The Drive-It-Yourself Taxi: A Smooth Ride?

car2go; Washington DC.jpg

Despite a corporate sponsor that paid handsomely for the naming rights, Londoners stubbornly refer to our bikesharing system as ‘Boris Bikes’, in a nod to our colourful Mayor, Boris Johnson. But what will we call our new drive-it-yourself taxis? My suggestion: ‘Boris Cabs’ – and they are now a reality here, thanks to Daimler’s car2go service, if you happen to live in one of three small and separate sections of town. But why did a one-way carsharing system have to limp into London, when more than a dozen other cities have welcomed these arrangements with open arms? In the US, car2go first appeared in Austin, Texas, and since then has moved into Washington, D.C, Miami, Portland Oregon, San Francisco, San Diego, and Seattle. It operates in Canada and, on the Continent, in Paris and Amsterdam, among other locations. So why no splashy launch across England's Capital, and no images of a smiling Boris cutting a ribbon?

First, roads in London are balkanised. Our regional transport agency (Transport for London) runs the main arteries, and they provide little on-street parking, the mother’s milk of one-way carsharing. That leaves the local streets in the the domain of the 33 boroughs that are each independent municipalities. Car2go is making a brave attempt to get off the ground here by starting with hundreds of cars (the press release reports 500; in practice,170 are in operation two weeks after the launch) in disconnected sections of town, something it has not resorted to anywhere else. Its standard practice is to strike a city-wide deal with whoever’s in charge of on-street parking, and no single agency fits that bill here. What’s the rush? Well, BMW is hot on their heels with its competing DriveNow system, with staff in London well into the advanced stages of planning.

Second, there is genuine uncertainty about the impacts". Will we take drive-it-yourself cabs to work, and avoid the crush on the Tube? It would be a very different experience than traditional carsharing — London is said to be Zipcar’s second-biggest market after NYC — which doesn’t work for the daily commute. In the Zipcar model (soon to be the 'Zipcar by Avis' model?) you take a car on a round-trip basis and pay by the hour, like filling a parking meter. The novelty of this new generation of drive-yourself cabs lies in their flexibility: as with a taxi meter, you pay by the minute for just the time it takes you to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’, then drop the car off and forget about it.

What does this mean for traffic congestion? CO2 emissions? What about the cute blue-and-white Smart Fortwo-model cars now parked in your neighbourhood – will they mean less parking for private car owners? Not bloody likely. The expectation is that, in time, enough private car owners will switch to using the fleet’s cars, meaning that on balance fewer cars will need to be parked. But try explaining this to car2go’s new neighbours who are not familiar with the subtleties and will be the ones dealing with the growing pains as we feel our way forward.

Transport is a long game, so it will be years until we properly understand the impacts of drive-yourself cabs. My research suggests that likely impacts are:

1) A much larger market than traditional carsharing (about four times as many subscribers)
2) A roughly 4% reduction in personal car ownership
3) About a 1% decrease in car driving vehicle miles travelled (including personal cars, traditional carsharing, and drive-yourself cabs)
4) About a 1% decrease in the number of public transport journeys

We can be reasonably certain that some surprising impacts will be revealed during field trials, and if at some future point London’s authorities are not happy with the knock-on effects there’s nothing to stop us from regulating the industry like any other. But for the moment we don’t understand it well enough to do anything other than let the operators experiment and keep tabs on what’s happening.

We just don’t know what the impacts on traffic levels and CO2 will turn out to be, and, frankly, it’s unfair to – as some suggest – hold the industry to a no-net-traffic/CO2 standard. We don’t do that to Black Cabs or [advance-booking-only] minicabs, or indeed to the automotive or urban transport sectors more broadly. A fairer standard, admittedly more complex to administer, would be to assess whether net value is created after accounting for effects on traffic levels, emissions and more. In other words: get the prices right, just like the economics textbooks say.

The question that needs thinking through is what would transport in London look like if drive-yourself taxi systems went viral and we came to depend on them. What happens, for instance, when instead of 500 of these cabs there are 50,000, and the necessary communication links go down? How would the transport system work if on-road congestion became replaced by virtual queuing to get access to a car? And what about times when the system is under stress, like when a hurricane is approaching, for instance. Is it OK to just flip the switch off on the whole fleet? Who would make this decision, and what guidelines would they follow?

If the history of the car in cities has taught us anything, it is that we need to be humble about our ability to forecast the future. So what is the way forward for Boris Cabs in London? Start with a small fleet and short-duration contracts. Be clear on the objectives and flexible on the implementation. Keep our options open. It will be an interesting ride.

Scott Le Vine, AICP is a research associate in transport systems at Imperial College London and a trustee of the shared-mobility NGO Carplus, which serves as the UK’s carsharing trade body. He authored the recent study Car Rental 2.0: Car club [carsharing] innovations and why they matter.

Flickr photo: Car 2 Go in the 1700 block of Q Street, NW, Washington DC on Easter Sunday, 8 April 2012 by Elvert Barnes Photography

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