Category Archives: Cars and driving

Commuter Rewards Programs: Why Cambridge-based Green Streets Rocks

Is your workplace looking for an employee rewards program that encourages healthy/sustainable commuting? I’ve looked into different rewards programs in search of a partner and Green Streets Initiative’s (GSI) Walk/Ride Day Workplace Challenge is, by far, my favorite. Before I share why I think they’re superior to comparable programs, know that GSI runs a seven month Workplace Challenge whereby employees “check-in”, or record, their commute (modes and duration) on the last Friday of the month, between April and October. Participants are rewarded online, monthly, through raffles, discounts, and incentives offered by some participating employers.

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Boston’s Parking Congestion Problem: There’s an App for That

Boston’s population growth has brought congestion and parking problems. But, where are the cars coming from? Suburbanites commuting to work, or city folk who prefer driving to alternatives? A transportation study is coming out in late fall that should shed some light. But, local representatives aren’t waiting for the results to start talking about policy solutions to address parking congestion. Two weeks ago, Councilor Frank Baker called a hearing to discuss parking. At the hearing, Councilor Bill Linehan decried that transportation and parking availability “is one of the central issues facing Boston”. The discussion was heated as some officials want better parking enforcement to address issues such as the abuse of handicapped parking signs while others want to do away with parking in some areas to make room for bike and bus lanes. More details about the hearing are covered in the Boston Herald and the Boston Globe.

 
One proposal that does seem to generate consensus is increasing parking meter rates. Boston Chief of Streets, Chris Osgood, spoke of this proposal at the hearing and indicated it would include reinvesting parking revenue in the neighborhood where it was collected. Hopefully the revenue will be used for street and sidewalk improvements. Increasing meter rates is one solution. There are others to consider. Controlling and pricing residential parking permits is one. Providing drivers with real-time information about parking spot availability is a related and very important solution. With access to parking spot availability data and pricing, drivers will spend less time searching for parking, or may not bother to drive in the first place (if parking is expensive and hard to find at certain hours). According to MIT’s Senseable City Lab, the average American spends about 50 hours per year just looking for parking, wasting fuel while increasing air pollution and traffic congestion.

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Self-Driving Cars Will Change More Than How We Drive

Last week I attended a fascinating conference on the future of transportation organized by Transportation for Massachusetts or T4MA. The organizers assembled an impressive list of speakers, including Robin Chase, CEO of ZipCar, Jackie DeWolf, Director of Sustainable Mobility at MassDOT, and Julian Agyeman, Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts. Robin shared her thoughts on autonomous vehicles or AVs (they’ll be tested in Boston at year end!) and how cities can ensure they don’t deliver hell, or more congestion and more pollution. Her opinions and predictions were particularly intriguing, and they are nicely summarized in this Back Channel post and in her cool You Tube video. I also share her most important comments here:

  • The arrival of AVs will have a profound social, economic and environmental impact. Regulators need to make drastic changes to current regulation across a broad range of policy areas to ensure AVs benefit people and don’t lead to more congestion, pollution and unemployment.
    • “If we allow the introduction of autonomous vehicles to be guided by existing regulations we’ll end up with more congestion, millions of unemployed drivers, and a huge deficit in how we fund our transportation infrastructure. We will also miss an opportunity to fix transportation’s hereto intractable reliance on liquid fossil fuels (and their associated pollution)”
  • Robin believes the solution to our woes lies in AVs that are electric and shareable, including the rides. The economics of a trip on a ride sharing AV will be too attractive for people to pass up (cheaper than a bus ticket) and car ownership will decline rapidly in cities.
    • Side note: I don’t see why we even need AVs to be cars. Why not introduce self-driving electric buses for even less congestion.
  • With fewer cars on the road, there will be less need for parking and cities can convert ugly parking lots into parks or affordable housing units
  • Shareable AVs will address congestion, pollution, safety and beautify the urban landscape, but what about taxes and jobs?
  • We need a revamp of how we collect tax revenues from the transportation sector. The gas tax must disappear and be replaced by road user fees based on fuel type, distance traveled and time of travel with the introduction of peak hour pricing. Cars that are roaming the block in search of parking or to wait for a passenger would get taxed more (the technical term is “zombie cars”)
  • This shift also requires a massive change in our employment system. Automation will lead to unemployment. Robin advocates for a minimum income, and the portability of benefits.
  • Furthermore, to ensure the arrival of AVs don’t lead to an increase in car ownership by wealthy individuals who can afford a third car, Robin believes governments should be requiring a moratorium on personal AV car ownership for five years. This will give shareable AVs a head start on being used and known as a shareable and green mode of transportation.

Wow! Implementing these massive changes over the course of the next five years will require policy makers to ignore a lot of other important issues and to work like investment bankers. What are the chances of that? These proposals are bold but necessary to build a cleaner, quieter and more just city.

Auto Firms Get Serious about Urban Mobility Tech

While auto companies are still enjoying strong sales activity today, this may not be the case a decade from now.  As more Millennials and Boomers choose to live in cities, the space and need for personal automobiles declines. In densely populated neighborhoods, developers are encouraged to build garages with fewer parking spots than there are apartments to keep car traffic growth in check. For example, a proposed development in downtown Boston, One Bromfield, would include one parking spot for 70% of apartments. Urban population growth is not the only reason why personal vehicle ownership seems likely to decline. Others reasons include:

  • The advent of car sharing and ride sharing companies (e.g. Uber, Lyft, Enterprise car share, Zip Car etc.) that makes owning a car less necessary
  • The evidence that Millennials are driving less compared to older generations at the same age due to lifestyle and attitudinal differences (see this research from transport scholar Noreen McDonald of UNC)

In preparation for a world that relies less on personal automobile ownership, automobile manufacturers are investing in alternative urban transport services and technology. This is happening globally, not just in the U.S. Here are some examples:

  • In May, Toyota and Volkswagen announced that they were “investing in technology start-ups that are working to change the way people travel by car” (see NYT’s article from May). These two aren’t yet going off the car chassis, but investing in ride sharing services. Toyota invested in Uber and Volkswagen investing $300 million in Gett, an app that is popular in Europe. Also notable is GM’s $500 million investment in Lyft announced in January of this year.
  • BMW has partnered with HAX, a hardware venture accelerator to launch Urban-X, a new accelerator focused on urban hyper-growth and smart cities. The urban transport-related firms selected for their current program include:
    • Brooklyness, creators of an intelligent, high-tech bike helmet (note: I just backed them on Kickstarter)
    • Samocat, creators of kick scooter sharing systems for cities

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Dissecting Boston Commuter Unhappiness

I ran a survey through Facebook ads to take a pulse of Boston-area commuter happiness. As of now, I have 25 responses: not a sufficient sample size for a scientific study of the topic, but enough to start writing about on this blog. The survey will remain open for those in the Boston-area who still want to contribute. Not surprisingly, about half of my survey participants are unhappy with their commutes.

Happiness with Commute

Source: Happycommutes.com survey conducted through Facebook, May-June 2016

Most of them take some form of public transportation. I had no bikers, one walker and four drivers, so a pretty transit-reliant population. About one-third (or 8 out of 25) consider themselves to be mixed mode commuters and combine public transportation with walking or driving.

How do you commute

 

 

 

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