Archives: The dangers of shared taxis (2005)

USA - taxiDiscussion from archives of the New Mobility Agenda as recorded on  Sustran Global South on 16 Nov. 2005. Simon Norton writes from Cambridge, UK:

When one introduces shared taxis one has to guard against the danger that they take people off buses and trains (or off their feet or bikes) rather than off cars. If so they will actually increase the number of motor vehicles, and furthermore unless the system is transparent and available to casual users (i.e. one doesn’t have to live in the area, belong to a club, or book ages in advance) they may prevent the development of genuinely comprehensive mobility systems.”


  • As long as we insist on thinking of these new ranges of mobility options as “taxis” (i.e., not viable public transport) we will stay stuck in the last century — and all that entails in terms of quality of service and quality of life.  We really need to open up our minds and imaginations on this score.
  • Likewise, if we remain prisoners of the old “binary” mental system of public (trains, scheduled buses, etc.) and (or rather versus) “private transport” (by which is meant cars, and not only that really those well more than half empty privately owned motor vehicles that roam our streets untrammeled) – we will also continue stay stuck.
  • Our 21st century New Mobility System is well equipped at least in principle to do its job in a fully sustainable way, but it needs all four of its main pillars: Those two (much improved of course by technology and organization to do a better job in our towns and cities), plus (c) real planning and resources to support widest use of ‘active transport’.  And then our fourth and until now largely neglected fourth pillar . . .
  • Small to medium sized vehicles offering ‘car like mobility’ (or better!) in a very wide range of types, based on entrepreneurship and savvy use of available technology and purveying services that will get people where they want, when they want without the enormous negative impacts that we associate with owner-driver (and almost empty) cars in the traffic stream.  This includes new group taxis of various sorts, ride sharing, carsharing, dial-a-ride, shuttles, line taxis, E&H transport, and the list goes on and on.    Now all of you here will be well aware of all this — but the question remains why has this great idea pretty much stayed in the closet over all these years (albeit with a fair number of striking demonstrations, but which never seem to really take off and in the process alter our basic thinking about transport in cities)?

When I started on my personal transportation odyssey more than three decades ago, I at one point headed up an international  study and brainstorm of just this kind of system/service, which we then called “paratransit”, a name which since has been co-opted in many places as something specifically related to more medical or patient transport. I can’t this morning lay my hands on the original graphic which provides an idea of how all these bits and pieces relate, but here is a rendering which I have just cobbled together based on that which gives a rough idea (though it leaves out the modal share monster the private car . . but you get the idea).


What I think is terribly striking and really quite disappointing about this vision of what local transport is or at least should be about in a world, in a city that wishes itself to be sustainable, is how little progress has been made on this agenda in the THREE DECADES since we carried out this exercise and put it in the form of a report that was distributed by the US Dept of Transportation to more than five thousand people and groups around the world.  The reaction? A deafening silence.

The reason? Well, apparently it seemed just so very inconvenient . . .

  • To the car crowd that wants to change nothing and till now has had the resources to make sure that that is exactly what happens.
  • To the public transport crowd, who – rightly I think – see themselves as providers of a certain range of services within a certain kind of business and organizational framework, and who really are stretched to the extreme just to get their part of the (important and difficult) job done.
  • The traffic people were up to their necks in finding ways to whoosh ever more vehicles through the available street space.
  • The builders and their allies who felt that the solution lies in increasing the space available to cars.
  • And finally to the various “authorities” who over the years have cobbled together combinations of laws, ordinances and regulations which at the end of the day have reinforced this ghastly, inefficient and basically binary transport system of the not that regretted twentieth century.

Getting more people into fewer vehicles and getting them where they want to go in ways that are more comfortable, more efficient and more cost effective than any of the other alternatives.  And of course reinforced by the regulatory framework to give them privileged access to scarce street space. In creative working partnerships with the traditional public transport providers. And stuffed with technologies that are there today and well able to do their part of the job.


*             First that since (a) these vehicles can be purpose designed (including in terms of emissions, fuel efficiency, safety, etc.) and (b) since they will be much more intensively used, the fleet will be renewed more regularly (if we get it right that is), meaning that the vehicles moving on our streets day after day will increasingly incorporate the best available technology and performance standards.

*    And the last wrinkle on this has to do with job creation. Over the last fifty years the main thrust of innovation in the public transport sector has been to cut costs through labor-savings. But our new transportation arrangements are going to use drivers in each of those vehicles (with the exception of carshare organizations, but there too there is a job creation vector which is not to be ignored), which means that our new mobility system is going to be a source not only of new kinds and new qualities of mobility services, but also jobs.  No trivial contribution as we try to figure out collectively what it is we really want of our cities, and our lives.

That’s it from a slowly simmering Paris this morning, But not to worry, we will figure this one out too.

Eric Britton. Paris. 16 Nov. 2005

PS. Every time I see or reproduce that little graphic I think with affection back to its origins, in the bowels of the Urban Mass Transit Administration in the early/mid seventies.  At the core of the original path-breaking 1975 report “Para-transit: Neglected options for urban mobility” was a working partnership between the very creative Jimmy Yu of UMTA and the main author/head of a small team from the Urban Institute, Ron Kirby (to whom I am copying this note so that he can cross-check me for accuracy).  I don’t have a copy of the book handy, but I just checked and you can pick up a copy today for five dollars or so from Amazon.

Starting in 1974/5 and almost in parallel, I led a small team that spent some years in pushing out the frontiers both in terms of expanding the range of services covered and more important I think in retrospect reviewing developments in Europe in particular (“Paratransit: Survey of International Experience and Prospects”.  This led to a continuing cycle of team studies and projects, which today have taken the form of what you can see in places like the New Mobility Agenda and subsequently the World Carshare Consortium, World Car Free Days, the Kyoto World Cities 20/20 Challenge, and on and on.

BTW, I always smile in recalling an “enormous” contribution that I personally made to the field of paratransit, which in fact was about as small and negative as one can get.. yet still it made a difference. I “officially” at UMTA and beyond removed once and forever the hyphen in para-transit, with the argument that hyphenization in the world of words is only a half way house until such time that the word reaches full maturity. Which I felt that by 1975 it had indeed.  At least the word itself. ;-)

PPS. The above certainly too long note does not pretend to try to tackle the full problematique of bringing sustainable mobility to our cities, but rather just to try to provide some food for thought in answer to Simon Norton’s good challenge. I have to add however that one very important missing “pillar” in the overall strategy is working with city planners, developers and local authorities to provide and support more appropriate grouping of activities and services, as opposed to the worst abuses of car-based spread patterns. And of course there is the very promising ‘communications substitutes for movements” axis which all of you know well. But we can leave that for another time and place.

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2 thoughts on “Archives: The dangers of shared taxis (2005)

  1. The proceedings of the Mount Gambier Workshop on Paratransit, Ivan Illich’s Energy & Equity and publications by Mayer Hillman et al on Mobility in the early 1970’s were the seminal publications for me. I have worked on and off in “community transport” over the past 40 years and for me it has been about redefining public transport and yet we still seem to be stuck in the duopoly of mass transit or the private car being the solution even though there are so many successful examples of paratransit around the world actually working to provide mobility, employment and community.


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