The Agenda

Dan Sturges’s GoPoints and the Future of Commuting

One way to help ease middle-class squeeze is to reduce the costs of commuting, a subject Lisa Margonelli has often argued. In the near future, the most effective strategy for reducing commuting costs might be a broad shift away from automobile ownership and towards the embrace of car-sharing platforms, particularly in high-density and (eventually) mid-density settings. Dan Sturges, writing in Technology Review, offers a vision for how we might get there:

Now we’re seeing the beginning of what’s called intelligent multimodal transportation. Smart phones allow us to instantly rent a bike, carpool with someone just a mile up the road, find a bus, and even “ping a ride” with a car service or cab to get where we are going. Car-sharing services like Zipcar are viable businesses today in our thickest cities, because users can easily reach a shared car on foot after pulling up its location on their phone. In thick cities, technology is rapidly making it even more convenient to live without owning a car.

In our thin cities and suburban areas, it is far more difficult to reach transit, and so most people still own their own automobile. There’s not much of a jungle yet. Can we move beyond the personal automobile in such areas?

I think any transition would have to start with the roughly 70 million commuters in the United States. The recipe for making car ownership less necessary for them requires three main ingredients. First, we need express “trunk line” transit services (trains, buses, vans, or carpools) from residential neighborhoods to areas where people work. Next, people will need local, short-distance transportation in the form of a bike, low-cost taxi, shuttle, or small personal vehicle to get to and from the trunk line service. Finally, car-sharing services—like Zipcar or peer-to-peer services like Getaround or RelayRides—need to be available near both work and home so people can have access to a car when they need one.

I call the transfer points where local transportation meets the trunk line services “GoPoints.” These points would be located every three or four miles across the suburban area surrounding a metropolitan region. Our current train, light rail, and bus rapid transit stations are already GoPoints, but we would need many more (a flag in a shopping mall’s parking lot could serve as one). And we would need thriving regional and local transportation services connecting to them.

Sturges compares this system to “our national airport network,” which is hardly inspiring. Low-cost point-to-point transportation is obviously very attractive, which is why people love owning their own cars. Yet the advent of autonomous vehicles could change the equation by reducing congestion costs (fleets of autonomous vehicles could move faster, route around accidents more effectively, etc.) and thus increasing the speed of commuting. Public transportation’s main problem is its high time cost and its lack of flexibility. But Sturges is offering a more flexible approach, which could incorporate jitney vans and other paratransit options that are better suited to polycentric metropolitan regions. Moreover, GoPoints would free people who primarily telecommute yet who take occasional intraregional trips to get away with not owning an automobile. This will likely prove a growing constituency in the decades to come.

Perhaps the biggest virtue of Sturges’s GoPoints system is that it extends the mobility of less-affluent workers, who could reach deeper into more lucrative employment markets that had previously been inaccessible. 

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