The Daily Commute: We Need to Talk About the Other 99%

By Rob Power

Rob is Chief Marketing Officer at Carma, the carpooling app that is changing the world one empty seat at a time. As the article above suggests, Carma’s sole focus is on increasing occupancy as a means to solving the daily commute. Find out more at www.carmacarpool.com or follow @TeamCarma on Twitter.

Feb 9, 2015 | Smart Cities | 1 comment


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This year, many highly successful transportation organisations will continue to invest heavily in addressing “the 1% problem”. They will do this by throwing massive amounts of money at providing alternative transportation options for short utility trips. The flag bearers of this movement, ride-hailing apps and autonomous vehicle solutions, are indeed helping to change the ad hoc or 1-5 mile trip but they do little to address the twice-daily tidal wave of traffic congestion that afflicts cities around the world.

Ride-hailing apps such as Lyft and Uber remain embroiled in a much-publicised pricing war. Both companies have demonstrated innovation through their services as they have successfully disrupted the taxicab industry, but how do they address the fact that the vast majority of us drive to work alone? How many typical professionals with a 10-30 mile commute can afford to use Lyft or Uber twice daily?

Google has invested billions in the “driverless car”, which of course is a remarkable achievement from an engineering point of view and will surely lead to advancements in vehicle safety. But how will it address the issue of single occupancy? Is it possible that we will see a reduction in occupancy, as automated for-hire vehicles travel around cities waiting to be called by their next passenger(s)? Are we really moving towards the Zero Occupancy Vehicle as a solution to transportation problems?

As all of this and more unfolds, Carma continues with its focus on the 99% problem. For example, those with 10-30 mile commutes who spend, on average, $9,000 per year on their vehicle and one week every year sitting in traffic. Driverless cars and ride hailing apps simply do not address this.

There is no question that traffic congestion is becoming an increasing concern in our cities. Numerous corrective measures have been implemented around the world; from the congestion charge in London, to the “even-odd” license plate system in parts of China, to the thousands of rush hour tolling gantries across the US.

As a society, it is imperative that we work together to address the increasingly crippling commute. By pooling our resources more effectively, we could very quickly reach a solution that truly offers value (in time and money) to all of us. The crazy part is, the necessary resources are already in place today. There is no requirement to invest billions of dollars in new infrastructure, all we need to do is make use of the empty seats in our ‘riderless’ cars.

Traffic congestion is not a linear problem. A 2-5% reduction in peak-hour traffic volumes has been shown to lead to a 27%-35% reduction in total traffic delay (source: “Mitigation of expressway traffic congestion through transportation demand management with toll discount” Xing, J. ; Tokyo, Japan ; Takahashi, H. ; Kameoka, H. Published in IET Intelligent Transport Systems, 2009). If 2-5% of commuters in your neighborhood decided to carpool, imagine the impact this would have on travel times, quality of life and local air quality.

History has taught us that bringing about behavioral change is incredibly difficult. For most of us, commuting is like brushing our teeth. We do it twice a day (ideally), but we don’t even think about it. The last thing on our minds when we roll out of bed late for work is a change in routine. But if we continue to realise the benefits that a relatively small change to our lives can have, we might make more of an effort to help ourselves and those around us.

Austin, TX has seen one of the biggest population explosions in the US in recent times. This has resulted in unprecedented traffic levels and the construction of many more highways. However, the problem of induced demand teaches us that building more roads only propagates the problem and leads to more single occupancy vehicles. If we simply build more roads, traffic will eventually congest those also.

This conversation urgently needs to become one based on vehicle occupancy. Vehicle throughput is an outdated way to measure the effectiveness of our roads, because it fails to take into account the number of wasted empty seats which are highly expensive to drive around and which unnecessarily contribute to congesting and polluting our environment. Person throughput is a far more revealing and accurate measure of how we make use of our roads.

This way of thinking leads to different ways in which we can incentivize people to make better use of our roads. For example, imagine if all drivers started at a base level surcharge for their morning commute, which was reduced depending on the number of passengers in their car – becoming zero if at full capacity. No more tolls, just simple pricing based on how efficient drivers’ use of their seats (and therefore our roads) is.

To conclude, it is clear that increasing vehicle occupancy is today’s most urgent transportation challenge. The good news is that the rewards are vast. Reducing occupancy offers huge potential benefits for our fellow commuters, our neighbors, society-at-large and of course the planet. It doesn’t require massive funding or new legislation, it simply requires us to work together.

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1 Comment

  1. Back in the day my Mom was the director of “Rides” – a non-profit vanpool/ carpool ride matching service. She always pointed out that people will use the easiest transit option, which for reasons of development patterns is usually a car. Sharing it leverages the mode’s “last mile” advantage and infrastructure investment. So yes, getting better utilization of those cars had the biggest bang for your buck. But the ability to match riders with vehicles was difficult at the time. I’ve been thinking for a while that the obvious answer is to use uber-like ride matching tech for regular commuters. It seems like the logical next step. Can’t wait to see it happen.

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