’t opt out, while “community associations” ask for at most $10 a year, which is not only voluntary, but is usually not part of a concernted membership campaign.  I was on the board of the Glebe Community Association for 11 years (1995-2006) and was very involved in canvassing, usually getting 50% of doors I knocked to join each year.  The monthly newspaper, quite independent from the GCA, also helped make it pretty much the most effective and more representative in the city.

My second recommendation was to shorten the time allowed for filing reports to the registry.   The “15 business days” translated into at least three weeks, too long to allow participants to use the transparency before the issue was resolved at council.  Such a deadline only encouraged procrastination.  It should consider what that reporting requirement would mean for this very issues, which was holding the hearing only nine business days after it tabled it.

My third point was the complete lack of attention in the draft bylaw to the workings of the registry.  Previous speakers questioned the Council budget that provided no FTEs (full-time equivalents) for its operation.  That would obviously not provide any staff just to help with registering lobbyists, let alone filing their — or the councillors and senior staff’s reports.  How would the transparency be provided without yet more staff?  Citizens and lobbyists would want access on a short-deadline basis, while university researchers would value more comprehensive access to whole sets of data, over immediacy.  And then there are the growing legion of bloggers, high-school students, etc.

I also commented that councillors would help to understand the process if they were to give their reasoning for their vote on each matter.

I concluded by saying that I had found the other presenters and their concerns to have been first-rate, a virtual blue-ribbon advisory panel that came for free, even though each had only five minutes to share an impressive body of experience.  But there is no standing advisory committee on governance [this committee is considering the status of the existing 16 advisory committees after the Mayor halted the process for renewing their mandates and memberships, a prelude, many suspect for their disbandment.  Surely this committee was able to see the value of such advice.

My conclusion?  The bylaw needs more discussion and thought before it is adopted.