Collaborative Chats held a panel discussion on April 19 about the future of mobility. The event was held at Zimride’s headquarters in San Francisco and included industry representatives, planners, and policy experts:
The moderator, Emily Castor
, kicked off the panel by asking about the greatest challenges in the United States’ transportation system. The panelists cited the low 20% occupancy rate of cars trips, the fact that we can’t build our way out of traffic congestion, the challenge of keeping our inner cities vibrant, and problems posed by parking. Parking determines how much of our land is used, and the more parking there is the less we can densify cities. Cutting down on the number of parking spaces has ripple effects and creates a virtuous cycle. It also saves money: in the US, above ground and underground parking spaces can cost up to $25,000 and $100,000, respectively. Ridesharing and carsharing can help to address these challenges by decreasing traffic congestion, increasing occupancy for car trips, and reducing the amount of space that must be dedicated to parking.
Papandreou said that when he completed his masters degree in the mid-2000s about carsharing, he thought that it would constitute 20% of trips by 2010, but so far it's only reached 0.1% of trips in the United States. Even Switzerland, the world leader in carsharing, has only hit 1%. He joked that in the U.S. cars have more rights than people: Americans lack guaranteed health insurance and housing, while cars have mandatory insurance and plenty of housing (parking spaces). Currently, San Francisco has between 2,000-3,000 carsharing vehicles, but it will need to approach 50,000 vehicles—as a combination of fleet and peer-to-peer vehicles—to make a significant change. This will require more on-street parking spaces that are devoted to carsharing vehicles, which raises a range of complex issues.
Lewis and Zimmer explained some of the behavioral shifts that need to happen to achieve broader usage of these peer-to-peer mobility services. For carsharing, renters need to shift from expecting an impersonal, sterile corporate rental car experience to meeting the vehicle's owner—whose car might be less clean—but in turn having access to a vastly wider range of cars. For ridesharing, drivers’ behavior needs to change so that they start to see the potential dollar signs on the back of their empty seats. For example, a ski trip to Lake Tahoe from San Francisco could net $30 per seat and cover the cost of the driver’s skiing.
While higher population density is helpful to both Zimride and Getaround, it seemed to be more critical to ridesharing than to peer-to-peer carsharing. That’s because in order to share a ride, there are three main variables that need to be matched between drivers and passengers: starting location, ending location, and departure time. Potential passengers don’t want to travel too far out of their way to get a ride, so dense locations, such as cities, increase the likelihood of a match. For this reason, Zimride had its initial success with college campuses not only because the students have a built-in sense of trust for each other, but also because they share a common starting location. In contrast, Getaround has been able to have peer-to-peer carsharing not only in cities but also in lower-density suburbs. Whereas commercial (fleet) carsharing needs density in order to sustain enough usage of its vehicles, suburban car owners can be satisfied with renting out their cars on even an occasional basis. Plus, in suburbs the lower density means that owners and renters have fewer neighbors than those living in cities and are likely to know their neighbors better.
The discussion turned to the auto industry and its relationship to carsharing. According to Papandreou, General Motors changed the culture to be against sharing—car ads from the 1980s boast about vehicles that seat seven but are “ideal for one.” Baumgardner said that carsharing is a game changer for car makers. While some individuals and teams within the companies understand the importance of the changes and see carsharing as a part of their future, they’re having trouble convincing their organizations. While Papandreou wants advertising to pitch the new sharing ideal, a distressing fact is that in the U.S. some people from MTV have been hired to help re-convince Millenials that owning a car is the most important thing.
At the end, Castor asked the panelists to gaze into their crystal balls. Zimmer and Lewis both saw autonomous cars on the horizon, but likely not in the near future. Connected cars could come sooner, according to Lewis. A connected car would do things like unlock for you, recognize who you are and adjust the seat to fit your preference, and even notice how many seats are unoccupied and make those available in real time on a ridesharing service. Papandreou saw exciting possibilities with greater integration and availability of data, such as linking together information about bicycles, parking, and transit, and new abilities to track locations of people and exactly where vehicles are parked as GPS systems increase their accuracy to one square-meter (which simultaneously raises new privacy concerns).
In response to questions about serving low-income customers in low-density areas and people in the developing world, Papandreou said that HOPE SF
is already doing this in a community in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood which is organically doing peer-to-peer sharing of a few cars. Lewis explained that access to cars in low-income areas is important, but access to insurance is often a bigger issue, and that peer-to-peer carsharing services can offer them insurance that they might not otherwise be able to obtain. As for the developing world (aka the Global South), Zimmer explained that the inspiration for Zimride doesn’t come from his last name but from Zimbabwe, where Zimride's co-founder saw people sharing rides out of necessity because of the high cost of gasoline. In India and other countries, Lewis explained, people have been timesharing vehicles without the help of collaborative consumption companies. In the Philippines, Papandreou cited the development of electric tricycles as more relevant there than following the typical paradigm of a car being a four-wheeled vehicle with four seats. In his opinion, the problem isn’t the developing world but the Western world. Changing consumption is the core issue and a lot of necessary solutions will come from the developing world, not the Western world.