Greater Greater Washington

Technological change, part 4: Smart Para-Transit

Mark Gorton, founder of NYC's Open Planning Project which publishes Streetsblog, has posted a plan to make our road network vastly more efficient. Instead of commuting with individual single-passenger vehicles, one per person or family, the Smart Para-Transit system would use a fleet of electronically dispatched vehicles that drive groups of people going from similar origins to similar destinations.

It works like this: a customer enters his or her origin and destination into a mobile phone app. A dispatching system sends a vehicle to pick up that passenger and others going the same way. For longer-distance trips to destinations that can't be easily clustered, people could still use Zipcars as they do today.

As with the networks of electric charging stations or the iHitch to find someone to give you a ride, this system exhibits strong network effects, meaning the more people use it, the more valuable it becomes. At the low end, it would be about as annoying as SuperShuttle, with long and unpredictable waits for a ride. If everyone used it, it'd be great. But how to get there?

Gorton has a few ideas. If Smart Para-Transit vehicles could use special HOV lanes through major chokepoints (such as, in NYC, bridges and tunnels into Manhattan), it could help Smart Para-Transit surpass the single-passenger trip in commute time even without network effects.

To succeed, such a system should promise reliable pick-up times and limit the amount a vehicle travels far out of the way to pick up extra passengers, even if that means frequently dispatching a vehicle to transport a single person when there isn't enough demand in a small area at a specific time. The network would need ample start-up capital to provide that service at low cost while it builds ridership.

Smart Para-Transit could employ a "Crossing the Chasm" strategy (in the case of New Jersey to Manhattan commuting, literally) to reach critical mass quicker by focusing on everyday commuters (who can sign up and use the network almost every day) in key markets with poor transit alternatives. By saturating the Manhattan-to-City X market along a route that offers HOV lanes, they might be able to build a real business and meaningfully reduce congestion and pollution.

Still, many of the benefits end up as externalities which benefit non-users; those who don't use the system will benefit from lower traffic and more available parking, making it more appealing to drive as adoption rises. That's why congestion pricing or even HOT lanes are so important, to help those who reduce VMT benefit the most instead of rewarding the freeloaders.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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It's a good start, although I like the autonomous vehicles better. But there does seem to be a lot of potential to improve our car pooling methods. For it to work it would have to be way more convenient and preferable to driving by yourself so it's good that you bring up the externalities. A more organized, advanced way of car pooling is a great incremental step to get where we need to be.

by Vik on Aug 26, 2008 2:39 pm • linkreport

Power-to-the incremental steps!

by Bianchi on Aug 26, 2008 4:50 pm • linkreport

How do these para-transit routes differ from the existing commuter bus routes that run from D.C. into Loudoun and Howard and other outer suburban counties? It sounds the same: pick up commuters from an outlying town and take them into the city, no stops, no fuss. Or like a slug line . . . except not.

by dan reed on Aug 26, 2008 7:54 pm • linkreport

From what I see here, now that Dan brings up the commuter bus point, this proposal looks like a hybrid of existing paratransit and commuter bus, as it makes almost-"door to door" trips, with intermediate stops only near the ultimate destinations.

Also, the other difference is that this would, presumably, not be a fixed-route system, unlike any commuter bus.

by Adam on Aug 26, 2008 9:21 pm • linkreport

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