The sharing economy has already transformed how we move around our cities. What’s next?

The empty 405 freeway looking southbound running underneath the 10 freeway is shown in this aerial photo in Los Angeles, California September 29, 2012. Drivers in Los Angeles saw limited congestion on Saturday near a key freeway corridor shut down this weekend in what has been dubbed "Carmageddon 2" due to fears of gridlock from a 53-hour construction project, officials said.  REUTERS/Gina Ferazzi /POOL

Image: REUTERS/Gina Ferazzi /POOL

Nick Talwar
Senior Partner, K50 Ventures
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How can we cut congestion, pollution and parking? How can we improve access-to-transportation by using private cars for the public good? The beginnings are already happening now and we can continue to fuel this future using new technology coupled with today’s infrastructure.

The future of urban mobility

It’s easy to demonize the car. There are two billion cars in the world today: equivalent to the populations of China and Europe combined. But the problem is not so much cars themselves. It’s how we use them: individually. Next time you stop at a red light, look at the cars to your right or left. The chances are they’ll have just one person in them: the driver. Unfortunately, when you drive alone, you’re in good company.

All of this individual car use comes at considerable public cost. For example, in Los Angeles and Sydney, people waste two whole working weeks stuck in traffic every year. And, it’s even worse In Mexico City: five working weeks per commuter are lost to congestion annually. That means less time with family, less time at work, and a whole load of stress that no one needs.

And, as an added negative impact, congestion increases pollution. Today, 22% of all CO2 emissions globally come from cars.

Cars idling on the roads represent only 4% of the problem. In fact, cars sit idle 96% of the time. As a result, up to a fifth of the land in some cities is used to store vehicles. To put that in perspective, in the United States, there are eight parking spots for every car, covering an area 12 times the size of New York City. This is valuable real estate that is being used as parking lots instead of more homes, schools, or parks.

While these models are changing, older city planning models have a real and tangible impact on the cities and real-world habits of today. People are pushed into car ownership by these urban design models that don’t take public transit into account. While transit-oriented development is on the rise in urban centres, there are still many residents who are not within reach of transit hubs. Even in a city with great public transit like New York, the subway doesn’t get to everyone’s front door. In fact, 2.7 million cars drive into Manhattan every day. The haphazard nature of today’s transportation system means that too many people have no option but to drive themselves.

This is especially true for those on lower incomes, who cannot afford to live in neighborhoods well-served by public transportation or near where they work. Research by the Brookings Institution found that 30% of jobs in the US involve a 90-minute journey by public transit. This makes car ownership a necessity for far too many. Additionally, once families have bought a car - with all the cost that entails - they’re more likely to use it.

What does this mean?

Technology has changed the way we connect with the world around us. And, with the growth of ridesharing, we are now seeing how access to transportation can really change the way people connect with the world around them. It has also highlighted that today’s transportation status quo is insufficient, inefficient and unequal.

The good news is that there is an alternative to a world that looks like a parking lot and moves like a traffic jam. It’s a world where more people share rides and take public transit. The question is how do cities get there? The answer is to provide access to affordable, reliable alternatives to individual car ownership.

Let’s start with reliability. Uber has proven that ridesharing services can reliably serve every corner of a city - including the parts that other means of transportation cannot reach. For example, in Los Angeles, a metro area that covers 100 square miles, Angelenos can push a button and the average ride is less than 10 minutes away.

Technology makes this possible. In fact, Uber’s busiest hours - our rush hour - are typically later at night, after the bars close. That’s when public transit is limited and taxis are hard to find. And it’s definitely when a lot of people should not be behind the wheel. This points to a very nice side effect: a reduction in the number of people killed in alcohol-related car crashes. In California, for example, alcohol-related deaths fell by 5% after the launch of Uber in its cities.

So it doesn’t matter where you are or where you’re going. You can always get there. Not only do reliable rides reduce congestion, but access to reliable transportation is the single biggest factor in whether someone can escape poverty, according to a study by Harvard University.

It is important to note that ridesharing does not operate in a silo but rather this new technology can integrate with today’s current infrastructure. Public transit becomes more accessible as people can now use ridesharing that last mile home from the bus or train stop. For example, nearly 30% of Uber rides end within 200 meters of a tube or train station in the outer boroughs during the morning rush hour.

The synergies we’re seeing between ridesharing and mass transit today are purely organic. But as the American Public Transit Association found, people who rideshare are less likely to own a car, and so more likely to take the metro or bus. It’s why many transportation agencies are looking to Uber for help with some of their toughest challenges. For example, in Summit, New Jersey the city recently signed a partnership with Uber to help get commuters to and from their local rail station - avoiding the need for taxpayers to fund an expensive and unpopular new parking garage. And, in Boston, Massachusetts we’ve launched a pilot to help improve the quality of the paratransit service for the elderly and people with disabilities, as well as reduce its cost. This is just the beginning.

The final factor that must be considered is affordability. This is crucial to the future of transit because people will only give up their cars if they have affordable and reliable alternatives to individual ownership. And, that’s where carpooling comes into play.

Policymakers have been talking about carpooling for years - it started during the Second World War and then the 1970s oil crisis. But the idea never really took off, mostly because it’s just too complicated to scale.

A few years ago, this challenge was tackled by Uber engineers who saw that a lot of duplicate rides were taking place. They asked the question: could we use mobile technology to conveniently match these people up in real time? The result would be good for passengers because a shared ride is a cheaper ride; good for drivers because they would have more time with paying passengers in the back of the car; and good for cities because we’d be getting more people in fewer cars. The real question was, “would people choose to carpool with strangers for a discount?”

The answer was a resounding yes. The results demonstrated that price and convenience are among the top priorities for people moving around their cities. We have seen this as uberPOOL has grown and expanded across the globe. For example in San Francisco, people are choosing POOL up to 50% of the time. In cities that have uberPOOL today, over 20% of passengers are choosing to share their ride.

What has the impact on cities with uberPOOL? In the first seven months of 2016, uberPOOL:

● Reduced the number of miles driven by 312 million - that’s more than the distance between Earth and Mars;

● Saved 6.2 million gallons of fuel - enough to fill over nine Olympic swimming pools;

● Cut carbon emissions by 55,560 metric tons.

Today ride-sharing accounts for under 4% of the miles driven globally. JPMorgan estimates that number will rise to more than 25% by 2030. Just imagine the possibilities that lie ahead.

A better future is within our grasp - it’s one where people share rides and take public transit simply because it’s a better option to owning a car. It’s a future where people have equal access to affordable transportation; where people spend less of their income on cars or commutes and less time stuck behind the wheel; where parking spaces are replaced by parks and affordable housing. We are already on the road to this future and by continuing to move forward and embracing new technology, we will achieve it.

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