It seems like you can’t turn a corner without encountering a tech company tackling a mobility challenge these days.
The CEO of Zappos Tony Hsieh moved their corporate headquarters from the suburbs to downtown Las Vegas and, in a reversal from the Silicon Valley tech firms who shuttle people from the city to suburban office campuses, they are now shuttling people from the suburbs to the city. Project 100, as it is called, aims to create a seamless network of 100 on-demand chauffeured Tesla sedans, 100 shared vehicles, 100 shared bikes, and 100 shared shuttle bus stops that a phone app would optimally assign to each subscriber who inputs a destination. This mixed mode “concierge” service (as covered in this excellent Atlantic Cities article by Greg Lindsay) could be the ultimate proving ground for the concept of mobility as a service.
Hsieh’s $350 million Las Vegas downtown redevelopment is a larger initiative which includes real estate investment, startup incubators, support for schools & local businesses, as well as Project 100. It’s clear that, if successful, Hsieh would be looking to replicate this in other cities. Other software providers have attempted this goal of providing full commute mode optimization and recommendation. Upshift is a San Francisco startup looking to pair shared car leasing service along with hourly rentals supported by full valet service. Various regional transit agencies have online “trip planning” tools that calculate best routes using schedules from multiple transit modes. Google Maps offers driving, transit, and bicycling directions – but only each in isolation. Project 100 may be trying to crack a much bigger nut of mixing these modes, weaving in actual real time data (as opposed to static bus schedules), and testing it on cutting edge vehicles loaded with sensors and communication capabilities.
This could be a stepping stone to the vision of shared autonomous vehicles (SAV) that create a network of on-call transport, as Eric Jaffe writes – like elevators did for vertical transport (originally operated by humans, of course). Self-driving, publicly accessible transport could lead to an “internet of cars” that, in addition to improving traffic flow and mitigating long commutes, can also prevent crashes and track data. Think of the vast improvement over the current communication tools that cars are equipped with: horns, lights, and bumpers. These improvements in inter-car communication and safety can also result in significant improvements to traffic flow in cities. But city policies will need to stay flexible in order to keep up with so many changes. One example of this is a new price on curb space for tech company shuttle buses to share bus stops with the existing San Francisco municipal bus system.
Are tech companies providing benefits to the city as a whole?
Project 100 is starting small and it remains to be seen whether this ambitious endeavor can be achieved. Technical details aside, the prospect of a corporate-run transportation network has parallels to the Silicon Valley-San Francisco shuttle bus phenomenon. As Silicon Valley tech companies have run more and more charter buses to pick up employee recruits in San Francisco and around the Bay Area, there has been backlash from some San Francisco residents, ranging from complaints of the buses unwieldy sizes to outright protests against a larger sense of gentrification and class division between the tech haves and have-nots.
In Las Vegas, one third of the downtown population lives below the poverty line, so Project 100 will need to carefully consider how they want to approach the social equity aspect in order to truly achieve the community benefits that they tout. Their premium $500 monthly unlimited mobility subscription would still be cheaper than the all-in costs of owning a car, though the public might need a lot of convincing to accept that. Mobility as a service was once called public transit. Public personal transit is a new frontier.
As tech companies increase their forays into the public domain of the physical world – as opposed to the internet world – and wield their considerable resources, they may increasingly face challenges from a wide spectrum of the vocal public. Ultimately, is Zappo’s move downtown another indicator that tech companies and their knowledge workers are the new upper class in future cities? Or will some tech companies located in the suburbs simply build the cities around themselves? To house their employees, 50-story apartment towers would need to be built on Google and Facebook campuses, as visualized in these depictions by 3D designer Alfred Twu.
The efforts in Las Vegas reflect a new class of smart city influencers: innovator-financiers who can self-fund projects that push the boundaries of what is possible. Maybe it takes a place like Las Vegas for big risks to be taken in changing the paradigm. It is already making some strides to mitigate its reputation as a city of excess, such as improving operational sustainability in many convention and casino chains, including the nation’s second-largest rooftop PV solar array at 6.2 megawatts of power. Now if only those slot machines could be harnessed for good…