Zipcar Founder Robin Chase on Upending the Status Quo

By Josh Ostroff

Josh Ostroff is the Interim Director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a statewide coalition working to modernize mobility. He’s a resident of Natick, Massachusetts, and a long-time public official.


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This is the third in a series entitled The Future of Mobility, a joint project of CommonWealth and Meeting of the Minds.

Freedom no longer means sitting behind the wheel of your own car

The accelerating changes in transportation have disrupted established services and brought choices and challenges to consumers, companies, government, and advocates. And there’s a growing awareness of the connectedness between transportation and climate, social equity, and health.

Our coalition, Transportation for Massachusetts, has worked to stay at the forefront of the technology-fueled mobility revolution, and our recent report, Fast Forward, highlights the ways in which the public sector should steer change to help solve social and environmental problems – not exacerbate them.

We can’t count on the convenience of smartphone apps to provide affordable and convenient transportation for everybody, or ensure that autonomous vehicles are climate-friendly. Those are not goals of the free market. Solving these problems is going to take concerted effort by policymakers.

Transportation pioneer, author, and Zipcar cofounder Robin Chase generously wrote the introduction to Fast Forward, and introduced the report at an October conference in Boston’s Seaport District.

We caught up a couple of weeks later for breakfast at the Andala Coffee House in Cambridge, Massachusetts – a fitting venue, as the Andala was where both Zipcar and Goloco, a share-a-ride app, were conceived. Over Arabic coffee, tea, and omelets, we took stock of recent history and what’s next in transportation.

JOSH OSTROFF: What are the priorities in making transportation work for more people, more fairly, more sustainably? People are often resistant to change unless and until it affects their self-interest. So what’s the message that the public should be getting about the changes and challenges in front of us? And what does that tell us about the politics of transforming mobility?

ROBIN CHASE: Zipcar was a great example of how, given a travel option that is cheaper, more convenient, and much easier to use than what they had before, people will embrace it.  Not because of environmental or social benefits, but because it was faster, cheaper, and easier.  So the challenge is to make more transportation alternatives to personal car ownership that way.

As we look at transformation, the impediments are regulations that protect and re-enforce the status quo.  Industries and models with powerful incentives to maintain and not disrupt their business are also obstacles. So the biggest barrier is effectively the status quo.

The biggest conflict is between the old and new ways of doing things.  Too often, government is aligned to protect established industries and uses the excuse of increased economic costs to bolster their argument. For example, the state of Florida – the Sunshine State – has among the lowest levels of solar energy adoption because government, through its regulatory powers, is supporting the interests of the existing utility company over the interests of residents. I also don’t underestimate the power of intransigence – of maintaining things as they are.  At the neighbor level, too, many people don’t want change. They don’t often rethink their existing patterns of travel and consumption, and have accepted congestion – or warmer weather – as just the way things are.

So in that context, Zipcar was successful in part because it didn’t need any government action and didn’t ask people to imagine carsharing. We just did it, and could do so within the current legal system (license plates were a drama, however: residential or commercial?). Uber and Lyft, on the other hand, launched by breaking many rules and causing a lot of strife. Certainly, cities are within their rights to protect public good and safety – requiring safe vehicles and drivers with adequate insurance coverage; but when government acts to protect an existing industry, that hinders evolution, problem solving, and innovation. As for whether people will embrace change: when the new solution is better, we have seen that they will. That’s not a barrier.

OSTROFF: What about the value of existing employment? Not everyone is ready to evolve; taxi drivers have to feed their families.

CHASE: An Uber job is not the same as a taxi driver’s job. But the solution is not to demand that all employment be full-time jobs with benefits; that is the old paradigm. It is true that our social safety nets and workplace rules are currently tied to protecting full-time workers.  And for years, we’ve seen companies struggle to afford paying benefits – witness recent lawsuits against Wal-Mart, and FedEx. But today, the Internet exists, making it easy to coordinate many small transactions. The result is the rise of a new organizational structure for which Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb are poster children. Companies are increasingly platform based, with labor outside of the company, separated from the social safety net.  The solution is to take the benefits and regulations we as a society value, now associated with full-time labor  — and extend them to part-time labor. As workplaces change, our social constructs must adapt. Given some basic security, this new way of work offers greater individual freedom and opportunity. The new social contract should unleash innovation, not constrain it. Let’s not make personal well-being and security the price we pay for economic progress. We need them both.

OSTROFF: What about the tradeoffs we make to address the risks to our climate? How do we balance our perceived short-term and our actual long-term interests?

CHASE: We are at a moment when the world needs to evolve quickly to resolve the issues provoked by climate change.  We should be thinking in government and in our own lives about how to introduce fluidity and dynamism.  Rigidity must go.  The status quo is nothing to celebrate. Let’s make it possible to evolve economics quickly and safely, and get on with it.

OSTROFF: The status quo won’t be the status quo for long, because the changing climate will force us to adapt in ways we may not foresee, and congestion will make established travel norms uneconomical.  So will there be a place for car ownership?

CHASE: In the urban context, car ownership is an inhibitor. Today, it puts a huge burden on household budgets and people. Tomorrow, we should be able to choose what’s right for each and every trip. The future I see will involve fleets of autonomous vehicles that are electric and shared (I call them FAVES). Zipcar showed how technology could make it easy to share a car. UberPool and LyftLine have used smartphones to make ride-sharing easy. Autonomous vehicles, in the form of FAVES, will make the last vestiges of any inconveniences of sharing disappear, and they will also make shared transportation economically possible in lighter population densities than is possible today.

OSTROFF: We’ve long associated freedom with being behind the wheel.

CHASE: In our real reality, that’s just an ad slogan. Driving around a city or commuting to and from work in traffic doesn’t make me feel free; it makes me feel imprisoned. Increasingly, car ownership is a burden, not an asset.  It’s not enabling freedom for households to devote 18 percent or more of their income just to own a car, or always having to drive your kids or parents around. Car ownership is not liberation.  But pay-as-you-go shared autonomous transportation will bring freedom. I won’t have to pay attention to driving. And if we make the right policy decisions about autonomous vehicles (i.e. make them shared), we’ll need a lot fewer cars, opening up street space to better, safer, and more pleasant walking and biking conditions. I’m looking forward to being able to confidently nip around town on my bike for short trips. And school age children can, too.

OSTROFF: There’s a big investment in the status quo with public transit, not just private cars. So how does the concept of fluidity work with traditional fixed-route systems in public transportation?

CHASE: For densely populated metropolitan areas, which are getting more dense, there is still a clear benefit to heavy transit infrastructure on fixed routes, or dedicated lanes. These trains and buses will move faster through traffic than independent vehicles that will have to deal with intersections and pedestrians. Investments around fixed routes connecting highly populated urban centers and corridors will persist. But not every transit connection can or should be fixed. I think autonomous vehicles will take the place of all bus routes, although from a real estate investment perspective, on-demand FAVES won’t guarantee the timeless stability of built heavy infrastructure. This new soft infrastructure could be moved at any time and will definitely change the real estate investment calculus. Exactly how remains to be seen. At the same time, autonomous vehicles will be connecting places that used to be car dependent or fell “off the grid.” These places will now have new and greater value. Autonomous vehicles can help in the coming transition, lowering the barriers for access to “public” transportation. I put quotes around that word “public” because it might be private “public transport.”

OSTROFF: Autonomous vehicles are ripe for regulation, and many states and cities are taking the first steps. How should public sector regulation work? When does that kick in, since we are at the dawn of this new age?

CHASE: There is a lot of discussion about regulation of autonomous vehicles.  What’s too much and too soon? We don’t want to stifle innovation, but there is a public interest here. We can state clearly that we have spent 100 years with personal cars and have learned, particularly in cities, that we need to better manage these metal boxes on scarce pavement. So let’s apply those lessons. Rules around access and congestion are still in play. We look to the public sector to regulate where there is scarcity – of roads, for example – because the free market goes towards the demands of commerce, and not necessarily human need.

OSTROFF: We tend to use yesterday’s technology as a reference for tomorrow – such as horseless carriages or driverless cars. But what will a driverless car look like?

CHASE: It won’t have a front and back end. It’s hard to say what it will look like. The fundamental piece of the equation is that when you take out the driver, it upends the economics of the trip and it transforms what we think of as a car and how and where we use it.  The economic threshold of making a car trip becomes almost zero, so there are many more trips possible, to and from many more places for different people with different needs. This reality – that the marginal cost of moving a car around will only be a couple of dollars an hour – is what gives me nightmares in the urban context.  Forgot your coat at home? Send the car back to pick it up. Why pay for parking, even at a meter, when it is cheaper to just keep the car circling the block until you are ready to get back in? From a retail perspective, Amazon will warehouse their goods on our streets to give you 15 minute delivery, and what little sidewalk retail there is left will simply move into a car and drive to its customers. These are discussions we have to start having with communities. What do we want our cities and streets to look like?

OSTROFF: What about rural communities and residents? We can’t leave people behind who choose or need to live far from urban centers.

CHASE: The AV equation in rural towns is a different cost-benefit relationship because there is plenty of parking and roads are mostly uncongested. AVs will bring safety benefits to rural and high speed driving. Traffic deaths will no longer be the number one killer of people between the ages of 15 and 25.  Retail AVs might make great sense in rural areas where shopping is far away. In rural areas, AVs will provide the flexibility to serve distant people more economically, and to provide better access for youth and for the elderly.  If we can rent an AV for about $5 AN hour in a rural area, we solve a lot of problems. Cities will see a transition to AVs sooner because the first vehicles will be expensive, will demand more intensive use to be economical, and will likely be restricted to certain geographies and speeds. But there are many economic benefits for a rural transportation evolution as well.

OSTROFF: Can we schedule a follow up interview in an autonomous vehicle?

CHASE: Have your people call my people!

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