Convenience Is King Convenience Is King

Convenience Is King

by Cliff Kuang

April 18, 2009

You can take the train to work, but your office is still a mile away from the station. Might as well drive, right? How we can solve the last-mile problem.

A couple of months after the presidential election, and a couple of weeks after Barack Obama signed his stimulus bill, the giddiness among transport advocates was enough to induce a contact high: $8 billion for high-speed trains, and another $8.4 billion for mass transit! They were excited for good reason: For years, the country has starved for any attempt to develop green transit, and finally we had the money.But what if most mass transit is doomed to fail? It isn't the mere lack of trains and subways that keep people in their cars. It's what urban planners call the first- and last-mile problem. You know it, intuitively. Let's say you'd like to commute on public transit. But if you live in a suburb-and ever since 2000, over half of Americans do-it's unlikely that you live close enough to a station to walk. The same problem arises once you get to your destination: You probably don't work anywhere near the closest bus or train station. So even if public transit is available, commuters often stay in their cars because the alternative-the hassle of driving, then riding, then getting to your final destination-is inconvenient, if not totally impossible. "Denser areas don't have these same problems," says Susan Shaheen, who heads the Innovative Mobility Research group at the University of California, Berkeley. "The problem is really about land use in the United States."It sounds nearly impossible to fix: Our suburbs won't soon disappear, even if some are withering in the present housing decline. But here's the good news: For the first time in three decades, solving the last-mile problem seems just within reach, owing to vehicle fleets and ingenious ride-sharing schemes that lean on mobile computing, social networks, and smart urban planning. "To make public transit viable, you have it make it just as easy as getting in a car," says Shaheen. "It can be done."The challenge, according to Dan Sturges, the founder of Intrago Mobility, which creates vehicle-sharing technology, is that "no one's yet putting these innovations together as a system, and the public doesn't understand the broader problem. But if implemented all together, the things being invented now will make owning a personal car into a joke." The enemy is really the car's unequaled convenience; commuters need multiple, equally easy choices before they'll give up the steering wheel. Several such choices are in the works.

"Right-Size" Fleets

Zipcar-which is now being copied by Hertz and U-Haul-is a godsend for city dwellers who only occasionally need a car. But it can also be used to solve the last-mile problem, when linked with public transit. "We're at the tip of the iceberg with those systems," says Sturges. However, for many commutes, a car is overkill. What if the closest bus is just a mile and a half away? A "right-sized" vehicle, suited to your particular last-leg commuting need, is ideal. These might be anything from a Segway (dorky as it may be) to an electric bike or a high-powered electric golf cart. But the vehicles themselves aren't the solution, since commutes can change every day (say you're visiting a client one day, and eating lunch at your desk the next).The solution, then, is a shared fleet of vehicles. Shaheen has studied the idea extensively, in programs where businesses pay as little as $150 a month to give small-vehicle access to their employees. Intrago is inventing new locking mechanisms that will allow shared vehicles to be securely parked and checked out, and also designing mix-and-match fleets tailored to  the needs of individual communities. "What you're going for is a commute that's Tarzan swinging from a vine, with just as many options." says Sturges. CityCargo, a start-up in Amsterdam, began exploring an analogous model this year, shipping goods via hubs and preexisting trams, and delivering them the last mile using electric vehicles.
"To make public transit viable, you have it make it just as easy as getting in a car. It can be done."

PRT (Personal Rapid Transit)

In theory, subways and bus lines should solve the first- and last-mile problem. But in practice, only the largest cities have dense enough populations to justify the massive capital spending that subways involve.And to get bus ridership high enough to be economical, bus routes will by necessity include fewer, less convenient stops. Better then to create cheaper networks of small vehicles that can get by on cheaper, easier-to-build tracks-elevated above roadways, at a tenth of the cost of light-rail and competitive with new roads. It sounds crazy, but the economics work, especially when existing roads can't support more bus routes: One of the first of these so-called personal rapid-transit systems, which run on demand rather than at set schedules, is under construction for London's Heathrow airport's Terminal 5. Its makers, Advanced Transport Systems, thinks it will soon be applied to urban centers and office parks.

Smart Parking

In places where park-and-ride mass transit is on the cusp of working-for example, in Atlanta, which has several very well-placed metro stations-simply finding a parking spot at the train station still deters many.That problem could be solved easily by "smart" parking, which Shaheen has also researched extensively.A company called ParkingCarma has already developed wired parking lots that track the number of empty spaces available, but future iterations could easily be much more powerful, creating brand-new incentives for carpooling, such as guaranteed parking spaces for carpoolers at transit parking lots.

Distributed Ride-Sharing

Carpooling can be a miracle. Studies have estimated that the average commuter might save $3,000 a year, even when gas prices are low; it can slash your carbon footprint by two-thirds or more; and HOV lanes often eliminate wasted time in traffic. But despite the benefit, there are profound barriers to carpooling. Every hour, dozens of cars might pass right by your house, headed to the same place as you, and you'd never know.How do you find those like-minded commuters-especially when your daily routine might change slightly, and theirs might as well; and how do you know your ride or riders won't creep you out or chop you up?After decades of failed ride-sharing schemes, those problems are finally on the cusp of being solved, thanks to mobile computing and online social networking. Avego Shared Transport  just released a beta application for the iPhone that uses GPS to alert car drivers and potential ride partners when they're in each other's vicinity. Meanwhile, GoLoco is building a social-networking service that lets you find loosely connected friends making similar commutes and car trips; Ride.Link, an MIT project, is creating social networks for ridesharing based on referrals and participants' reputations.

Urban Planning

Some cities are so sprawled out that even ride-sharing or right-size fleets would be nearly impossible to implement. These programs might also be quite expensive, even in the best circumstances. Therefore, to make mass transit ubiquitous, we'll eventually have to retool our suburban fabric with transportation hubs, where ride-sharing and right-size fleets are available-which sounds extraordinarily easy, but will require historically short-sighted zoning authorities to rewrite rules that have made it difficult to build transit-oriented strip malls and communities based around mass transit, such as those designed by Calthorpe Associates, an architecture firm working on hybrid suburban developments with transit access. Either way, the hubs themselves would be prime real estate for businesses and housing, and could eventually reverse sprawl.
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Convenience Is King