Beyond the Personal Automobile

Information technology means we can rethink transportation

Go point: In an illustration of a regional transfer point, commuters arriving in small, neighborhood cars switch to a trunk-line bus service. Jose Paris/itMoves

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.

Source: Technology Review