The sharing economy is changing the way we understand transportation on a global scale. The city bus driver sees ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft as a threat to his livelihood; meanwhile, major car manufacturers see the sharing trend jeopardizing private vehicle ownership.
But the rapid pick-up in ridesharing is likely to bridge the distance between people and their destinations, according to transportation technology experts, all while changing the culture of transportation to focus less on exclusivity and more on accessibility and efficiency.
“The idea of private ownership is very ingrained in our society,” said Tom Fairchild, Director of Mobility Lab, speaking on a panel at the Brookings Institute last week. “A driving alone option leaves out vast groups within our communities. It leaves out our seniors, our disabled [population], our wounded veterans, our youth,” he said. “All these people might not be able to benefit from individual car ownership and the sharing economy should be accessible.”
The topic of the public’s relationship to accessible private and public transportation was the focus of the Brookings event, which was titled “Mobility Innovation in the Sharing Economy.”
Fairchild’s organization works with Arlington County Commuter Services in Virginia to develop technologies that connect the areas residents with the county’s transit system. And while Mobility Lab has seen success in its mission – 80,000 tons of carbon dioxide were removed from Arlington skies in 2011, according to the group – the problem of better facilitating transportation options looms larger than a single county – it’s a national concern.
“At the end of the day, our transit system is not prepared to connect people to opportunities,” said Adie Tomer, a senior research associate and associate fellow at Brookings who was also on the panel. “How do we make sure that we actually better connect people where they live to business opportunities?”
Forty-three percent of jobs are outside ten miles of a city’s major commercial area, Tomer said. Public transit is unable, in many cases, to connect people to these job opportunities efficiently, and that’s where the ridesharing technological innovation comes in to play.
Because public transportation can only reach so many people, even with efforts from groups like Mobility Lab to increase accessibility, other companies are looking to mobile innovation to facilitate connection between people and transit.
Ridescout, an app founded by Joseph Kopser, aggregates all available transportation options – both public transit and private ridesharing – and presents them accessibly on a user’s smartphone. For Kopser, this type of innovation is especially significant considering one startling fact that underscores the disconnect between the public and their transit systems: If every American were to fill a seat on public transit, more than one billion seats would still remain empty.
“That excess is mind boggling,” Kopser said. “If you were a restaurant, you’d be out of business in a week.”
Public transport, suburban sprawl, and private car ownership seem to be expanding in separate spheres and without a close relationship to each other, said the panelists. This growth will become a problem in developing countries with large populations – where car ownership and sprawl will continue to increase.
India and China have larger middle classes than the entire U.S. population, said Kopser. If that growing middle class wants to realize a dream of individual car ownership, the consequences could be crushing for traffic regulation and infrastructure. These are the global markets that the sharing economy needs to enter, he said.
But even beyond ridesharing, innovative technologies are continuing to proliferate and are fine-tuning our relationship with available transportation. In San Francisco, where finding parking is notoriously punishing, people waste time and gas looking for an empty spot. In response to the inefficiency, the city built electronic sensors in public parking spots that send information to a mobile app that then informs users, based on the sensor information, where the open spots are. The system also optimizes pricing based on supply and demand, generating additional revenue for the city.
Adie believes this sort of model is replicable for a low initial cost, and may help connect the public to their transit options – both private and public – with additional ease and accessibility.