Cars and the no-choice syndrome

World Streets gives considerable time, space and thought to the whole complex tissue of the relationships that exist between people and cars. Auto-dependence and freedom of choice. People and the ways in which they access and use cars. Their reasons for owning a car. And when it comes up, people vs. cars. Robin Chase, one of the founders of Zipcar has given a lot of thought to this too, and today shares with us some ideas about the inevitability of choosing cars.

The inevitability of choosing cars
– Robin Chase, Meadow Network, Boston, MA.

Infrastructure is destiny. And our insurance, safety, and legal systems, as well as our land and road use requirements are the infrastructure that pushes us inevitably towards cars.

When we need to travel, most people in most countries have three transportation choices before them:

1. Walk or bike in unsafe conditions

2. Take mass transit that is infrequent, low quality, unreliable, and not point to point

3. Own their own car that delivers on demand, safe, and point to point travel

•These cars must be owned and driven by one person or household; sharing cars or rides for money is not legally allowed nor supported by the insurance industry.

•Commercial and residential real estate developments require accommodation for cars but not for other forms of transportation, and these car accommodations are almost always mandatory, not optional.

Is it any wonder that as soon as people can afford one or are old enough to drive one, the car is the mode selected? This is as true in Delhi as it is in Detroit. Some countries are better than others – the Dutch and Danish for example.

What can be done?

1. Make sure that there are safe walking and biking possibilities. I would further encourage the development of roads that are restricted to low-speed and low weight vehicles. We accommodate not only feet and bicycles, but any vehicle that is relatively clean, slow, and light weight – with minimal safety requirements or licensing necessary. It doesn’t make sense that New York City will allow bicycles and pedicabs to use certain streets, but not lightweight and non-polluting CNG auto rickshaws that travel at similar speeds. We would see a boom of innovation and creative vehicles that can deliver more safe, convenient, point to point and personal travel options for this category of roads.

2. Redefine mass transit. In rich countries today, we have drawn very hard lines between personal and commercial vehicles, with the result that willing people with their own cars cannot fill mass transport gaps in exchange for money. Typically this is illegal and our insurance systems won’t support it. I can’t formally pay you $5 to pick up my mom and take her somewhere – even if you are going there yourself. I can’t let you drive my car in exchange for money.

Once money is involved – and why shouldn’t it be? – current laws define this endeavor as a commercial one and apply significant safety and legal structures that just don’t make sense. If we want to see more innovation in the transportation sector; if we want to enable more people to satisfy their needs without owning a car, we must let small
scale efforts flourish. Once a “small” business becomes a large one, we can apply safety and licensing laws that make sense for large volumes where risk is magnified. At small volumes, these rules are overkill.

3. Change the rules (insurance, licensing, parking) that assume one owner/one adult/one building unit/one car. We need to make sure that people can buy, or rent, or consume fractions of cars and parking spaces. If we don’t change these rules, we are forced to buy, consume, and park whole cars, whether or not that is what we want.

# # #

About the author:

Robin Chase leads Meadow Networks, a consulting firm that advises city, state, and federal government agencies about wireless applications in the transportation sector. She is also founder and former CEO of GoLoco, an online ridesharing community, and Zipcar, the largest carsharing company in the world. Her blog Network Musings is available here –

3 thoughts on “Cars and the no-choice syndrome

  1. Lately I have been thinking about the difference between what we might call “public transportation” and “mass transit”.

    For the most part, the mode/methods you mention aren’t mass transportation technologies.

    They are important, but at the margins. They don’t move many people. So I don’t spend much time thinking about ’em, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important, because they are part of a complete system of mobility.

    But the thing about personal transportation and exclusivity and business/nonprofit vs. what we might call the semi-underground economy sheds light on “public” transportation technologies/modes such as taxis.

    i was thinking about this today (while biking to Union Station to take a train to Baltimore to get to my job) and how DC went from a zone system to a meter based system for taxis. Now there were lots of problems with the zone system, but the idea was that the fare structure was flat fee based, depending on the number of zones you rode. That allowed for the pickup of multiple fares during a ‘single” trip by the taxi.

    Obviously that’s a lot more efficient use of a vehicle than making all taxi rides be for the most part single occupancy trips.

    But the meter system put an end to that system. And allegedly, it has significantly reduced profitability.

    If you want a sustainable transportation system, focused on reducing car ownership, you have to have a battery of strategies, but all focused militantly on the end goals, and eliminating the various problem points (such as those mentioned by Robin Chase).

    There aren’t that many transportation plans that do this comprehensively and authoritatively–the Arlington County Master Transportation Plan comes pretty close, but there is the Seattle Urban Mobility Plan too. And most plans don’t include taxi service even if they might cover carsharing.

    Richard Layman

  2. Simon

    I think it just sort of happened.

    In Britain, sailing barges carrying freight, passengers or both were making regular river and coastal trips by the fifteenth century, with recognised ‘bus stops’. Road wagons, stagecoaches and mail coaches joined in as demand increased and the roads improved, then rail cleaned up the long-distance trade in the nineteenth century. One known example is that in the 1660s a wagon left Cripplegate (in London) every Thursday for Cambridge and Huntington, a three-day trip.

    The Royal Mail was established in about 1100 but was government-only until 1635. Initially the service only carried about 130 letters a year (an interesting comment on small-government). The mail went on horseback for centuries, until someone thought it would be a good add-on to a stagecoach service.

    The first stagecoach from London to Glasgow was in 1758. Just before then, James Watt rode from Greenock to London in 12 days, using hired horses from a chain of stables, and his chest went by wagon to Leigh and London by sea.

    There were around mail coach 20 services radiating from London by 1800, and there was a timetable written in to the contract, with each service checked at each post office. At the peak in the mid-1830s one service was timed to run 170 miles in 17 hours, including all stops.

    Urban public transport began when cities became too large for walking (1840s in London?), initially using designs based on stagecoaches.

    The only specific source of information I know of is ‘An economic history of transport in Britain’ by Barker and Savage.

    Another key concept is a timetable, even if it is once a week.

    I don’t see anything wrong with dial-a-ride services as a supplement to ‘real’ public transport, but things can certainly go wrong when public transport is seen as charity. I recently came across a classic example: ten buses a day, each taking 28 minutes to run one-way around a very convoluted loop. The last bus ended the last loop at 18.08. The route length was 11.6 kilometres but the whole route fitted inside a circle of three kilometers diameter. Most potential users would find walking quicker and more reliable, most of the time.
    (Note that the service speed is very good, 25 km/h, which suggests that it rarely has to stop)

    A growing fashion in New Zealand is for the local authority to specify a 400 m bus stop spacing, sometimes without being clear about whether it is an average or a maximum. (Four hundred metres is almost exactly the old British tramway rule-of-thumb, four stops per mile) In practice the spacing must vary and spacings of as little as 100 m can be found.
    There are equations and even software for all this.

    What matters is not the stop-to-stop distance but the stop-to-origin and stop-to-destination distances. And here the catering-for-the disabled arguments begin. Many disabled people can manage quite long distances so long as there is public seating every few hundred metres.
    (BUT I have a home-to-stop distance choice of 50 m or 800 m and prefer 800m: I need the exercise)

    Fewer stops and fewer routes mean more and faster services for a given bucket of dollars, and fast trips (door-to-door) attract passengers. The disabled must be provided for, but must not be allowed to demand a service that fails others.

    Another problem is that politicians will not agree to stop closures. A recent example here was a passenger rail stop servicing a dozen passengers a day. Such a stop will delay a train by say two or three minutes each way, including braking and acceleration, so two stops might slow a round trip by ten minutes. If the desired peak-hour service is every ten minutes, keeping those two stops open is going to need another train, costing say $20 million, just so that ten or a hundred passengers don’t have to drive to the next station.

    Let me try and draw some conclusions from all this, for a modern city.

    — Available to all, no exclusive use
    — Fixed route, published timetable
    — Minimum service hours and headways.

    — Attract passengers from cars
    — All services suitable for most disabled people, with specialist back-up as needed.

    Focus areas
    — Bang for buck
    — All trips by all modes
    — Appropriate modal split. Buses certainly, other modes as needed
    — Door-to-door trip speeds, including walking, waiting and interchange times
    — Integrated fares, off-bus ticketing
    — Bus priority (the objective is bus speed, not bus lanes)
    — Accurate timekeeping, to minimise waiting and interchange times, and especially missed connections
    — Quality services
    — Feedback to service providers
    — Systematic problem-solving
    — Cooperation between service providers, even if this limits competition
    — Politicians using it, especially the transport committee!

    Kerry Wood

  3. I don’t quite understand Robin Chase’s posting of 9 June. Nobody is saying that
    the existence of public transport prevents car drivers from offering rides,
    whether for payment or otherwise. As far as I know if insurance companies etc.
    impose restrictions on ridesharing it isn’t at the behest of public transport
    undertakings, who wouldn’t have the clout to demand such restrictions.

    On the other hand, ridesharing isn’t public transport. As far as I know, no
    industrialised country has a system where people can go out onto the road and
    make the journey they want in other people’s cars with a reasonable assurance
    that they will be able to get to their destination in a given time.

    To my mind public transport is a marvellous invention which I want to celebrate.
    It enables people to make a wide variety of journeys without the hassle of
    maintaining a vehicle, finding somewhere to put it and having to return to that
    point to resume one’s journey, and having to concentrate on the road while
    driving it. I personally regard these as more important than the constraints
    imposed on one’s journey by having to walk to a bus stop or station, having to
    wait for a bus or train, and being confined to the routes served by buses and
    trains, provided that the system is planned in such a way as to minimise these
    constraints; in particular, unless so much of the demand has been abstracted
    away by private transport that the system that remains is no longer adequate for
    people’s needs. Unfortunately this very situation has obtained in most
    industrialised countries.

    I may add that the 3 problems I mentioned also apply to cycling, except that the
    first and part of the second can be avoided by means of a Velib type system and
    the third by a good off road cycling network.

    Simon Norton


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