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Beyond the Personal Automobile

Information technology means we can rethink transportation.
January 31, 2012

The connected car has finally arrived. Our smart phones sync up with our dashboards, and soon vehicle-to-vehicle communication could make car crashes a thing of the past. Ford recently announced it’s working on a “smart seat” that will detect when a driver is having a heart attack. What could be better?

How about using technology to allow millions of us to move beyond car ownership? You won’t hear large automobile companies talk about it, but information technology gives society the greatest chance in decades to rethink transportation. Instead of cars equipped with medical sensors, I would like to see fewer cars and more room for bike paths. A little exercise will make our hearts stronger.

In America, nearly all of us has a personal automobile, available at our doorstep at all times. This is immensely convenient. It provides access to work and opportunity. But it brings familiar problems: billions of dollars sent each year to the Middle East, growing carbon dioxide emissions, traffic, noise pollution, and paving over of green space. Only a quarter of us can get to work using public transportation in 90 minutes or less. About 50 percent of urban land is dedicated to transportation. In Denver, where I live, the average car has 1.1 occupants. When I see someone driving with nothing but a hat on the passenger seat, I feel as though I am looking backward in time at an early steam engine or some other immensely inefficient contraption.

Urban density is an important consideration when thinking about what a different transportation system could look like. New York City, Boston, and downtown Chicago have a high urban density and can be considered “thick” cities, while most of Phoenix, Atlanta, and Denver have lower densities, making them “thin” cities. It’s our thick cities where it is easiest to live without a car. In these cities, “multimodal” transportation is already a reality. It’s easy to swing from one mode to another like Tarzan swinging across a jungle by vines. People walk, take the subway, grab a cab, and walk some more.

Now we’re seeing the beginning of what’s called intelligent multimodal transportation. Smart phones allow us to instantly rent a bike, carpool with someone just a mile up the road, find a bus, and even “ping a ride” with a car service or cab to get where we are going. Car-sharing services like Zipcar are viable businesses today in our thickest cities, because users can easily reach a shared car on foot after pulling up its location on their phone. In thick cities, technology is rapidly making it even more convenient to live without owning a car.

In our thin cities and suburban areas, it is far more difficult to reach transit, and so most people still own their own automobile. There’s not much of a jungle yet. Can we move beyond the personal automobile in such areas?

I think any transition would have to start with the roughly 70 million commuters in the United States. The recipe for making car ownership less necessary for them requires three main ingredients. First, we need express “trunk line” transit services (trains, buses, vans, or carpools) from residential neighborhoods to areas where people work. Next, people will need local, short-distance transportation in the form of a bike, low-cost taxi, shuttle, or small personal vehicle to get to and from the trunk line service. Finally, car-sharing services—like Zipcar or peer-to-peer services like Getaround or RelayRides—need to be available near both work and home so people can have access to a car when they need one.

I call the transfer points where local transportation meets the trunk line services “GoPoints.” These points would be located every three or four miles across the suburban area surrounding a metropolitan region. Our current train, light rail, and bus rapid transit stations are already GoPoints, but we would need many more (a flag in a shopping mall’s parking lot could serve as one). And we would need thriving regional and local transportation services connecting to them.

The system would be similar to our national airport network. It would require users to have both easy access to their local GoPoint and a convenient “last mile” service to let them reach their final destination. Who would want to fly to an airport in another city that did not offer car rental, taxis, or shuttles for that purpose? Technologies like GPS and smart phones are critical in organizing our movement around such hubs and finding the fastest, most convenient transportation home.

Beyond helping commuters, the GoPoint system would enable millions of seniors and youth to get where they need to go across their city or region without needing to own a car. We have an opportunity to integrate piecemeal mobility innovations into meaningful solutions for consumers in both thick and thin cities. Seizing that opportunity will reduce the footprint of our transportation system and allow us to convert a portion of our roadways and parking areas into bike and pedestrian paths.

Dan Sturges is former GM car designer, inventor of the GEM neighborhood vehicle, and a member of the Transportation Research Board. His work on sustainable mobility reform can be found at

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