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.
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