Green Infrastructure

If We Build It, Will They Use It?

March 20, 2009

Where is urban transportation going? Mobility on demand using green approaches is the next wave. Think in terms of 1-way car- and bike-sharing systems combined with mass public transportation. Mobility on demand solutions adapt to customers’ changing behaviors. Done right, they’re good examples of customer-centric ecosystems.

Clean, Green Transportation for Our Cities

I've been thinking a lot recently about environmentally-friendly mass transit systems. My recent trip to Sao Paulo reminded me that traffic congestion and pollution is a major problem for most of the world's cities. President Obama's focus on reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and his plans to invest in green infrastructure are also top of mind. My interest in green transportation was piqued by a wonderful presentation I heard last November by Professor William J. Mitchell who heads MIT Media Labs' Smart Cities' program. His cross-disciplinary team of graduate students from engineering, architecture, city planning, and business have been working on projects to improve our cities. He described the Smart Cities project and demo'd three new electric vehicles that had been designed by the students and sponsors of the program: CityCar, RoboScooter, and GreenWheel. These are really innovative vehicles. I think you'll enjoy reading about them in this report.

Don't Think Green Transportation; Think Mobility-on-Demand

Bill Mitchell suggests that the best way to think about reducing pollution, traffic, noise, and parking issues in our cities, is not to think of alternative transportation systems, but to think in terms of enabling mobility. He calls this "mobility-on-demand." It's the freedom that cars provide us. We can go anywhere we want, anytime we want, at the spur of the moment, if we have a personal car at our disposal. Mass transit is more programmed. You have to plan ahead or wait for the next subway. And when you get to the station nearest your destination, you may still have to walk a distance or take a cab, particularly if you have things to carry. Bill Mitchell refers to this is the "last mile" problem. And that's what his Smart Cities team set out to solve with their new, compact, foldable, electric vehicles. The idea behind mobility-on-demand is to combine mass transit with personal mobility, to make that personal mobility affordable by sharing vehicles with others when you're not using them.

Car & Bike Sharing Programs

One thing I learned from listening to Professor Mitchell that I had never thought about before is the difference between one-way and two-way vehicle sharing programs. Most of the world's car-sharing programs are currently two-way programs. You pick up a car, like a Zipcar, at a convenient location, run your errands, perhaps drop off groceries, kids or pets, and then return the car to the same place you picked it up.

Most bike-sharing programs, like Paris' popular Vélib, are one-way. You pick up a bike at any location, ride it to your destination (which may be a subway station or a meeting), drop it off there. And, when you need another one, you pick it up at a different location. You can ping pong around the city, picking up and dropping off bikes. In Paris, your first 30 minutes are free. So if you have a series of short errands to run, and you can fit your purchases in your large bike basket or backpack, you have free use of a bike all day, every day. Next year, Paris plans to add car-sharing to the menu of options, using electric cars. There's a lot of debate raging about whether these should be two-way car-sharing systems or one-way systems, like the bikes. (It's easier to redistribute bicycles every night than it would be to drive a bunch of cars around the city to get them back to the places people might need them). The proposed solution—and the one that the MIT Smart Cities' team proposes—is to use intelligence in the network and dynamic pricing to encourage people to drop off their cars at a location that may be a bit less convenient but will cost them less. (I can also imagine volunteers driving cars from one side of the city to the other, in exchange for free car use at other times).

How to Design Customer-Centric Ecosystems

These mobility-on-demand systems are complex ecosystems comprised of many partners. The local government plays a big role. The mass transit authority, as well as the rail system, play central roles. The most viable systems are run at a profit on a commercial basis. The revenues come from a combination of membership fees and usage fees as well as advertising revenues (in the case of the Vélib system and several others). Other stakeholders are keenly interested in contributing to the success of these mobility-on-demand mass transit + shared vehicle networks. For example developers of urban housing complexes want to reduce parking and increase the number of units they can build and other amenities they can offer. Employers want to make it easy for their employees to commute to work and to be mobile once they're at work, without having to drive their own cars and without having to support a large fleet of company cars. Universities want to reduce the number of students who bring their personal cars to campus and park them there all day. So these are very complex systems to design, with many stakeholders involved. The good news is that it IS possible to design and continuously improve customer-centric ecosystems. Customers love to participate in co-designing and in streamlining these kinds of systems to meet their common needs and to address common issues. In fact, if thoughtful "lead customers" are engaged in the initial design, you're likely to have much greater uptake, much faster. The key is to insure that you are designing around customers' critical success factors and measuring how well you're doing in meeting their needs.

As we start investing in our next generation of environmentally-sustainable mobility systems, let's make sure that we're building solutions that customers will actually use!

Sign in to download the full article


Be the first one to comment.

You must be a member to comment. Sign in or create a free account.