Micro-Mobility Tipping Point? 2020…

Micro-Mobility
Tipping Point for Micro-Mobility?

In 2018 micro-mobility takes place on Limes, Bonzos, and Birds.

In 2000 people travelled on Xebras, Kewet Buddies, and G-Wiz. The Human Transporter, otherwise known as the Segway, came to market in 2001 and  the Velib, the first generation of French bike-share, launched in 2007.

So, while micro-mobility is being reinvented in 2018, it retains a penchant for short perky brand names. And, that reinvention takes place in the shadow of previous start-ups.

This blog is informed by attendance at two Fall 2018 events: a micro-mobility street fair at Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass. followed by a sit-down conference with vendors, government officials, and academics.  I have worked on micro-mobility for over ten years in Los Angeles and based on that experience and the recent conference, make a few observations. It is noteworthy that Kendall Square, the location for these demos, was also the launching pad for a successful transportation technology, the ZipCar, launched in the year 2000.

2000-2018:

Specifically, what has changed since 2000, and will today’s crop of micro-mobility players achieve wider success?  Were the initial failures a function of the technology, the marketplace, regulations, or some combination of these factors? Will these factors repeat, or have there been significant changes in the transportation arena?  

First, we present the issues favoring new growth, and then, the counter arguments.  Note, we do not delve into the business practices or failures of individual companies, for example, Sidecar, which arguably preceded Uber but folded.

An Argument for Micro-Mobilty: What Has Changed in Two Decades

1. RIDESHARE: The most significant advancement for micro-mobility has taken place within  conventional automotives. Uber and Lyft have changed the dynamics of first and last mile travel, and uprooted taxi providers. They have also made it clear that private industry, not public agencies, stand at the forefront of leading change in the transportation field.

Although they only account for two percent of total trip taking today, Uber and Lyft have changed, practically overnight, the perception that it is OK to not have a personal vehicle and rely on your own car for every trip. Per conference speaker Assaf Biderman, a researcher and  founder of Superpedestrian, rideshare has set an important precedent for micro-mobility because 50 percent of trips are 5 miles or less.

2. NEW MARKET: GROWTH of the CHINESE/ INTERNATIONAL VEHICLE:

Tiny cars, like Bonzo, used to be called neighborhood electric vehicles, and have reached only niche markets in the U.S.. That has not been the case overseas. Sales of low-speed small electric cars experienced considerable growth in China due to their affordability and flexibility.  In 2016, China sold over 700,000 units in just ten months. In China these vehicles can be driven without a driver’s license. Demand for tiny electric cars incentivizes better battery technology and recharge options, but also spurs the need to reduce the width of residential zoned traffic lanes- a key issue for safe micro-mobility.

3. ZIPCAR & APPS:  While not a micro-transit service, per se, ZipCar was launched in 2000 and has arguably been the foundation for transportation ventures like rideshare. It has also helped legitimize spin-offs for short-term, on-demand car hire services. Most critically, ZipCar laid the groundwork for smartphone based, app-driven mobile services. There is currently no comprehensive Mobility As a Service  (MaaS) App in the U.S. that integrates the time and location of micro-mobility vehicles with traditional modes but it is under development. MaaS software will help micro-mobility reach new users and become more mainstream with door-to-door trip planning.

4. AUTONOMOUS/ELECTRIC: There has been growing recognition that rideshare was the first wave of disruption in the transportation industry, and the second wave will be even more extreme as autonomous vehicles enter the vehicle mix.  Meanwhile, advancements in electric batteries are making it more likely that the autonomous fleets will be electric, and an electric infrastructure benefits both bikes and scooters.

An Argument Against Micro-Mobility: What has Not Changed Over Two Decades

1. CAR CULTURE: At the Cambridge conference, Josh Westerhold from Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi made a compelling case that personal transportation (i.e. car ownership) is not driven by efficiency. Meanwhile, automotive marketing is the largest category of advertising and topped $47 billion worldwide in 2015. For the near future, the automobile industry will continue to promote the desirability of single vehicle ownership, and there will continue to be high levels of vehicle ownership, on the order of 8 cars for every 10 Americans.

2. REGULATION/RULE MAKING: Although Uber and Lyft have been disruptive to the taxi industry, state and local governments have been slow to react and resolve entirely new issues like curb space, driver screening, and sidewalk sharing. Curb space and public safety are also vital issues for micro mobility. At the Cambridge conference, Joseph Barr, the Cambridge Director of Traffic, Parking and Transportation, observed that cities will need to rebalance their budgets as micro mobility reduces revenue from traditional sources like road taxes and parking.

3. WEATHER:  While climate change has often been a rallying cry for micro mobility, more immediate climate issues have not been fully factored. While small cars, like  Bonzo, offer some protection from inclement weather, it is not clear that they will operate on ice or snow. We do not know if regular commuters will rethink taking a scooter or bicycle when the weather turns inclement or cold.

4. DELIVERIES: Although cars sit idle 95% of day, vehicle owners rationalize the need for one because  they are a necessity for moving packages, groceries, and shuttling children around. To reduce the need for cars and trip generation, alternative means for package delivery and family space need to spring up.

5. DEMOGRAPHICS:  Finally, the audience at the Cambridge conference seemed to rally around a particular problem:  today’s micro-mobility options favor younger people, and particularly those who are single and without families. The emphasis on electric scooters, dock-less bicycles, and repurposing sidewalks does not serve other age groups, and in particular the elderly.

Save Our Sidewalks” or SOS as the Bird speaker, Hannah Smith quipped, requires the company to place ‘bird watchers’ in the field and work with municipalities to achieve better, safe, shared streets. The promise of micro mobility is not so new, but the problems (and potential)  it brings are not necessarily ones that were anticipated by existing, on-the-shelf, transportation master plans.

Will Waze Carpool App Slow Down Uber?


Waze App for Carpools
Waze Carpool App   https://www.waze.com/carpool

Smartphones have accelerated travel information…notifications of real-time traffic, on-demand transit, and, of course, rideshare. But, can a smartphone app crack carpooling?  Waze, a Google subsidiary, developed a carpool app that will look familar to rideshare users, with features like driver name, cost, and arrival time.  Waze is now taking that app nationwide and providing incentives for new signups.

Carpooling has been the transportation “nut” that smartphones have not pried open.  In Los Angeles and most other US cities, only about eight or nine percent of commuters choose to carpool despite numerous campaigns.  I personally worked on TDM (transportation demand management) in Los Angeles and observed carpools to be the “high hanging fruit.”  (editorial  note:  nuts can be fruits)

CARPOOLS: THE HIGH HANGING FRUIT

Why?    First, the ‘real’ number of carpools is inflated and considerably less than the census numbers state. Today’s carpool count includes drivers who ride with a family member, or drop their children off at school. The drivers can legitimately say that they have a passenger, get counted in the surveys, and gain access to faster carpool lanes. But, they are not picking up a casual acquaintance or stranger.  

Carpooling can be inconvenient for a driver who might have to detour during peak-traffic to pick up or drop off passengers. It has been awkward for the driver and passenger to set a price and exchange fees.

HOW WAZE COULD HELP:

In principle, a Waze app could shift the balance.


The missing component for carpooling is the ability to establish trust between strangers.  Hitchhiking fails because strangers meet up with no prior information. An app can close the gap by providing a strongly enforced rating mechanism, like the one pushed to riders and driver after each trip on Uber or Lyft.

Prior to smartphones, there was no systematic, real-time way for riders and drivers to establish trust.  Taxi drivers were considered trustworthy because they were screened through livery boards and medallions. Limo drivers and mini-cabs in the U.K. were subject to similar checks. It is important to note that taxis, limos, and mini-cab drivers all have commercial insurance. Uber and Lyft drivers do too once they secure a passenger trip.

To establish similar levels of trust, a robust carpool app may need to certify that the driver’s DMV driving record and insurance information check-out. Then, passengers will know that they will be riding with a responsible driver in a safe vehicle.

TIME IS OF MATTER AND MORE:

Both time and distance matter for would-be carpools. Here, Waze travel information could play a crucial role. Although detouring to pick up a rider a few blocks away might seem simple there could be significant delays for the driver depending on the roads, time of day, and traffic. The algorithms used by Uber and Lyft account for these issues when they match a driver and passenger. Carpooling apps can use the same tools to minimize the inconvenience for the driver, and keep the passenger informed as the ride approaches.

Second, smartphones plus credit cards solve the monetary transaction that needs to take place between driver and passenger. The passenger does not have to “split the gas” or “share the tolls.” No cash needs to be exchanged. Having a pre-established billing system reduces the uncertainty between strangers and builds trust (#1).

Something that is exogenous,  future increase in gas prices, may serve as an incentive to carpool.  However, transportation researchers have found,  that the travel time saved by using HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes is also an incentive, and as more users carpool, these designated lanes became less productive.

PLUSES OR MINUSES?

That said, will the Waze app become as popular as Uber or Lyft, or will there be drawbacks?

  • Unless drivers arrange the carpool before they get in their vehicle, there will be even more reliance by  casual drivers using smartphones in traffic. Mobile phones are an increasing source of driver distraction, and there is mixed evidence, pro and con, of whether hands-free devices are safer.  Potentially, vehicle accidents could increase, but the app can help identify the safest drivers. 
  •  In a personal vehicle, the norms are fuzzy:  Some drivers may have difficulty speaking up about the house-rules and some passengers will flaunt them anyway. A carpool rating system may restore the balance, but because the rating system will be slower (a given driver makes only two or three trips a day) the driver might exit the entire system before there is an adequate feedback loop.  
  • Finally, this may be the most important reason why the carpool app will need time to grow:  “Drivers are turned inward”. The driver is transporting strangers in their personal car. For many, this vehicle is their largest purchase and most prized possession. Millions of dollars have been spent on advertising to remind car owners that “vehicles=freedom + identity + well-being.” 

So, until further notice, the decision to carpool could be overruled by the opportunity to make unannounced stops, do a drive-through for food, and have a sanctuary between the home and office.  It will just depend!

Curious why you see fewer posts here at GrayHomesGreenCars? Follow the  smartphone- centric blog at dearsmartphone.com and join in the discussion!

Rideshare As Niche Transit? (Nice!)

Rideshare and Transit Working Well
Rideshare and Transit as Partners

Can transit be a contender in the race for ‘first-mile last-mile’ and niche travel?  Transit doesn’t have a short, sexy name, like Lime or Bird, but transit does have room to grow if you pair it with rideshare. 

This past week I attended a short workshop held by the Massachusetts  Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) called a ‘Ride-Hailing Parternships Forum. The program showcased local  institutions that have partnered with Uber and Lyft .  It was an interesting weave of legacy  transportation and  the upstarts.  Here are observations, and in italics  my comments (JG).  While I have tried to be journalistically accurate, it is still a good idea to check with the workshop coordinator  before quoting.

Niche 1: Rideshare Goes Where Transit Does…But Faster

The Boston region has an older but extensive commuter-rail and bus network so in principle you don’t have to own a vehicle, even if you live in the outer suburbs. However, getting from one locale to another can be exceedingly slow if the travel trip requires connections or transfers. Northshore Community College had difficulty getting students to campus within a reasonable travel time as the classrooms, and campus services were spread over different locales (think of a triangle: public transit often had students traveling the right angle).

The Community College found a solution: they provide enrolled students with access to a rideshare business account. It has a cap of $10.00 per trip and travel is limited to commutes.  Northshore no longer operates a shuttle bus at an annual cost of nearly $100,000, and students seem to reach their classes with less travel time. This means that the campus can recruit from a larger area, retain students who have a family or work a second job, and not make car ownership seem like a prerequisite for getting an education.

JG: From a birds-eye view, rideshare is expanding the transit network in the greater Boston area. Over time, it may help to fine-tune it, and even reduce the number of low-performing bus routes (see Niche #4 below too). A larger question for land-user planners is how to locate future facilities, like a community college, closer to the main lines.

Niche 2: Rideshare Lowers the Cost of Paratransit and Makes Riders Happy

The Ride, which is the paratransit operation of the MBTA, had a purported annual budget in 2016 of  ~ $100 million.  Around 2016  they partnered with Uber and Lyft, and encouraged ambulatory passengers to take rideshare instead of the usual paratransit trip. Each rideshare trip trip would be subsidized, but could not exceed a cap.  What began as a pilot proved to be a win-win for passengers: they said they preferred arriving in Uber or Lyft instead of big, lumbering vans or Ride branded vehicles; they did not have to pre-book for travel often three or four days in advance; and they seemed to enjoy participating in high-tech mobility.

The  travel outcomes are surprising and important.  According to a RIDE spokesman: the pilot reduced the RIDE’s cost the per cost trip from $41.00  to just $17.00. That is a 59 percent decrease. However, it also fueled the number of trips “ordered” by eligible customers by nearly 46 percent.

There have been a few other bumps on the service road. Many  passengers resist taking pooled trips. And, a few Uber and Lyft drivers have been resistant to accommodating  service dogs. The stickiest and most challenging issue seems to be providing a sufficient supply of WAV  (wheel chair accessible vehicles).

JG: Perhaps one of the most vital aspects, still to be measured, is whether both the mental and physical health of RIDE passengers is improved. Does new- found mobility improve the quality of life and are their benefits from the opportunity to be more socially, culturally, and physically active?

Niche 3: Rideshare is the New Link to Medical Care:

It is often cited that 30 percent of patients miss their medical appointments because they cannot get to the doctor . Whether that percentage is too large is debatable (patients might want to cancel for other reasons), but the no-show numbers are staggering.

The Needham Community Council, a private non-profit social service agency tackled the issue several years ago when their Executive Director saw a decline in the number of volunteer drivers. She was the first to identify Rideshare as a back-stop for patients who had difficulty reaching medical services, and went on to negotiate business contracts with both Uber and Lyft (she currently uses only Lyft).  Since her older office staff lacked the facility to dispatch rides with smartphones, the council reverted to summoning rideshare trips via voice calls like the Go Go Grandparent  service.

The Needham service currently averages about thirty-five trips a month at an average cost of $8.00 per ride.  Although each trip is completely subsidized, the council discovered a soft touch so that about 25% of the riders to contribute to the cost of travel. Meanwhile, local hospitals and charities also make small financial contributions.

JG: The Needham program is noteworthy, not only because it was a first in health-care travel, but because it continues to be sustainable. Although many larger corporate players are moving into this space this is an example of how a small grassroots program can do the job well, and make up for the lack of volunteer drivers.

Niche 4: Rideshare is the Missing Link in the Transit Schedule

Bus service is not 24/7 but the needs of riders can be,  particularly on weekends, holidays, and after 6 pm.  With limited service evening riders are stranded along with those working night shifts and low paying service jobs.  In fact, to work a low paying job at night or weekends, you might need have to own a car. The problem is particularly acute in low-density, sprawling suburbs, where workers are more likely to be able to afford to live.

The Greater Attleboro-Taunton Regional Transit Authority (GATRA) operates fixed bus route service from  6 am to 6:30 pm weekdays, and Saturdays, 9 am to 5 pm. To meet the needs of their ‘under resourced’ riders,  community leaders  banded together to provide an alternative. They tapped into an existing transit grant of $30,000 and used the local YMCA as a lead. Now, riders who are opted-in by any of the community leaders (there are currently ten of them) get access to rideshare  outside of the narrow transit service window.

Other regional transit agencies are beginning to investigate the feasibility of this niche service, particularly for routes where headways are long and ridership is sparse (often a confounding problem).

JG: In an interesting twist of data analysis, origin/destination/ and time of day data from Uber and Lyft  might reveal where future bus service is warranted. It has generally been observed in other cities that the highest level of rideshare growth has been in the evenings and on weekends. 

—–

In our earlier blog, we observed that regulators are quick to jump on the bandwagon to tax the rideshare companies and blame them for increased traffic congestion and reduced transit ridership. In fact, an earlier publication by MAPC, whether correctly interpreted or not, led to the headline that Uber and Lyft were pulling people off public transit and putting them in traffic .

The MAPC workshop, yet organized by regulators, suggests there might be a softening and second look at entirely new and niche travel behaviors.  

Surveys are Simple…Rideshare is Not

Imrix and Traffic
A Traffic Question

Traffic congestion is caused by many factors: population and employment growth, construction activity, deliveries, on-street parking, aggressive lane-shifting drivers, and more.

But, policy makers insist that Uber and Lyft are the primary culprits. This belief has led officials in New York City and elsewhere to propose caps on the number of rideshare vehicles,  in the name of taming congestion. 

READING THE POLLS:

Sometimes policy makers take the polls too seriously or over-interpret the results. An oft-cited poll of rideshare users in Boston, Ma. cites that 42 percent of rideshare users would otherwise use public transit. A 2017 UC Davis study of Lyft and Uber riders in seven major cities reports that fifteen percent said they would ride transit more if ride-hailing was no longer available. A separate  poll in Boston observes that 30 percent of riders have switched from transit to rideshare.  

If you unpack the surveys, there are red flags:

  1. When riders take a poll (i.e. survey) they seek a response which is socially correct and appears reasonable. It is less socially acceptable to say you would use your own vehicle and drive…it is more socially acceptable to say you would have taken the bus or train.                                                                                                                                                   
  2. Some polls fail to report the number of riders who do not currently own a car, or who have decided to postpone the purchase of one.                                                                                                                       
  3.  In most major cities, public transit operates at capacity during peak commute hours. Young people have accelerated the demand for transit because they have a lower rate of car-ownership and live close in. However, transit capacity has not expanded to meet the ridership growth.                                                                                                               
  4. Under real conditions, riders may not take the bus or train on consecutive days of the work week. The decision to ride transit on a particular day depends on multiple factors: weather, if there are kids to pick up or drop off, packages or heavy bags to tote, and the walking distance to and from the bus stop.

INFERENCES:

It is both a statistical error and a social one to infer that all of the people who said they would have used mass transit would have completed their trip that way.

There is recent data from rideshare studies that inform the issue. One of the largest increases in rideshare takes place during late evenings and weekends… times when transit service is less frequent and there are longer waits. On weekends and evenings, car owners find rideshare to be convenient for other reasons too. They can save on the cost of parking, and not worry about DUI’s.

SURVEYS ARE SIMPLE:

The thing to keep in mind is that surveys are simple…but trips are not. If someone decides to drive, instead of taking Uber or Lyft, they might “bundle” the reason for taking that trip with other interim stops. These are called “chained trips” and drivers typically complete multiple stops (or errands) on a single tour. A survey question about a single trip does not get at the nuances of chained travel, and when you ask people specifically about a single transport mode they don’t tell you why they are traveling.

The demand for trip taking is elastic, so adding capacity will encourage brand new activity patterns and travel. The convenience, reliability and low cost of rideshare has surely increased trip taking.  This observation is highlighted  in the op cit. Clewlow/Misha/UC Davis poll: 22 % say they would take fewer trips without rideshare.

NEW PLATFORM= NEW DEMAND:

However, turned around, new travel trips would also have occurred on a different platform… say public transit…if transit had become more convenient, frequent, and reliable. Unfortunately, it has not kept pace with the return of Millennials to cities and most urban systems are hobbled by network and capacity issues. The gain in more personal travel modes, like bicycles and scooters is probably indicative of underlying demand. However, these modes are not safe or practical for many potential users.  Uber and Lyft have taken up the slack.

It’s easy to point to survey results that favor transit and to scapegoat rideshare for slowing down traffic. It’s also easy for lawmakers to then proceed from survey result “A” to outcome “B” and advocacy “C”: namely, a tax or freeze on rideshare in the spirit of trying to rein it in. It is a remnant from the heady days of selling taxi medallions.

It’s harder for these survey pundits to admit that cracks in the existing transit system enabled the demand for more travel trips and hence rideshare… to spring up.

When for Autonomous Vehicles… Follow the Horse

The Rapid Adoption of A New Mobility in NY

 

Many of the uncertainties surrounding Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) circle around dates. “When will AVs move from pilot tests to the open road,” and  “when will they outnumber conventional vehicles?” There is a lot riding on “when”. How can cities that plan transportation projects on a twenty or thirty years cycle evaluate future transit projects like rail when  the “when” is unclear?

Often radically new inventions, like the AV, have to lay-in- wait until components of the technology catch up. The Picturephone, for example, was demonstrated at the 1939 World’s Fair and AT&T showed a prototype in the 1960s. But, picture vision, like Skype, did not become mainstream until advancements were achieved in over-the-air bandwidth and video compression.

Similarly, remote-controlled AVs debuted in the 1920’s, but it took technological advancements in the 1980s to make them scalable. The functional vehicle required fast computing, computer vision, video cameras, and thereafter, neural processing networks and advanced sensors. We are now at the point where companies, specifically  Google,  have logged 5 million miles on the road and 5 billiion more on simulators.

A Problem to be Solved:

But, to get to the next stage, and solve “when” the technology must either create a problem to be solved, or solve an existing problem. There are useful parallels for problem solving from the time, over a hundred years ago, when the transition was made from horse and carriage to the human driven vehicle (HDV). Many people are surprised at how quickly HDVs displaced horses, particularly in urban areas. But, that’s because, as we will see, the technology was a problem solver.

First, some perspective. At the turn of the century, there were 21 million horses in the U.S.  and only about 4,000 automobiles. But, by 1908, in just eight years, the number of cars surpassed the number of horses in New York City. In more rural areas the diffusion was slower, but by 1922 horses were all but phased out, except in special applications. One of the key factors here was not a lack of interest, but often the absence of infrastructure, namely paved roads.

Infrastructure:

The human driven vehicle (HDV) required an infrastructure quite distinct from the horse and carriage.  Cars operated on paved roads, with painted lanes, signalization, and traffic rules. It is not widely known that a smaller technology, the bicycle, came first and helped transition roadways from rutted road or cobblestone to smooth, bituminous surfaces.

It is likely that we already have that smaller technology in place for the AV. Smartphones enable communication between drivers, vehicle sensors, and maps. The phone also has a different purpose: it is widely used in cars for ‘infortainment’, such that drivers may welcome the transition to AVS so that they can continue to text and talk more safely.

Efficiency:

During the transition from horses to cars, the wealthy acquired the first horseless carriages.  It was a status symbol. However, the real adoption took place, function-to-function. Freight-haulage was one of the later functions, probably because early cars did not have the horsepower, literally .

In the case of autonomous vehicles, freight shippers are on the leading edge because of opportunities to save time and reduce a reliance on drivers.  Autonomous cars may also appeal to suburban commuters, not because they are wealthy, but because they might help solve the problems of spending an average of 52 minutes a day stuck in traffic.

Resources:

The transition from horses to car vastly disrupted the supply chain for farmers and agriculture. A single horse required five acres of hay and grain annually, so vast tracts of farmland were reserved for growing, then transporting, horse feed.

The autonomous car, in this case an electric one, will likewise upend the supply chain. It will greatly reduce carbon emissions if solar energy or wind power are sources for generating the electricity. The electric AV will also significantly reduce emissions wrought by the extended  supply chain to drill, transport, refine, and store oil.

Public Health (1):

Public health is often cited as the core issue explaining why horse-driven transportation met a fast demise, and why cities were quick to adopt  human driven vehicles.

The millions of horses that pulled carriages and moved good and services left behind gigantic volumes of urine and waste.  Each day, the average horse produced 45 pounds of dung and a gallon of urine. Horses often died in service on the streets and their carcasses blocked traffic until they could be carted away.

The resulting public health issues ranged from noxious smells, horse dung passed on the shoes of pedestrians, flies, vermin, and airborne diseases.

Compared to horses, gas powered cars have fewer negative externalities, even with their massive C02 footprint. Electric cars will significantly reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality. They will also reduce approximately $190 billion each year in health care costs associated with accidents.

The AV also brings two other distinct advantages under the rubric of public health. First, these cars are quiet and will reduce  decibel levels in public spaces; noise reductions may bring  health benefits. Another improvement, particularly for mental health, may emerge when a transportation mode decreases stress, anxiety, and road-rage.

Public Health (2) :

The incentive in 1900 to move from horses to human driven vehicles had a safety aspect. Although they seem quaint and relatively slow, horse-drawn wagons were not stable and accident prone. Horse and pedestrian fatalities were also common. About the same number of people were killed in New York City in 1900 in horse-pedestrian collisions, as were killed in 2015 by car-pedestrian interactions. Considering the momentous change in population, horses were a clear danger to those on foot.

Although the recent death of a pedestrian in Arizona by an autonomous vehicle  is still topical, people overlook that on that same day (March 19, 2018), 120 people died in automobile related incidents. The push to safety, expressed in campaigns like Vision 2020  is likely to propel the technology. Today, 94% of today’s accidents are attributed to human error. In 2016 there were more than 37,000 fatalities plus  6,827 pedestrian and bicycles deaths. Worldwide, 1.2 million people lose their lives in automobile accidents.  This may be the largest man-made public health crisis we have ever faced.

Conspicuous Consumption Sea-Change?

To the inquiry  of ‘when’ the autonomous vehicle will go mainstream and the problems it will solve, we add a  final footnote.

Wealthy people were  the first to adopt the human operated vehicle, and car ownership was initially known as “the rich man’s toy.”  Cars have continued to be a status symbol, fueled by advertising, at least until now.

Over the next decade there could be a sea-change. Since they began just six or seven years ago, rideshare services like Uber and Lyft have reduced the need, and sometimes the desire, to own personal vehicles. Few rideshare passengers care about the type of vehicle that picks them up; it is the convenience and ease of use that matters. Scooters, a more recent entry, are also shifting perceptions. It is important to watch these trends, because urban mobility could operate in the future more as a service, like electricity or water.

If that is the case, AVs could roll out quickly.  They are to future cities what human driven vehicles (HDV)  are to horses.

 

The Next Big Car App

 

Solving the Parking Crisis in Manhattan- May, 1929. theboweryboyshistory.com

What if you could use your smartphone to make your car trip safer and faster, increase road capacity, and pave the way for autonomous vehicles?

A prototype already exists on our phones; it’s the app that helps drivers locate off-street parking.  Some familiar names  are Spot Hero,  Parking Panda, WhereiPark, BestParking, ParkMe and ParkWhiz, but there are more.

Prior to apps, economists led by Donald Shoup  shook up the staid parking business with real-time applications of supply and demand pricing.  Programs like SF Park, reduce both search time and congestion. Pricing algorithms are based on inputs such as the past occupancy level, block size, time, day of week, and so forth. 

Now there is an opportunity to bring a new wave of improvements  through smartphones and location-aware sensors. 

GUIDED PARKING GROWS:

Guided parking apps are still evolving. Simply put, a driver enters her destination before  starting the vehicle trip, and is then routed to proximate parking places, based on preferences for cost and convenience.Upscale car manufacturers, like BMW, are already integrating Parkmobile functions into some of their dashboards . Or, the driver simply reserves a parking space before they get on the road. 

These apps are important because they change the behavior of drivers and make each trip they take more like rideshare.  Drivers do not circle aimlessly hoping to find street parking, they have an upfront knowledge of the full trip cost, and many times they are able to shorten the travel time, even allowing for the last leg on foot. It sounds like a lot, but the changes are subtle…. they sum to a more efficient use of road-travel. An IBM study estimated that up to 30 percent of traffic in a city may be caused by drivers searching for a parking spot and Imrix estimates that American drivers waste 17 hours per year in search of a space.

CHANGING EVEN MORE SPACES: 

Meanwhile, the parking apps also begin to prepare the public for autonomous vehicles. When the guided parking app is programmed to use surface lots and indoor structures, it frees up meters and curb space. Public policy needs to follow suit, and slowly reduce or eliminate street parking. This is vital because curb space is the essential enabler for future transportation: rideshare, demand based transit, and autonomous vehicles.

It may be a while before older drivers, like Baby Boomers, embrace parking apps that guide them to a surface lot or structure. But, there are plentiful reasons why younger people may enjoy them. First, the apps blend transportation with connectivity….just like an extension of the smartphones they live by. Second, being guided to a parking spot is sustainable….it helps to reduce congestion and carbon emissions. And, like rideshare, it can alleviate some of the stress and unpredictability of driving alone.

REDISCOVERING URBAN SPACE

The parking innovation is favored by two additional factors:

The first is the growing surplus of retail space and commercial frontage. As online shopping expands, the need for store-fronts shrinks. Before smartphones, commercial development sprawled along urban strips that encouraged drivers to park for free. Excess store-fronts may bring a return to denser, multi-use shopping centers that favor a more contemporary, leisurely outing centered around foot traffic, bicycles and scooters. The parking structure might have stores at ground-level, and for those needing special assistance, pickup and drop-off by a dedicated shuttle vehicle.

A second trend is also a positive: the app can free up street-side parking and  help foster open lanes. The right most travel lane could then be re-purposed for other modes of transportation, like scooters, bicycles, and motorized wheelchairs, as well as reclaiming the all-important travel curb. For many cities, the real policy issue will not be the supply and demand of parking spaces but rather, the loss of revenue from street side meters and pay-by-space.

While it may seem futuristic, smart mobile applications have already become a standard in the car. Drivers now depend on Waze and Google Maps for navigation and traffic updates.  They use pre-billed transponders to speed through toll booths.   And, when they choose not to drive, the smartphone is the enabler for  Uber or Lyft.

The growing use of smartphone apps for guided parking will add to this list. They are squarely built upon people’s familiarity and trust that telecommunications improves trip taking.

Uber Fast- Rideshare Slow?

J. Gould photo
Senior w/ bum leg meets Uber

Rideshare is fast paced. Yet,  as Uberhealthcare and Lyft Concierge expand into  new markets, and health care  in particular,  I wonder whether they need to slow things down, literally. 

For the past two years my colleagues and I have periodically offered a class  called “How to Rideshare” and it is held at the library or senior center. The course is divided into three sessions, because we have learned that seniors need time to process the information and practice.  These  students are not “digital natives.” It takes time  for them to get comfortable with smartphone basics, store a credit card online, understand cellular data versus WiFi, and position a virtual  pin on a virtual map. We have developed the class from scratch, using seniors to pretest our method, We also discovered the need to spend a lot of time going over the safety issues because seniors come full of worry….you can practically see the furrows in their brow. 

SAFETY AS SENIORS SEE IT

A specific concern keeps many seniors  wary of rideshare…. They fear that the drivers have a criminal record and will physically harm them. I don’t know the source of this anxiety, but I hunch that it originates from two concerns: first, trepidation about new technology, and second, an exaggeration on the part of the taxi industry of the rare rideshare trip that goes bad. Our classroom time dispels this safety issue. We describe the rigorous background checks (particularly in states like California and Massachusetts), we mention that Uber and Lyft provide millions of trips on a daily basis,  and we describe the advantage of cashless payment and an always-on, always trackable GPS.

We dispel the idea that rideshare is not safe for seniors.

THE HIDDEN SAFETY ISSUE

But, there is a different aspect of rideshare that continues to put older people in harm’s way. Seniors are slow, and the rideshare business is fast.

In a recent training session, the students, probably age 70 and older (we don’t ask)  had completed a five hours in the classroom, and were now excited to take their first road trip. The students successfully used their smartphone to get an Uber vehicle. For this session our destination was an ice cream parlor  located on a fairly busy street; Uber had provided ride credits, and the ice cream store had provided complementary cones. It was to be a happy graduation.

WIthin minutes a young Uber driver, in a late-model 4 door sedan pulled up, and I hopped into the front seat, while my students, two older ladies, opened the rear doors to settle into the backseat. Except that one of them didn’t. This particular elder had a bum foot and needed to walk with a cane. She was mobile on her feet, but in a dragging sort of way.  Meanwhile, the young Uber driver made a timing mistake- he waited the requisite period of time for an average passenger to load, and assumed that the lady was in the car. Without turning back to look at the passengers, he released the brake. The vehicle  started to lurch forward while our bum-footed passenger had only one leg inside the door. She was in mid-air, suspended between the street and the car.

The story has a happy ending because the Uber driver grasped the gravity, immediately  braked the vehicle before it could roll further, and sprang out to the rear door. There he  lifted the hapless rider  under her shoulder blades and wedged her into the backseat.

It was a fearful trip back to our classroom-  like travel in slow motion. As we waited for the trip to end so we could assess her condition, we distracted ourselves with talk about the Uber driver’s four month only baby boy, aptly named Miles. At the end of the trip, 15 minutes  and  5 miles later, we all breathed a sigh of relief as the lady with the bum foot took a step, then another, and hobbled away intact. No physical damage seemed to have been done, but we were all shaken up.

SLOW DOWN TO SPEED UP

I don’t know that this student will ever ride again…and I certainly know that the experience gave me second thought about how to teach rideshare to elders. Maybe there were safety concerns that I had cavalierly ignored.

Rideshare is clearly a tough business to slow down, because the faster a driver turns around passengers, the more trips and the more revenue. At the end of the day, I do not think that rideshare and older people are incompatible, but I do wonder how to mesh them better. I am reminded that as the rideshare business, Uber and Lyft, reach out to more elderly and medical riders, there is an apt proverb. It goes:  “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Hotrod Sinners and Phone Beginners

Parents cringe when kids get their first smartphone. They have valid concerns about the hours kids will spend on the phone, as well as the accidental, or deliberate, exposure to the digital perils of cyber-bullying, cyber-porn, and more.  

Yet these smartphones also bring parents a peace of mind that an older generation never experienced.  Although there are still far too many vehicle accidents, young people are getting their driver’s licenses later and waiting longer to get behind the wheel. Fewer parents now spend restless evenings waiting up, praying that their kid and the car return safely from a nocturnal adventure.  

NEW STATUS SYMBOL

Smartphones have replaced cars as the status symbol for young people. Phones are changing the rulebook of how teens and parents work out growing pains. In this two-part blog we will highlight some of the differences, and center here on the more easily observed car/phone trade-offs.

The average age for acquiring a personal smartphone (in the US) is only ten, but there is a forceful movement to wait until eight, as in eighth grade . Smartphones have become a teen rite-of-passage. An earlier generation of Boomers, and to some extent Millennials, used their cars as the opportunity to establish independence and connections outside the immediate household. As John Zimmer, the  co-founder of Zimiride, and  president of Lyft observes

The independence once represented by the car has been replaced by cell phones and social networks, which are now at the forefront of people’s expression of freedom and access.

 

So, what are some of the differences between coming of age today, and coming of age when wheels ruled the road?

 

ENVIRONMENTAL: The environmental record is not so green for Baby Boomers and older Millennials. Their transportation preferences locked them into big-oil, and the affection for drive alone leaves behind an oversized carbon footprint.  With smartphones, today’s teens are far more eco-friendly, and cut their fossil-fuel travel trips  by doing both errands and entertainment online instead of taking  travel trips.  As the trend continues, there is an important sea-change just ahead: The convergence of the smartphone and the automobile is occurring with self-driving, autonomous vehicles. As you might imagine, polls find that teens and young people embrace the technology. Older people, the Boomers, are resistant to self-driving cars, and when you dig into the reasons, they say it threatens their freedom and independence .

 

FINANCIAL: Most rites of passage invoke some sacrifice or exchange of funds, and in this case, the younger generation wins again. Boomers were motivated to get a car and incurred the added cost of fuel, maintenance, and insurance. That often required the need to get a first or second job in addition to schooling.  David Murdock, who hails  from an older generation, quipped, “ We take better  care our cars than we take care of the maintenance of our bodies.”

Today’s teens still crave the ownership ritual, but it comes with less of a financial strain.  Twelve year olds to twenty year olds are registered for the family cellphone contract, and do not have to work as hard to afford the trendiest phone or heavy -duty data plan. They may even have extra change left to playfully try out stylish phone cases, headphones, and downloads.

 

CONFIDENTIAL: One of the pivotal differences between phones and cars cuts deeper. Boomers will recall that they did many private things in their own cars, or in the car they borrowed from parents. Cars became an indoor vehicle literally for the private consumption of alcohol or other illicit substances. Backseats were also legendary on date-night as the go-to place and, for many different reasons, teen pregnancies soared in comparison to the rates today.  When all stationary activities were exhausted, there were also trips! The Boomers, as teens, could visit with friends or travel to a site that their elders had specifically forbidden.

Today’s teens may be starting earlier, but there is a similar penchant to forge trails that are private and beyond the prying eyes of adults. Snapchat and messaging sites often provide a ‘teen-preferred’ space, by virtue of being edgy, and/or tricky to navigate. The back seat of the car may have been supplanted by the camera on the phone,  i.e. teens  sending, receiving, and forwarding sexually explicit message and images. There is a subtle similarity: Like young drivers who do not pay full attention to the road, teenagers on their phone may not be thinking about the risks and repercussions when they are deep into sexting. I Curiously, the demographics are different today:  women in relationships are more likely to sext than men, and that may explain why an older age group, 18 the 24 years olds, are the largest users.

 DIGITAL LITERACY: No matter what teens once did in cars there is one blockbuster difference. We used to expect parents, backed by strict hours of classroom time and in-vehicle instruction, to make young people driver-ready.  In an earlier blog we suggested the idea of a provisional license for smartphone users  and on our Facebook page, SmartphoneZen, we noted  the application of Yondr bags so that students were less distracted in the classroom.

Teens know how to use a smartphone and they are usually more proficient at it than their parents. But, they often lack the knowledge to use it mindfully and with purpose. These are skills that need to be taught. Since the nineteen seventies there has been a small movement to teach media studies in the school curriculum. However, it has never been widely adopted. Incongruously, most middle schools and high schools did make room in the academic curriculum  for classes on sexual health and body awareness.

Here stands a new opportunity: teens going online today  encounter a lot of information about sexual health and awareness, including cyber porn. That information is in full sight. For example,  The New York Times cites an older study (2008) that 93 percent of male college students and 62 percent of female students encountered online porn before they were 18.

So, if the smartphone is the new vehicle, and the classroom is the new setting, this might be the opportune moment to pair the two. Parents and educators  take note:  We  need a curriculum that is part of a larger umbrella where kids learn to use their phones in ways that are mindful and responsible. We need to help kids mature alongside their digital freedom and independence.

 

 

Driving is Where Your Head Is

CAN YOU SPOT THE IPAD IN THIS PICTURE?

 

Driving is not about where your car is… it is where your head is.  But, drivers ignore the evidence and buy into an optical illusion when it comes to smartphones.

We can’t find the ipad, which is in plain site (see image) because it blends seamlessly into the upholstery.  Hands-free smartphones encourage a different optical illusion when it comes to safety and mobility. While the phone makes drive time more enjoyable it also masks the cognitive load brought to the driving task.

COGNITIVE DISTRACTION

Cognitive distraction is not a household phrase but it should get more attention in April during “Distracted Driving Awareness Month.”  This annual campaign reminds us that there are nearly 3,500 deaths  and 391,000 traffic injuries each year. These numbers  include all sources of driver distraction, not just phones.  In the past, The National Safety Council (NSC) has estimated that one in four traffic accidents is caused by texting.

It is hard to see cognitive distractions, but optical illusions help us describe it. Like the silver ipad in the image, it is visible, yet overlooked. Drivers cannot imagine the dangers of holding a phone conversation. Their bias, or misbelief, is that they can multi-task and drive safe with hands-free smartphones.  

ALL DISTRACTION IS NOT EQUAL

Some background: There are three identified sources of smartphone distraction in vehicles: the first two are obvious: manual distraction, like reaching for a smartphone or texting with it, and visual distraction, gazing at the keyboard or text, instead of the road.  Drivers rationalize that they are compliant and safe if they keep their hands on the steering wheel, and their eyes planted on the road.

Cognitive distraction is the third source of distraction. Put simply, it is the mental workload associated with a task that involves thinking about something other than the driving task . Driving safely requires more than keeping the vehicle straight within two parallel lines.  Put another way, driving safely it is not where your hands are, but where your brain is.

There is a lot of listening we do in our cars, and for the most part we do it safely. We attend to horns, and sirens outside the car…and even to the GPS on our phones, which speaks turn by turn directions. We also converse with passengers. These exchanges seldom result in ‘distraction’ from the road. Should traffic conditions deteriorate outside the windshield, most passengers, with some rare exceptions, will modulate the change. The feedback can be an outright warning, a small gap in conversation or a subtle change in pitch or tone. In any case, the driver gets alerted.

HANDS-FREE IS DIFFERENT

This is dissimilar to a hands-free conversation on a smartphone. The virtual communicator is far-away and has no knowledge of the road conditions. He/she is not able to alert the driver, slow down, or cease the conversation should road conditions suddenly change.

But, it gets more serious. Drivers on a smartphone seldom inform the virtual party at the other end that they are calling from a car. There is an unwritten rule of etiquette to stay connected, even when the traffic conditions get snarly. If drivers get deeply “wrapped up” in a conversation, their concentration can go awry. A conversation trigger may be an emotional topic, or one deeply rooted in disagreement or debate. Whatever, it tends to floods the driver’s other point of concentration, which should be the driving task.

Cognitive distraction is an everyday occurrence: busy parents call from their car and try to discipline recalcitrant teens, multi-faceted business deals sour over the phone, and political disagreements turn vitriolic.

When drivers acquire hands-free phones, they want to brush away the risk. Existing laws do not help, because they primarily regulate manual distraction and visual distraction, specifically holding a smartphone or texting and driving. There is no law that prohibits using hands-free smartphones, except among teens and novice drivers.  Cognitive Distraction is the optical illusion that we ignore at, our own risk.

TUNNEL VISION AND TUNNEL REACTIONS

The driver who talks… …but has his mind elsewhere faces trouble: first, he/she is more likely to “visually tunnel”- he tunes out more signs and signals in the environment; it might be as straightforward as missing speed-limit signage, or as deadly as blowing through a traffic signal.

Second, the distracted driver has a slower reaction time. Researcher David Strayer, at the University of Utah, finds, at the maximum, that a driver traveling only 25 mph continues to be distracted for up to 27 second after disconnecting from a highly distracting phone call or a car-voice command system. The vehicle would cover the length of three football fields before the driver regained full attention.

We should note that the majority of Strayer’s work measures the mental distraction caused by in-car information systems that are operated by voice commands. The mental distraction from an intense, emotional conversation becomes even more difficult to enumerate.

BEYOND APRIL….

It is human nature to talk and to drive… we have, collectively, been chatting for nearly 100 years old, since the beginning of motoring.  However, it a relatively new capability to drive, and to talk virtually. The differences are that we converse with someone who is not present and we are not stationary. This is an entirely new phenomenon with unmeasured risk. We tell ourselves that it is natural, but like the optical illusion, hands-free smartphones warrant a second look during “National Distracted Driving Month” and beyond.

Provisional Phones/Provisional Drivers

The Provisional Phone And the Provisional Driver…

Are we needing to reinvent the phone for young people?

It used to be a teenage rite of passage in the U.S.:  At ‘Sweet Sixteen’ you were considered mature and could qualify to take a driving exam. Today, that rite comes smaller and younger. Children, well under the age of 16, have been indoctrinated into the whirl of smartphones, the friends and family of telecom.

According to a heavily reported news story in 2016, the average age (in the U.S.)  for having a smartphone today is 10 years.   That numerical average means that many of the users are actually younger!  Another statistic from the American Academy of Pediatrics and Common Sense Media, cites that 75 percent of low-income children have their own mobile device by the age of four.

Still, despite 100 years that separate their invention, smartphones and automobiles are joined at the hip. They bring similar rewards for young people.  With either technology, teens hang out with friends and meet new people, distance themselves from parental controls, and explore the world at large. However, there are also tragic parallels between the phone and driving a car. Teen drivers, ages 16 to 19 are nearly three time more likely than drivers aged 20 and older to be in a fatal crash and in 2015 there were more than 2,300 deaths. Meanwhile smartphones and social media use appear to correlate with an increase in mental illness, depression, and suicides.  A recent, large panel study with Gallup data compared offline and online social interactions. The researchers observed a statistically significant relationship between a self-reported decline in mental health and a heavier reliance on Facebook’s social interchange.

While no one is proposing that teens need a DMV (a motor vehicle office) to certify them as smartphone users, “provisional phones” could become a new heuristic. Since the beginning of automobiles there have been age restrictions. From the start drivers were required to be tested, and by 1909 one state, Pennsylvania, established an age restriction of age 18. Connecticut became the first state to lower that to age 16.

Today, smartphones seem to know no age restrictions, probably because children do not literally crash and burn. The impact is subtle. Yet recently, Silicon Valley executives, those who design hardware and software, have rallied for stricter technology use and even regulation.

Meanwhile, there is no scientific knowledge, just speculation, of the appropriate age at which children should have phones. There is an undercurrent (no pun intended) of fear about the health impacts of electromagnetic waves on young, developing brains. Meanwhile, ‘lucky thirteen’ seems to be popping-up as the new ‘sweet-sixteen’.  A Colorado doctor had proposed a ballot initiative to ban the sale of smartphones to kids under thirteen.  A large movement now afoot, in 48 states, is called wait until 8th (when children are approximately 14 years old).

The “right age” is clearly a dilemma for parents. Modern parents feel more secure if their children can be in contact, and they justify mobile phones because there are no longer land-lines. They also recognize that a child without a phone misses out socializing with friends and learning modern tools. Everyone knows that the ability and knowledge to handle electronic tools begins before age 13.

(end of part one)