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Have We Reached 'Peak Car' In Cities?

Federal data shows the number of miles that people drive alone in personal cars has been declining for the past 10 years. People also have new options to help them get around: Uber, Lyft, Zipcar, city bike shares and apps that track public transportation. Does it mean we have reached the saturation point for the number of city dwellers who want to own cars?

Gabe Klein is the former transportation commissioner of Chicago and Washington D.C., and also a former executive at Boston-based Zipcar. He is now a venture capitalist focused on transportation startups, and he joins Here & Now’s Indira Lakshmanan to discuss how new technologies and new lifestyles are reshaping American cities.

Interview Highlights

What are some major cities moving away from cars for transportation?

“It’s not unique to the capital but I will say that Washington D.C. has become a national leader over the last decade in transportation and also in land use policy. I know some people are probably saying ‘what is land use policy,’ well it’s thinking about what is the relationship between where people live, all the services that they desire, where they work, and how they get there. And old cities like Washington, New York City, Boston, for instance, also on the West Coast – San Francisco and Seattle, they’ve really led the way because they have the built environment that works very well with walking, biking and taking transit.”

What happens with city planning if we reduce the role of cars?

“We did that in Chicago with the Bloomingdale Trail, which now serves people walking and biking through five neighborhoods. And I guess really what I’m excited about with all of this technology that’s coming is the ability to reallocate space back to people. It’s not that all cars are bad, but it’s that cars used all the time for every trip – and the majority of trips in cities are under 3 miles – is not a good thing. And so what we’ve been able to do is use, I would say, more carrots than sticks, in Washington D.C., then in Chicago where I worked, and also in other cities, to give people as many layers of transportation options as possible so they can make better choices, make them as inexpensive as possible – like bike share costs people in D.C. 28 cents a day to use. That’s a lot cheaper than the full societal cost of driving, which is about $9.20 per mile when you add everything in, including the health care costs that result from a more sedentary lifestyle. So one of the things that D.C. has done so well is transit-oriented development, and really prioritizing building dense, multipurpose, mixed-use buildings around transit stops and it’s been very successful.”

On criticism that bike shares serve the “bike riding bourgeoisie,” not the city’s poor?

“Honestly, I think that’s ridiculous. To be honest, it’s the great equalizer because it costs nearly nothing to use and there’s no emissions. And so we feel actually that it’s important to put bike share stations and bike lanes in all neighborhoods. What’s happened is the less dense, more suburban areas of a city or the actual suburbs are becoming more of the ghettos, and the central city, the densest areas with the most services closest to where people live, are becoming very expensive. Now also in that land use pattern, shared mobility services, whether it be Uber and Lyft or Zipcar, which I was a part of, or bike share – they work really well in those dense areas. So typically you’re going to start there, but like here in D.C. we launched them into southeast D.C. neighborhoods that are less dense, lower income from the get-go but those stations were not utilized as much at the beginning, and they still probably aren’t. You need to give people a plethora of options that help them to get rid of their second car or their first car. In southeast D.C., people are spending up to 53 percent of their income on transportation and it’s just not fair.”

Will people give up their cars if public transportation remains as weak as it is?

“The typical metropolitan-area resident can reach 30 percent of jobs in their area within 90 minutes on public transit. In D.C. and New York, it’s 37 percent. In places like Miami its 16 percent. And so we need to do a much better job of providing – and we need to make bigger investments in high-quality public transportation services. And all of the new business models like Uber, Lyft, Zipcar, Car2Go, autonomous vehicles that are coming, they need to plug in the gaps and be utilized for the first and last mile, but we cannot disinvest in high-quality public transportation.”

On the current transportation bill

“It’s great that we’re going to get a long term bill. It’s unfortunate that it’s still biased towards funding roads and highways, where the return on investment is very small. The return on investment is considerably higher with transit and you also create sustainable jobs for people. Ideally what people want is to have most of their services that they need within five to 10 minutes’ walk and they’d like to commute within 40 minutes by public transit, walking or biking.”

How far away is what you propose from becoming reality?

“It depends on where you live. The situation is very different in Houston or Dallas than it is in San Francisco or D.C. And I would say we have great models, if you look to some of the Asian countries and northern European countries, like in Copenhagen there’s a 180 percent tax on buying single-occupancy vehicle – so people don’t do it. I mean a Toyota Camry is like $80,000 there. We have excellent models in terms of how to fund dense urban living and public transportation, as well as walking and biking. In Asia they spend 8 to 9 percent of GDP on infrastructure and transportation. In Europe, 5 to 6 percent. We spend 2 to 3 percent and we are paying the price for it. The return on investment on a bike lane is 60 times what you get for building a highway lane and it’s a lot less expensive.”

How does ride sharing, which is still a car, solve the fundamental traffic problem?

“I have a few issues with cars. The number one killer of teenagers in the United States is not disease or guns, it’s car crashes. The other issue I have is with the environment and what we’re doing to it. With electric autonomous shared vehicles, I think we would have a nice alternative to single-occupancy vehicles. Does that mean that everybody should have their own pod? Absolutely not. It means that we should rely on walking, biking and high-quality transit, and then when we need to get somewhere in a vehicle, my hope is that services like Lyft, combined with the autonomous vehicle, will give us a much safer way to get around. And we can also eliminate most of the emissions that come with it… We could get 85 percent of the cars off the roads in cities, and that’s just going to be a sea change.”


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