Friday, May 28, 2010

The inevitability of choosing cars

Infrastructure is destiny. And our insurance, safety, and legal systems, as well as our land and road use requirements are the infrastructure that that pushes us inevitably towards cars.

When we need to travel, most people in most countries have three transportation choices before them:

1. Walk or bike in unsafe conditions
2. Take mass transit that is infrequent, low quality, unreliable, and not point to point
3. Own their own car that delivers on demand, safe, and point to point travel

•These cars must be owned and driven by one person or household; sharing cars or rides for money is not legally allowed nor supported by the insurance industry.
•Commercial and residential real estate developments require accommodation for cars but not for other forms of transportation, and these car accommodations are almost always mandatory, not optional.

Is it any wonder that as soon as people can afford one or are old enough to drive one, the car is the mode selected? This is as true in Delhi as it is in Detroit. Some countries are better than others – the Dutch and Danish for example.

What can be done?

1.Make sure that there are safe walking and biking possibilities. I would further encourage the development of roads that are restricted to low speed and low weight vehicles. We accommodate not only feet and bicycles, but any vehicle that is relatively clean, slow, and light weight – with minimal safety requirements or licensing necessary. It doesn’t make sense that New York City will allow bicycles and pedicabs to use certain streets, but not lightweight and non-polluting CNG auto rickshaws that travel at similar speeds. We would see a boom of innovation and creative vehicles that can deliver more safe, convenient, point to point and personal travel options for this category of roads.

2. Redefine mass transit.
In rich countries today, we have drawn very hard lines between personal and commercial vehicles, with the result that willing people with their own cars can not fill mass transport gaps in exchange for money. Typically this is illegal and our insurance systems won’t support it. I can’t formally pay you $5 to pick up my mom and take her somewhere – even if you are going there yourself. I can’t let you drive my car in exchange for money. Once money is involved – and why shouldn’t it be? – current laws define this endeavor as a commercial one and apply significant safety and legal structures that just don’t make sense. If we want to see more innovation in the transportation sector; if we want to enable more people to satisfy their needs without owning a car, we must let small scale efforts flourish. Once a “small” business becomes a large one, we can apply safety and licensing laws that make sense for large volumes where risk is magnified. At small volumes, these rules are overkill.

3.Change the rules (insurance, licensing, parking) that assume one owner/one adult/one building unit/one car. We need to make sure that people can buy, or rent, or consume fractions of cars and parking spaces. If we don’t change these rules, we are forced to buy, consume, and park whole cars, whether or not that is what we want.

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Brilliant Strategy for Transition to Road User Fees

Everybody in transportation knows that we need to move from a gas tax to a road user fee in order to finance transportation infrastructure. Regular people – that is, everybody else – hate this idea and doesn’t get it. A colleague has come up with what I think is a genius political approach that I describe in the second half of this post. The first half describes the problem.

This is what the public says:

I’m already paying for the roads through my taxes. [Actually, you are paying with 18 year old prices since the fuel tax hasn’t been changed in that long. In the meantime, the costs have increased enormously. And compared to the price and volatility of the gas itself, the taxes are not that significant a percentage. ]

It works great. Why touch it? If the amount of money raised is the problem, just raise the tax. [Well, 1) you can’t just raise the tax, which is why it hasn’t happened in 18 years even though we are experiencing a crisis in our transportation infrastructure which is crumbling and ancient. If you’re lucky enough to do any traveling to Europe, you’ll note that our airports, train stations, trains, roads, and sidewalks are so much worse than what you see there. We are looking like the poor, ragged cousin. And if the fuel tax is broken as a means of raising money, as we move to more fuel efficient vehicles and alternative fuels, it will get increasingly broken.]

Paying by the mile is an unfair and regressive as a tax. What about the miles I drive out of state or on private roads? What about poor people? [Today’s gas tax has all those same problems. Some of the road user fee implementations could correct some of those problems.]

What about my privacy? I don’t want the government to know my every move. [Good point, read this that I wrote earlier]

THE SOLUTION. Here is a strategy that can get political buy-in and offer us a transitional path toward adopting road user fees. I’m thinking it is pretty clever and viable.
Put together a working group of legislators and outside stakeholders to discuss how we pro-actively address the impending transition to electric vehicles. Here is how the logic can proceed:

1. Everyone is willing to agree that EVs should pay their fair share, and that the gas tax system let's them off the hook.

2. It is far better to pro-actively come up with an appropriate solution before there are lots of them. With the tax expectation in place, people can buy EVs with full knowledge, rather than government trying to change the rules after this has become a significant market with a significant constituency.

3. The bill itself should be lightly worded. Owners of electric vehicles need to pay for miles driven within the state according to some referred-to rate plan (which definitely needs to adjust with inflation). The simplest means would be an odometer reading at time of inspection. Other mechanisms that result in the appropriate payment, as approved by the state, would also be allowed.

4. To be fair, any driver/vehicle can choose to opt in to this new method of road user fees, instead of paying gas taxes.

We have a platform for experimentation on this new payment method, and working it through the entire system with low volumes. We start with the lowest common denominator for payment (odometer reading) that side steps privacy and technology concerns. However, other technology solutions could come online and be approved by the state (payment with GPS using smart phones, or with other in-vehicle devices – those built in to the car or those retrofitted on existing vehicles). Having multiple payment options will ultimately provide consumers with an array of choices that many people will find more appealing. Some solutions will address the privacy issues. Some will be able to track out-of-state versus in-state miles. Just about every other option could be a preferred choice over the crude odometer reading because it will reduce the distance taxed. As time goes on, there would likely be all sorts of methods for payment and collecting of the data that use a wide range of devices, evolve over time, and take the burden of devices and refreshing them away from the state.

That is the gist. I think it is a brilliant strategy that should have few detractors now, gives a slow easy opportunity for working the new payment mechanism through the collections systems, and opens up the path for any kind of vehicle, to opt into the system.

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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Times Sq Bomb & Crowd Sourced Security #2

I made this same point after the underpants bomber event. While the government can think up new security measures, we need to recognize that the best and most effective defense will be the distributed and ubiquitous eyes on the street. To repeat, relying on people means that you have eyes everywhere and some intelligence and context assessment thrown in. Very hard and expensive to do with just technology.

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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Transportation, Innovation, & Policy

I will be on a panel with "Ministers and industry leaders" at an OECD forum in Leipzig. As preparation for the discussion, I was asked to answer the following questions about transportation, innovation, and policy.

How can innovation help tackle the key challenges of climate change, energy supply, demographic change, urbanisation, traffic growth, congestion, and changes in the global economy?

I'm tempted to say that it is ONLY through innovation that we will address these challenges. The status quo delivers business as usual, and this leads us to where we don't want to go. Yes, there are many solutions that exist today that will help, and new products, services, and infrastructure that have yet to be developed. We need to think of innovation broadly. Innovation is not just developing alternative fuels. Innovation is also deliver up business models, marketing approaches, and political calculus that can make these existing solutions widely accepted and acted upon.

What innovations are required to get to a sustainable future?

I think a lot about the transition. Many of us have ideas about what the end game should look like, but I think we need more focus on how we get from exactly where we are today, to that future. What is the transitional path? Or at the very least, what are the first few steps.

We need to provide people worldwide, in all their various markets, means that provide them better access and mobilty than they experience today at lower cost, greater convenience, and reduced carbon footprint than they do today.

People are rational. If we provide them that choice, most people will choose the cheaper, more convenient way -- and let us make sure that this choice reduces carbon and congestion.

For me, the heart of the solution is dramatically more options. Today, most people have very few transportation choices: walk or bike in dangerous conditions, take over-crowded and inconvenient public transport, or "take control" and buy your own car to take you point to point. These few options necessarily lead us up the chain to increased car ownership and all the related negative consequences. We have to offer many more options so that cars are not the only solution. And we need to provide these options that suit people at all life stages, and income.

What are the policy innovations needed to allow new technologies and practices to flourish?

1. Stop subsidizing car parking, congestion, and pollution -- both in relationship to individuals as well as in infrastructure cost/benefit analyses about where to make the next infrastructure investment.

2. Allow owners of private vehicles to accept money in exchange for renting out their own vehicle, driving other people in it, or accepting money from people ride-sharing. We need to recognize that sharing cars and maximizing the number of people using each vehicle and getting mobility satisfaction out of each car is vastly preferred over the current single owner status quo.

3. Create a government insurance fund, into which innovators can buy insurance with capped liabilities, can buy insurance for their innovations while experimenting with low volumes. Once the innovation is successful, volumes build and traditional insurers will want to take over.

4. Consider creating low weight/low speed roads that have fewer safety restrictions on vehicles so that innovation and experimentation of vehicle types can flourish (and perhaps motorized and non-motorized transport can co-mingle safely).

5. Make sure that all government technology procurement in all sectors come with requirements for openness: open up data sets (as appropriate while protecting personal privacy) for public transport, traffic, etc., require that government procurements be based on open devices (open standards, multi-purposed), open networks, open standards, internet protocols, and open source. Government funded technology purchases, in all sectors, can then be leveraged and multi-purposed by innovators, providing them with low-cost access to a range of important inputs.

6. Make sure that transportation technology systems are integrated with the technology used in the rest of the economy. ie., electronic payment systems should use established methods; devices and spectrum allocations should not be for transportation use alone.

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