Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Will growth of shared mobility make people more willing to share their own cars?

This originally appeared at Mobility Lab.
As many as 95 percent of trips in big cities could be shared with no more than a 5-minute inconvenience for riders, according to a recent report co-authored by Carlo Ratti of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab.
Back in 2010, the Albany Times Union did some interesting reporting to delve into why New York State residents seemed incapable adopting a sharing mindset when it comes to driving. (Granted, 2010 was before the Uber craze, but even that kind of ride-hailing more often has a taxi feel than a carpooling one.) The paper’s own surveying found very few people carpooling and this articlegives a range of the unlimited excuses people can make for their lack of enthusiasm about sharing.
In conversations about mobility these days, sharing is understood as a necessary part of the solution for fixing overwhelming demand on transportation systems. Even (and especially) car companies are beginning to lean heavily on shared rides or shared vehicles as an important component in their future share of the transportation market.
While one kind of shared mobility question may still remain – will people eventually grow accustomed to sharing their private vehicles? – sharing a common, company-owned vehicle does seem to have a growing place.
Walter Rosenkrantz, ‎senior business-development manager at car2go, itself owned by German automaker Daimler, spoke at the Association for Commuter Transportation’s Public Policy Summitlast week in Washington, D.C. (which Mobility Lab co-sponsored).
“Carsharing has exploded. It’s kind of here to stay. The more there is out there, the more personal vehicles are going to be shared. Pretty soon it’s not going to make sense to have a car. It’s just going to be easier to get around without a car, so why have one?”
The numbers indeed look impressive. Car2go’s membership surpassed 2 million in 2016. But looking more closely, those are global numbers, and people in the U.S. haven’t always behaved like those in other countries, especially when it comes to transportation. In fact, carsharing revenue in North America is expected to drop – given faster growth in international markets – to just 23 percent of the global total by 2024. And numbers for projected U.S. growth in carsharing can be difficult to come by.
Further, think anecdotally. When I have conversations with residents of the D.C. region and mention the concept of sharing – even in a place as traffic-clogged as the nation’s capital, where there are tons of alternatives to driving alone – I get blank stares. They may as well be saying to me, “I spent $30,000 for my nice car, why would I let someone else tag along on my commute?”
Surprisingly, it appears we have little understanding regarding the fundamental question of whether or not people are even willing to share their own vehicles in the first place.
And if people are willing to share, is that number going up or down? Does “shared mobility” include being in a small, non-transit vehicle with strangers? The pieces of the sharing economy and shared mobility that are working fabulously – AirBnB for home rentals, bikesharing – are not shared at the same time but rather used continuously.
“I’m not sure people think about their transportation [as shared resources]” said the Shared-Use Mobility Center’s Sharon Feigon, who also presented at ACT’s conference. “People join carsharing programs when their car is broken down, they have a major break up [in a relationship], or have just moved to a new city. They try it as temporary thing and it ends up working for them.”
She’s right: it often takes a major life change to get people to think about not just sharing, but the overall way that they move around.  A brief survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers found that, in 2015, only 44 percent of U.S. adults were familiar with the sharing economy. More specifically:
According to our data, 8 percent of all adults have participated in some form of automotive sharing. 1 percent have served as providers under this new model, chauffeuring passengers around or loaning out their car by the hour, day or week. Of all the categories we examined, this is the one in which consumers would most like to see the sharing economy succeed.
Today, many people simply don’t share their vehicles, for any number of reasons, despite the emergence of some rental-like services like GetAround. But there is hope, because even though nobody wants to share their cars, they all want other people to share their cars.
“Unless you raise parking prices or make it prohibitively difficult to drive, you can’t change the balance,” Feigon added. “[The Shared-Use Mobility Center is] not fixated on whether people do or don’t like to share. There is something healthy about it, given the rise of [sprawl- and auto-driven] loneliness, and land use that promotes pedestrian activity is inherently social and also involves physical activity. Setting up the conditions for that is really good.
“In my own experiences, taking the train, I catch up with people I know. And you don’t have to deal with anybody if you don’t want to. [Taking transit or sharing] can make you more accepting of different kinds of people,” she said.
Other than focusing on people who are making major life changes, one demographic Feigon suggested could be ripe for more sharing is women with school-age children, who drive the most of any category of people and make lots of short trips that conflict with the poor ways we’ve designed our communities.
“That was not the biggest category of drivers 50 years ago,” she laughed.
We often hear how technology alone won’t change behavior; rather, it takes true willingness of people. But with getting people to share, technology may currently be a helpful motivator.
Along with that hope, it’s a safe bet that more research about the willingness of people to share and, specifically, what could make them share seats in their own cars, is equally critical.
Photo, top: car2go cars parked outside of a light rail station in Austin, Texas (Lars Plougmann, Flickr, Creative Commons).

Friday, April 21, 2017

SXSW audio: How to Uber-ize public transit to save it

This originally appeared at Mobility Lab.
Our panel at SXSW in Austin last month, How to Uber-ize public transit to save it, agreed that there is a lot that public transit can learn from Uber in terms of selling the public on its worth. At the same time, we also agreed that Uber absolutely can’t replace transit.
Screen Shot 2017-04-06 at 2.03.06 PM
The PowerPoint slideshow that ran in the background throughout the session
I moderated and asked the panelists (Doug Kaufman of Transloc, Mike Russel of Texas Christian University, and Marlene Connor of Marlene Connor Associates) a series of questions, including:
  • In what ways should and shouldn’t public transit become like Uber?
  • Is transit nearly perfect in any place in the world, so much so that services like Uber and Lyft aren’t even necessary? Where are the candidates in the U.S. for making an “ultimate connected city?
  • What things do you think could get people in the U.S. to change our 100-year-old habit of always defaulting to driving alone?
  • What needs to happen with data sharing for public transit, private service providers, and even roads to all truly work together and make our transportation system benefit from where we are technologically?
  • What do you think autonomous vehicles will do to transit?
  • We don’t know much about what President Donald Trump and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao will do, but it seems safe to say they will want private services to complement transit as much as possible. Is this smart and how can it happen?
  • Thinking of technology and AVs, if car companies and tech companies become the big breadwinners, in what ways can that trickle back down and provide jobs and income equality?
  • If the public sector’s role in mobility were reduced (it has been doing some great things like USDOT’s Smart City Challenge and FTA’s Mobility On Demand Sandbox grants), what do you think would happen to the transportation opportunities of unbanked people and people in rural areas?
  • What do you predict we’ll be discussing 5 years from now if this panel reunites?
We finished by fielding about a dozen audience questions from the 200 or so people in attendance.
Listen to the session above or here (except the introduction, which appears to have been edited out by SXSW)

On-demand “flying Ubers” could ease East Coast traffic

This article originally appeared at Mobility Lab.
What would happen to congested urban traffic if some trips could simply be picked up and moved into the air?
That’s a question players from Uber to Airbus to NASA are seriously studying. But to Bruce Gunter, who often has to take unnecessarily long car trips from his home in Virginia Beach to Richmond to visit family, some of the pieces of this “on-demand urban air transportation” puzzle are missing.
“I’m frustrated because most of the research is being done in California and there’s nothing in Virginia along the Interstate 95 corridor. It’s almost comical because almost all the work is being done by NASA [from its offices in] Langley, Va.,” Gunter laughed.
Gunter has more than a passing interest in what can no doubt be simply referred to as flying cars. He is managing director of Veetle, a company that is producing these VTOLs (vertical take-off and landing vehicles). But he also has deep knowledge of lengthy Federal Aviation Administration processes, especially from his days working at Cirrus, which has gotten extensive news coverage about its parachute-deploying small planes.
“We’re a very small company, with big ideas.” Gunter said Veetle is operating on about $1 million in its first year but that once it starts marketing and gathering investments, it could be a $200 million to $300 million effort. “Unless you’re a legacy company like Boeing or Airbus, this is all about putting tons of companies together to put the planes together.”
On-demand air travel in Virginia
Uber, in a report it released last year, predicted:
Daily long-distance commutes in heavily congested urban and suburban areas and routes under-served by existing infrastructure will be the first use cases for urban VTOLs. VTOLs will have greatest appeal for those traveling longer distances and durations [and] a small number of vertiports could absorb a large share of demand from long-distance commuters since the “last mile” ground transportation component will be small relative to the much longer commute distance.
Along Virginia’s stretch of I-95 or in other congested nearby cities like Richmond, Virginia Beach, and Washington, D.C., flying cars could certainly be an option worth exploring.
“This could broaden the scope of how people get around, even more than what Uber has shown us already with cars,” Gunter said, adding that passengers would reserve a plane just like an Uber, but would instead, unlike an Uber, head to a designated rooftop to jump in.
He added that it’s great Uber is one of the few players in the market, but that the ride-hailing company can’t do much until it has an actual product like the kind Veetle is developing. “Logistically, we could be the aerial Uber, for lack of a better term.”
Keys to making flying Ubers a reality
Some of the bigger keys, besides simply getting the public to change long-ingrained travel habits and developing policy guidelines, include making trips inexpensive, reliable, and shared in the sense so they would be more like transit than personal vehicles.
Uber further predicts:
In the long-term, VTOLs will be an affordable form of daily transportation for the masses, even less expensive than owning a car. Normally, people think of flying as an expensive and infrequent form of travel, but that is largely due to the low production volume manufacturing of today’s aircraft. The economics of manufacturing VTOLs will become more akin to automobiles than aircraft. Initially, of course, VTOL vehicles are likely to be very expensive, but because the ridesharing model amortizes the vehicle cost efficiently over paid trips, the high cost should not end up being prohibitive to getting started.
Another matter is whether the vehicles would create noise and air pollution. Gunter said the battery technology is still at least a decade away to make them powered fully by electric propulsion. Until then, they would need to be “some kind of hybrid” of gas and electric. But he added that the noise would be minimal because they would operate somewhat like drones, which the public already largely understands as being relatively quiet.
Also, would we simply be displacing traffic jams on the roads for ones in the sky?
“I’ve got 6,500 hours of flying and, in my experience, it’s rare if you ever see another airplane. If you do, it’s near the big airports by places like New York and Atlanta,” Gunter said, adding that VTOL traffic is mainly a matter of being managed effectively.
As science-fiction-y as it seems, we may indeed be hearing more about on-demand urban air transportation soon. Uber is sponsoring an invitation-only conference April 25-27 in Dallas.
Photo by Uber.

Who's the best TV news comedian now that Jon Stewart's gone?

Is it any coincidence that soon after The Daily Show with Jon Stewart went off the air, "fake news" becomes a buzzword?

I really miss his best-ever regular takes on politics and the media. To me, his former correspondent Samantha Bee is the best of what remains in his aftermath. But she's only on TV once a week.

Of course, now President Donald Trump sets the news every day with his early-morning tweets. With his endlessly fascinating and constantly out-of-left-field opinions, one could argue there's an amazing new comedian taking Stewart's place. But really, the next-best thing to Stewart is this new book, The Daily Show (The Book).

I have only just begun reading it, but here are four interesting nuggets to whet your whistle:

  1. Bob Mould's composition "Dog on Fire" was the theme song, and it was performed by They Might Be Giants. I always wondered what that song was, and I love the former Husker Du frontman, so I love Stewart just a little bit more now knowing that fact.
  2. His first guest, on January 11, 1999, was Michael J. Fox, who was then starring in Spin City.
  3. One of the reasons Stewart was so much better than his predecessor Craig Kilborn at taking on the news was that one of his writer hires was Ben Karlin of The Onion.
  4. Stephen Colbert filed reports for Good Morning America before he started working for Stewart. Well, actually, he got one report on the air after about 20 ideas he pitched that didn't make GMA's cut. Oh, those silly networks.
  5. A year before Stewart began his majestic run, he has a cameo in Dave Chappelle's Half Baked as an overzealous stoner who thinks everything is so much better on pot, including staring at the stars. (I just happened to watch this recently for the first time, and give it a very fun-loving 3.5 out of 5 stars.)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Best Magazine Reads: How I can relate to one man's vision for the perfect ski resort

All new employees at my workplace take an Emergenetics test so that all team members can be on the same page by playing off each other's talents. In my profile, I have a ton of red and yellow, which means I'm heavy on sociable and creative traits and less advanced on analytic and structural ones.

Maybe that's why I thought that an article in the April issue of Men's Journal, King of the Hill: How Vail Resorts Conquered the Ski Industry, is so intriguing. Rob Katz has built Aspen Resorts into a ski-resort behemoth, buying up resorts throughout North America and watching the company's stock become a darling of Wall Street.

Katz gives all new employees a similar personality test, and his personal traits are a lot like mine: red for "drive," while not being so strong at the analytical. That has smartly led him to focus on building incredible reams of data about his customers so he can channel that drive and emotion into the correct directions, directions he may not instinctively understand without that data.

Men's Journal notes that "the data is Vail's secret weapon, and not just because it helps people avoid lift lines." The company has an Epic Pass that allows Vail to know which runs skiers are taking, with whom, and can then market to them accordingly with, for example, pictures of aggressive skiers or moms and kids on the slope.

Despite the very uncertain future of the sport, even melting snows and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns are not keeping Katz and Vail from doing everything as right and enjoyable, from a business standpoint, as they possibly can. Even if it's a potentially short-term future.

That's the kind of venture I've always liked being a part of - having passionate leadership to do one small industry or corner of the world as absolutely as well as possible. It's a pretty inspiring magazine read.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Fully autonomous vehicles may make us safer, but could add to traffic

This article originally appeared at Mobility Lab.

Just what a future transportation system with autonomous vehicles looks like isn’t completely clear-cut.
However, Kara Kockelman, a University of Texas-based leading academic on the subject, has predictions for their economic impacts. In a South by Southwest presentation last week, she put forth a rapid-fire, yet nuanced, synopsis of the numerous studies she’s completed with UT students on an approaching autonomous future.
“I don’t think these cars are going to help us with congestion. I think they’re going to make it worse,” Kockelman said, adding this this will be an area that will require crucial legislation. “But I think they will save us on safety.”
Safety is certainly a top selling point upon which auto and tech experts will rely as they push autonomous vehicles as a future transportation solution.
The nearly 33,000 U.S. traffic deaths and 6 million crashes in 2014, according to Kockelman, created a cost of more than $500 billion. Driver error caused more than 90 percent of those crashes, and she said AVs would dramatically reduce that number, since at least 40 percent of those deaths resulted from alcohol, drugs, fatigue, and/or distraction.
With 100 percent adoption of AVs, the country would gain $488 billion annually in “pain and suffering” avoided from car crashes. That equates to $1,530 each year per person in the United States.
The congestion side may be a much trickier message for auto and tech experts to pitch to the public. Kockelman calculated that, in 2014, traffic created 7 billion hours of delay and caused $160 billion in economic loss.
On top of that, the bonus of “productivity en route” would be a $645 billion gain to the economy each year.
Add together the two economic gains – pain and suffering plus productivity – and the country would save a whopping $1.4 trillion in costs. On the per capita side, that comes to $4,419 per person in the country.
However, Kockelman balances the positives with the many consequences that would likely domino throughout society, including:
  • Longer travel distances, including people more likely to take induced driverless trips to destinations they currently wouldn’t drive to due to stress or other factors
  • More driving trips by people who are presently unlicensed or have barriers to driving
  • Less air travel by passengers
  • Less rail travel by freight
  • Possibly larger, less-efficient vehicles for longer trips, and
  • More sprawling land use
Kockelman and Loftus-Otway presenting at SXSW. Photo by author.
Kockelman continued, saying these side effects could, in turn, increase congestion and infrastructure damage in many places. This would create a need for “systems to be operated more efficiently, equitably, and sustainably, including incentives for ride-sharing and non-motorized travel, route guidance, credit-based congestion pricing, and micro-tolling.”
“We’re going to see a lot more travel, but hopefully we’ll travel together, so that will avoid congestion,” she said. Kockelman added that improved technology should make tolling more efficient and that better public transportation and true ridesharing (as opposed to Uber- and Lyft-like ride-hailing) will be keys along the autonomous path.
Perhaps most importantly, she and her co-presenter Lisa Loftus-Otway, also from UT-Austin, said AVs offer a momentary chance to have a national conversation about transportation in the U.S. – something that has never truly happened on this scale.
“We’ve never really had an honest discussion on what transportation costs us,” Loftus-Otway said. “Terminology matters and [for example, we] shouldn’t call it a gas tax. It’s really a usage fee. Growing up, I never really knew how we paid for transportation. I guess I used to think the road fairy paid for it.”
Hopefully the AVs that appear in the near-term will help people better understand how transportation works. And then again, it may take some deliberate, and creative, outreach to help people understand the issue.
“Hopefully you all have been inside [an autonomous vehicle],” Kockelman told the audience, before laughing, “I have … and it’s pretty boring.”
Photo: Busy freeway (Rafael Castillo, Flickr, Creative Commons).

Will people ever share rides in small and mid-size cities?

This article originally appears at Mobility Lab.

Why would there be much urgency in creating shared-mobility options in a place like Austin?
RideAustin, Fasten, and others easily slipped in to take the place of Uber and Lyft when the industry leaders wouldn’t agree to the city’s driver-fingerprinting requirements. Ride-hailing is still doing well in Austin. But while ride-hailing may be helping some get around, the chances that it’s reducing traffic is likely slim at this point.
One of my RideAustin drivers made an excellent observation this week: there is no problem parking anywhere in town, so driving is simply what Austinites do. It is a place with some options, like bikeshare and light rail, that make it easy to be a multimodal citizen in the core, but they are often lost against the ease of driving for people who live more than a few miles out. For them, especially with very limited nearby transit, the personal car is king.
Where there may be hope in Austin: as ride-hailing continues apace, more of those rides could become shared. In fact, a large number of rides are made by tourists and late-night locals, and many of those are obviously shared rides. Where progress really needs to be made is during Austin’s rush hour. If commuters could start sharing those hailed rides, perhaps because of TDM outreach to employers, a major dent could be made in drive-time backups.
As the local transportation management association Movability Austin notes at its website: “The transportation system is at capacity into downtown during rush hours. And more growth is coming much faster than new transportation facilities can be built.” It’s an organization that helps Austin businesses, individuals, and others find better ways to travel that help individuals and the whole community.
In San Francisco, more than half of Uber’s and Lyft’s rides are taken through their carpooling services. A new study by Steve Strogatz and Carlo Ratti of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab found that between 60 percent and 95 percent of trips in big cities could be made into shared rides, with no more than a five-minute inconvenience for riders. There is no doubt that many trips could be shared, under the authors’ model, in many smaller metro areas.
Rasheq Zarif, the head of business innovation at Mercedes-Benz R&D North America, had an interesting take on this, from the perspective of a major car company. At a South By Southwest panel, he discussed a pilot in which his company partnered with Via in South Orange County, Calif. It’s an area with very little public transportation and miles of low-density housing.
“Surprisingly, we were able to change behavior. People liked to be picked up in an on-demand shuttle in 10 to 15 minutes. And they started interacting better and opened a bigger sense of community in that area. It got people to stop looking [down at their phones all the time] and start talking to each other,” Zarif said.
Mercedes-Benz plans to continue developing better routing methods for shared rides, but for now, that Via pilot has run its course in Orange County.
Zarif added, “We’re all so focused on getting from one thing to another and another. What’s kind of lost now in that everyone’s eating on the go, and we could get back to the idea of the family dinner.” Many people in the Orange County experiment responded positively to the idea of hopping in Via’s vans with neighbors or other community members.
While these are some of the positives, Zarif said one of the challenges is that “it’s very tough to pilot with transit agencies because there is a lot of bureaucracy.” Other broader ridesharing barriers include: the increased possibility that drivers and passengers become unhappy with the time and revenue costs of shared rides, lack of awareness that shared options even exist, low gas prices, insurance and liability concerns, free and heavily subsidized parking, and many other reasons.
According to Zarif, Mercedes-Benz is focusing on modifying the design of their cars in order to facilitate shared rides. That could include ways to reduce the need for added trips such as, for example, the ability for mail packages, dry cleaning, and even groceries to be dropped off in the trunk of the car while you’re downtown doing other errands. It could also extend to easier ways vehicles get cleaned and maintained.
But Zarif said the company plans to keep down the path of mobility rather than just automobile manufacturing. Perhaps demographics are on the company’s side, as the trend may be more generational. According to company research, a majority of people said they would be willing to let other people use their cars, with the highest numbers coming from Millennials and Generation Y respondents.
Then the next question might be: with only about 15 percent of Americans having used Uber or Lyft (almost entirely in major cities), how long will it take to reach beyond and build a critical mass of small-city Millennials who will share their rides?
Photo: Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab,