Saturday, March 20, 2010

Does Everyone in America Own a Car?

I got asked to write the 500 word answer to the above question that was going in a US Information Service publication called "20 Answers" (I think). It was a very curious challenge. Anything you write, when limited to 500 words, ends up feeling biased and a bit like propaganda. There are some great paragraphs in there. I like this piece! You can also read it at its source, the website too.

It is true that 95 percent of American households own a car, and most Americans get to work by car (85 percent). It wasn’t always this way, nor is it likely to stay this way.

Until World War II and into the late 1940s, many Americans did not own cars. People lived in cities and towns, and 40 percent did not own cars but used public buses, trolleys, and trains. Soon after the war, a surge in low-cost, mass-produced houses occurred outside cities to accommodate returning soldiers and their growing families. The new housing pattern was accompanied by the National Interstate Highway System, which was started in 1956. During the next 50 years, 46,876 miles (75,440 kilometers) of highways were built across America.

Americans could live in affordable suburbs in houses built on cheap land, and they could get to distant jobs with cars. Today, only 5 percent of Americans use public transportation to get to their jobs. However, this pattern of life is changing.

It has been 50 years since America embarked on this plan that influenced how we live and travel today, and we have experienced some shortcomings. Car-dependent travel and infrastructure are poorly suited for the dense urban areas in which increasing numbers of Americans live. As in other parts of the world, Americans seek to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and address climate change through alternative-fuel and fuel-efficient vehicles, but we realize these new cars alone will not meet all travel needs of Americans: The young, the old, the poor, and those living in dense urban areas need other options.

In 2001, car ownership peaked (1.1 cars per licensed driver). By 2008, the average number of miles driven in the United States fell for the first time in history, declining 3.6 percent from 2007, and the number of trips by public transportation rose to a 50-year high. It is too early to tell if this change was the result of high fuel prices in 2008.

More people are choosing to live in cities where they don’t need a car. New York City has the lowest rate of car ownership, with only 50 percent of households owning cars. Good sidewalks and public transit and safe bicycle networks are a priority in these cities. In July 2009, New York City completed the first phase of a plan to make the city more friendly to bicycles by adding 200 miles of bike lanes separated from car traffic within the city.

During the past decade American cities have seen the rise of a service called car sharing. Shared cars owned by private companies are parked throughout dense metropolitan areas and university campuses. Members rent them by the hour or day instead of owning cars. The advantage to members is that they pay only for what they use; they don't have to worry about maintenance, parking or insurance expenses, and they can choose a car that fits a specific trip (a pickup truck, four-door, or two-door vehicle).

In New York City, more than 100,000 people are sharing about 2,000 cars. This service dramatically reduces the number of cars and parking spaces needed to satisfy the needs of a large population. Each shared car replaces 10 to 20 privately held cars and is used by 40 to 50 people.

Looking to the future, it is likely we will see a reduction in the number of car trips Americans take and a rise in the number of trips they take by foot, bicycle, public transit, or train. Car sharing will become common, and more people will take advantage of carpooling (many people sharing the same trip).

Wireless technologies and smart mobile phones will make it easy to quickly find different ways to travel; see schedules; compare speed, cost, convenience, and carbon emissions; and choose the best method for each trip. America's transportation picture once again will be highly diversified.

Read more!

Friday, March 19, 2010

A transportation statement heard around the world!

US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announces: "Today, I want to announce a sea change... This is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized."

GASP.Pause. A moment of thinking I'm going to faint. And then huge applause!

You can read all about it on his blog (and see videos of the speech). He continues:

We are integrating the needs of bicyclists in federally-funded road projects. We are discouraging transportation investments that negatively affect cyclists and pedestrians. And we are encouraging investments that go beyond the minimum requirements and provide facilities for bicyclists and pedestrians of all ages and abilities.

To set this approach in motion, we have formulated key recommendations for state DOTs and communities:

* Treat walking and bicycling as equals with other transportation modes.
* Ensure convenient access for people of all ages and abilities.
* Go beyond minimum design standards.
* Collect data on walking and biking trips.
* Set a mode share target for walking and bicycling.
* Protect sidewalks and shared-use paths the same way roadways are protected (for example, snow removal)
* Improve nonmotorized facilities during maintenance projects.

Here is the new federal policy.

Read more!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Web 2.0 is like Yeast: Rampant Growth Possible

I'm preparing a talk and this New York Times interview I found with Andrey Turnovskiy, age 17!!!, exquisitely and quickly explains the components that make Web 2.0 a force to be reckoned with.

Let's deconstruct parts of the interview quickly. I've put it in BOLD so I don't get int trouble about attribution.

Have you always wanted to be a programmer?
No, actually I had no interest in being a programmer. I was always interested in language, I studied English and Chinese and I hoped to be a translator. Then I got a computer and saw that you could write code, so I decided to try it.

How long did it take to build?
It took me three days. I built it on an old computer I had in my bedroom.

First point: we now have the tools available that enable people with little money and discrete skills to build things quickly and try them out. I think of these as "platforms for engagement." They dramatically reduce barriers to entry. Governments should be doing what they can to make sure these platforms exist. This is why I'm advocating open source, open data, open standards, internet protocol, open devices, and open networks for things built with taxpayer money.

Then what happened?
Well, at first I showed it to my friends and they criticized it; they asked why anyone would want to use it. So I went onto a few Web forums and asked people to try the site, and I got 20 people to try it.

He persisted even though people who theoretically knew better thought it was a stupid idea.

How many users do you have now?
Well, after the initial 20 users the site doubled and it continued to double every day since then. Last month [5 months in] I saw 30 million unique visitors come to the Web site and one million new people visit each day. It continues to multiply and I just couldn’t stop it from growing.

I would love to see that growth chart! But if you double every day, starting day one with 20 people, it takes 3 weeks to get to 30 million unique visitors (okay, so ChatRoulette didn't actually double every single day).

Remember that this success was totally unpredictable. This is one of the key reasons we (as a society, company, individual) need to make sure we have made room for easy experimentation and iteration. For every ChatRoulette, there are no doubt hundreds (thousands) of failed experiments. But if you don't open yourself (your company, your country) up to innovation, others will and will pass you by.

Lastly, recognize that the growth was possible thanks to other platforms -- the internet, email, Facebook, Twitter, wired and wireless communications -- that already exist, that make telling your friends really easy and fast. See Clay Shirky's book "Here Comes Everybody."

This speed and scale of adoption of new ideas and behaviors -- newly made possible by the internet and associated technologies -- is what gives me hope about our ability to solve the most terrifying and intractable problems this world faces.

Read more!

Friday, March 12, 2010

More sunlight on cars: Open up the data!

The New York Times ran this OpEd I wrote (and pasted in below). I've appended additional thinking about implications for innovation.

Cambridge, Mass.
IN the wake of the Congressional hearings on the Toyota recalls, we have heard various proposals for countering unintended acceleration in automobiles.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently said the federal government may recommend that carmakers install “smart pedals” that give brakes priority when both brake and accelerator pedals are pressed simultaneously. Meanwhile, Toyota has said that, in contested acceleration accidents, it will give regulators access codes to data recorders — essentially, onboard black boxes being installed in some new cars.

But sometimes the solution to a safety problem is simply more transparency. Indeed, there is a relatively easy solution that would help identify problems before they affect thousands of cars, or kill and injure dozens of people: allow drivers and carmakers real-time access to the data that’s already being monitored.

Current federal law requires annual emissions and safety inspections for all cars. A mechanic plugs an electronic reader into what’s known as the onboard diagnostic unit, a computer that sits under your dashboard, monitoring data on acceleration, emissions, fuel levels and engine problems. The mechanic can then download the data to his own computer and analyze it.

Because carmakers believe such diagnostic data to be their property, much of it is accessible only by the manufacturer and authorized dealers and their mechanics. And even then, only a small amount of the data is available — most cars’ computers don’t store data, they only monitor it. Though newer Toyotas have data recorders that gather information in the moments before an air bag is deployed, the carmaker has been frustratingly vague about what kind of data is collected (other manufacturers have been more forthcoming).

But what if a car’s entire data stream was made available to drivers in real time? You could use, for instance, a hypothetical “analyze-my-drive” application for your smart phone to tell you when it was time to change the oil or why your “check engine” light was on. The application could tell you how many miles you were getting to the gallon, and how much yesterday’s commute cost you in time, fuel and emissions. It could even tell you, say, that your spouse’s trips to the grocery store were 20 percent more fuel-efficient than yours.

Carmakers could collect the data, too. Aberrant engine and driving behavior would leap out of the carmakers’ now-large data set, allowing them, if necessary, to conduct recalls much earlier. And, in exchange for your contribution of anonymous data, carmakers could send you driving benchmarks aggregated from your peers; then your app could tell you how your driving compares with the average of all drivers of the same car.

Having such readily accessible data streaming from your car might raise fears of a Big Brother scenario, in which carmakers would know where you are and how you are using (or misusing) your vehicle. But you would still decide whether you wanted to tap into the data, how you would use it and with whom you’d share it.

Allowing drivers and carmakers access to real-time performance data wouldn’t prevent every future mechanical failure. But it would allow carmakers and entrepreneurs to develop analytical tools to help catch developing problems in both individual cars and entire model lines. Cars would continue to break down and even cause accidents, but it wouldn’t take a Congressional hearing to figure out why.

On the same day, the NYTimes reported that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) is considering requiring that a black box be installed in all cars. This is an idea that could be either really good or really terrible.

Really good: An implementation that uses open standards, open data, and open devices. That same data and devices could be reused and innovated upon to produce fabulous apps for cars.

Really bad: It’ll be another closed proprietary system that ends up adding to the cost of the vehicle and eventually becomes ancient technology, much like after-market navigation devices and transponders.

Read more!

Friday, March 5, 2010

What’s your plan for $5/gallon gas?

Here are some beautiful maps of why you, personally, should care. These maps show what percent of the average household income is going towards transportation. All those people who live in the pink areas are spending between 20-28% of their income on transportation! and
those dark red areas are where people are spending MORE than 28% of their income!!!!!

Here is what it looks like when gas is $1.63/gallon, as it was in 2000.

And here is what it looks like when gas was $4.18/gallon, as it was in 2008.

Yikes! and wow! and @#$!@#@#$!!!!
Note that households that are car dependent really take a huge hit. The people who are living in areas with high quality transit are doing well. So, back to the question at hand:

If you are a family, what’s your plan for $5/gallon gas?

If you are a town, what’s your plan?

If you are a state, what’s your plan?

If you are the country, what’s your plan?

You can look at these maps for many metro-areas across the US at, and also see what this looks like when the average cost of housing is added in. Now those maps are really scary!

Read more!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Is the gas tax a user fee?

Here is my answer for the National Journal Transportation Blog.

"User pays" was the foundational concept and an interesting one to reflect on. The question notes that current gas taxes inadequately cover even simple maintenance requirements on existing roads, yet the phrase resonates strongly with drivers. They sincerely believe that they have paid for all that is required with their gas taxes at the pump.

If the road user really paid what driving costs to maintain, what driving costs to widen and build new, what driving costs in police forces, emergency personnel and equipment, lifetime effects of accident road deaths and injuries, watershed destruction, groundwater and run-off pollution, excess asthma rates, higher incidence of heart disease and negative effects for those living near highways, congestion, and CO2 emissions (etc, my list is truncated), we wouldn't be in the unfunded situation we are in today.

Also, if "user pays" included all those "externalities" (so many things in quotes), it would seem perfectly appropriate for the gas tax to include pedestrian and sidewalk improvements, mass transit, electric charging stations, and environmental remediation efforts because all of those things are attempts to mitigate the real and costly negative impacts caused by the car-driving users.

At the end of the day, if we take political realities into account, the one thing I ask for is for drivers to truly understand what their fuel tax is actually paying for, and what is quietly and covertly being subsidized by their other taxes. Because we haven't included these costs in the gas tax, we are using local, state, and government money brought in from other sources to cover the difference. When we say we don't have enough money for education, or welfare, or parks, or elderly programs, we need to recognize that this shortfall is in part because we are paying for all sorts unfunded car-related expenses with non-gas-tax dollars.

To read how other experts weigh in on this, go to the National Journal Transportation Blog.

Read more!