Op-Ed 2010 Archives: Sharing/Strategy for a Small Planet. Part I

After many decades of a single dominant city-shaping transportation pattern – i.e., for those who could afford it: owning and driving our own cars, trucks, motorcycles and bicycles, getting into taxis by ourselves, riding in streets that are designed for cars and not much else — there is considerable evidence accumulating that we have already entered into a world of new mobility practices that are changing the transportation and city landscape in many ways. It has to do with sharing, as opposed to outright ownership. But strange to say, this trend seems to have escaped the attention of the policymakers in many of the institutions directly concerned.

Sharing in the 21st century – Will it shape our cities?

Share/transport — the largely uncharted middle ground of low-carbon, high-impact, available-now mobility options that span the broad range that runs between the long dominant poles of “private transport” (albeit rolling on public roads) and “mass transport” (scheduled, fixed-route, usually deficit-financed public services) at the two extremes. The third way of getting around in cities?

Transport sharing is an important trend, one that is already starting to reshape at least parts of some of our cities. It is a movement at the leading edge of our most successful (and wealthiest and livable) cities — not just a watered down or second-rate transport option for poor people. With this in view, we will come together to examine not just the qualities (and limitations) of individual shared mobility modes, but also to put this in the broader context of why people share. And why they do not. And in the process we will stretch our minds to consider what is needed to move toward a new environment in which people often share rather than necessarily only doing things on their own when it comes to moving around in our cities worldwide.

As a contribution to international understanding in this fast emerging but largely unexplored field, the city of Kaohsiung is organizing, together with an international team from the Chinese Institute of Transport (CIT), a three-day international conference and brainstorming session to take place from 16 – 19 September 2010, in which a number of people working at the leading edge of these matters will come together, first to examine together the general concept of sharing in the 21st century. And then, once this broader frame and understanding has been established, go on to consider how sharing as an organizational principle is working out in each of the individual mobility modes which are rapidly gaining force in cities around the world.

The concept of shared transport is at once old and new, formal and informal, but above all one that is growing very fast. Something important is clearly going on, and the Kaohsiung event will look at this carefully, in the hope of providing a broader strategic base for advancing not just the individual shared modes (e.g., car/share, ride/share, bike/share, street/share, taxi/share, etc.), but of combining them to advance the sustainable transport agenda of our cities more broadly.

Are we at a turning point? Is sharing already starting to be a more broadly used and relevant social/economic pattern? Is there an over-arching concept which we can identify and put to work for people and the planet? And what do you need to look at and do to make your specific sharing project work?

These are some of the issues that we shall be examining with prominent invited guests from the fields of economics, politics, psychology, who will join transportation experts in Kaohsiung City to discuss these trends.

Background:  It all started with a love affair.

Love. Love who, love what? If we have them it turns out that we love our cars (bicycles, trucks, boats, etc., you fill it in). And if we have our own vehicle we love too the privacy they give us. And the convenience. And our freedom of choice, to go where we want, when we want, and most of the time as fast as we want. But above all, we love . . . ourselves.

Let’s take the example of people and cars: the attitudes that many of us express when it comes to the idea of owning and operating our own car, that is to say our very own one or two personal tons of rubber, glass and steel which we will then drive on a public road.

If you ask an American, Frenchman or pretty much anyone on this planet who may have a shot at owning a car, and driving and parking it,while paying only a fraction of its total cost . . .  And if you ask them what they think about our concept of sharing instead of owning cars for instance, they will look at us as if we were slightly retarded and explain to us patiently that Americans (or French or Chinese or . . . ) love their cars and that they are far too individualistic to share them. What is strange about this is that after working on these issues in more than thirty countries for as many years I have rarely had a response from reasonable non-specialists on this subject other than the above. We love our cars. We love our privacy. We love our freedom of choice.  Bingo! End of conversation.

In such a world the idea of sharing transport in many ways looks like it is going to be a very hard sell. But what exactly is the world in which we live today? One thing for sure, it is a very different one from that which was in place when all these basic habits and values originally took shape. In fact if we think about it, we have here a situation in which we have 21st century challenges, but are thus far stuck with 20th century mindsets. Let’s try a quick thinking exercise on that.

The World in 2010 – The number game

Let me start by give you my best thoughts on a handful of numbers. They go like this: 7, 1, 20, 5, and (something like) 1. Let’s have a look.

The first number is 7. In fact it’s actually 7 billion. The population of this planet sometime in the latter half of next year. That’s a fact. You can count on it. A big number which is getting a lot bigger every day.

The second number is simply 1, unity. That is the total number of planets we have to live on. Unlike the population explosion, this is a number that given the present trajectory is not about to change, at least not in any positive sense.

In fact many important things that we depend on for both life and quality of life are in diminishing supply on this small fixed planet: the quantity of fresh water, reserves of fossil fuel and natural resources, and of course many more. Moreover as a result of the combination of our ever-growing population and the ways in which we use these resources and interact with our environment, the planet is coming under severe pressures on many fronts. (That of course you know, but stay with me for a few minutes on this.)

At its simplest if we put these two numbers together, we get a feel for the “fair share” of each person on the planet of the available resources. For me this morning, for example, this number would be something in the area of   .00000000014285 % of the planet’s total offerings. Since I cannot really put my mind around the exact size of my share, I can at least understand from all those zeroes that my fair share is probably not being to be a very big one when it comes to many of these scarce resources and environmental impacts.

When we put these two numbers together, we can see that we are going to be forced one way or another to make a number of changes. And it is not going to be a matter of choice.

One way or another things are going to change. Now these may either be changes that we decide to make, hopefully with a strategy and view of creating a happier and healthier planet and better lives for all. Or we can do what we have done thus far – namely, continue to push blindly ahead, building ever higher walls, pulling up the ladders, changing nothing for as long as we can . . . and waiting for the future to happen to us.

As you can see we have a real problem here. But first let’s continue to make our way down our little list to see if we can get some help.

Where does the transport sector figure in all this?

The third number is 20 . . . actually in this case it’s 20 percent. This is approximately the relative importance of the world transport or mobility sector in this greater whole. One way or another this number keeps cropping up: the sector’s share of GHG emissions, fossil fuel consumption. overall resource take, investment requirements, percent family income spent on transport, and the long list goes on.

The bad news is that this is an especially troubling twenty percent because we can see that the amount of activity in our sector is expanding at sharply growing rates. The number of cars. The number of kilometers driven. The enormous quantities of fossil fuels needed and burned. Lost time in traffic. Increasing costs. Health impacts, and more. So we have what is already in itself an important slice of our too-small planet syndrome, but it is made worse yet by the fact that all of these down-sides are deteriorating at an accelerating rate.

Some good news though before we come to our real traffic stopper number: There is one surprising thing about the transport sector that seems to have escaped the attention of the experts and the policy makers, one that it also holds out the key to the solution. And not only for the transport sector itself, but also – if only we can get good at it — it holds out some excellent lessons for the other sectors that make up our lives, that other eighty percent. We will have a look at this shortly

The fourth number, 5, is, in fact, more than five . . . trillion. What exactly is that? That is my personal rough threshold estimate of the number of major trips that are made by individual citizens each year – think of a work trip, medical visit, trip to find and carry water and firewood, soccer mom’s taking the kids to their next organized sport session, and the like. There are more than five trillion of these taking place each year – which gives us a feel for the dimensions of our challenge.

A huge proportion of these trips are executed by people who are walking or using non-motorized transport. But if we recall that there are about one billion motor vehicles on the road, we can see that there are major challenges on all sides.

Now what is interesting about these trips is that virtually all of them are decided and carried out in our pluralistic democratic societies by individuals, citizens acting on for their own reasons and in their own (if they are lucky) good time. The crux of the remedial policies in this sector in our pluralistic democratic societies is that they require of our leaders that they and we find ways of understanding and influencing many billions of mainly minute and personal decisions made by individual citizens and groups with very different views on the topic of how they are to get around in their daily lives. (This is a long way from, say, buying “clean fuel” garbage trucks or buses.)

And finally that last 1. In fact in this case it’s a bit more than one. You can see it for yourself. All you have to do is to walk out your door and find a spot next to a busy street or highway in Kaohsiung, LA, Delhi, Paris or your own city. Get comfortable and start to count the number of people you see in each passing vehicle. If it’s a car, taxi, or truck the average is not much above one. If it’s a bus, most buses in most places anyway, you will see that during much of the day there are lots of empty seats (with of course those huge exceptions that you and we know about.)

That of course is just a visual clue, but we also know that the statistics bear this out.

What’s the lesson?

We need to get better at providing high standards of mobility, but the only way to do this is to use the infrastructure and the vehicles more effectively. And this is where the concept of share/transport comes in. . . .

(The second half of this paper will be posted here in the coming week.)

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About the editor:

Eric Britton
13, rue Pasteur. Courbevoie 92400 France

Bio: Founding editor of World Streets (1988), Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher, occasional consultant, and sustainability activist who has observed, learned, taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. In the autumn of 2019, he committed his remaining life work to the challenges of aggressively countering climate change and specifically greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the mobility sector. He is not worried about running out of work. Further background and updates: @ericbritton | http://bit.ly/2Ti8LsX | #fekbritton | https://twitter.com/ericbritton | and | https://www.linkedin.com/in/ericbritton/ Contact: climate@newmobility.org) | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

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