What it would take for cities to eliminate the need to own a car


Flickr user Jonathan Kos-Read

Let's take a break for a moment from the repetitive story in Washington over which budget gimmicks Congress will adopt to temporarily stave off crisis in the antiquated system of how we pay for our crumbling roads. In another world, people are talking about the much more fundamental and interesting questions of how to design smarter transportation for a 21st century when most everyone will have smartphones and fewer of us will own our own cars.

That world is, okay, in Europe. But this conversation is equally relevant in American cities, if we could get past how to pay for our existing roads and start rethinking how we use them. This proposal comes from Helsinki, which has begun to lay out plans stretching to 2025 for a modern kind of transportation in the city that would blend elements of public and private transportation. Adam Greenfield at the Guardian has a good description of what the Finnish capital has in mind, based on the master's thesis proposal of Sonja Heikkilä, a student at Aalto University:

Helsinki aims to transcend conventional public transport by allowing people to purchase mobility in real time, straight from their smartphones. The hope is to furnish riders with an array of options so cheap, flexible and well-coordinated that it becomes competitive with private car ownership not merely on cost, but on convenience and ease of use.

Subscribers would specify an origin and a destination, and perhaps a few preferences. The app would then function as both journey planner and universal payment platform, knitting everything from driverless cars and nimble little buses to shared bikes and ferries into a single, supple mesh of mobility. Imagine the popular transit planner Citymapper fused to a cycle hire service and a taxi app such as Hailo or Uber, with only one payment required, and the whole thing run as a public utility, and you begin to understand the scale of ambition here.

Picture, for instance, that you're leaving your office in downtown D.C., and headed to dinner in Petworth. You'd give the app your origin and destination. It would discern for you the best route there — maybe by Metro to bikeshare, or by taxi or Uber — and it would handle the payment directly. You wouldn't need a separate fob for the bike system, a fare card for the Metro, an app for Uber, or a number for the taxi dispatch.

Route-planning apps already exist that draw options from multiple transportation modes (your basic Google Maps direction query will now give you default routes by foot, by bike, by car and by transit). What elevates the idea here is the crucial unified payment method, and the central system that would coordinate between public transit and private companies like Uber.

The logistics of accomplishing this in any city are probably not that far off, although the politics may be. I'm not entirely convinced a company like Uber, which holds its data close, would find this in its interest. And I'm not sure what it would mean economically for a centralized municipal transportation service to deflect potential transit fares into taxis or Car2Go instead.

Still, there is a lot to be gained by integration. And the really intriguing innovation that it would bring is not so much about technology — it's about control.

Part of why we love personal cars so much is that we can control them. They give us independence. We decide when the trip begins and where it will end. There’s none of the waiting involved in public transit, or the uncertainty inherent in hailing a cab. We don't have to worry about the bus arriving late, or the train pulling in full, or the unpredictable service on weekends. We don't have to worry about where we'll put our groceries, or what time the last train departs, or how we'll get from the train stop to where we actually want to go.

Of course, we don't control everything in a car: Sometimes the traffic is bad, or there's no parking on the other end. But the whole point of an integrated mobility service like what Helsinki is proposing is that it would closely approximate the convenience and control of driving a private car without having to own one. If many transportation modes are available to you at all times (and this may entail enhanced public transportation), then you can leave when you want. You can carry your groceries. You can count on a ride on the weekend.

You'd get, essentially, the mobility benefits of car ownership without the downsides (cost, maintenance) of owning the thing. You'd get the benefits of other forms of transportation without the unpredictability and lack of control. Now, if you still wanted to own a car — that's another question. But you would not have to.

Something similar will happen in a world of autonomous cars. But Helsinki's vision is much closer to our current reality.

Emily Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.
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