Robin Chase: “The Web 2.0 of Transportation Technologies”

11_zipcar1_225.jpgRobin Chase is the co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar and the founder and CEO of GoLoco, a ride-sharing service that uses social networks like Facebook to connect people who want to carpool. A Harvard University Loeb Fellow, Chase is an authority on the use of wireless and mesh network technology as it applies to transportation. She’ll be giving a talk at Baruch College, 151 E. 25th St., Room 759, at 9:30am on October 19th. There she’ll discuss some of the ways wireless technology can facilitate near-term reduction of CO2 emissions. What follows are some excerpts from a telephone conversation last week with Sarah Goodyear.

Sarah Goodyear: Your talk at Baruch College is titled "The Window of Opportunity is Now: How Wireless Can Move Us to More Sustainable Transportation." Explain what you’ll be discussing.

Robin Chase: The pitch starts with my complete horror that we have less than five years to turn worldwide CO2 emissions around. One of the senior climatologists that I refer to said if that turning point of CO2 emissions happens in 2015, i.e. seven years from now, we have a 50-50 chance of averting catastrophic effects of climate change. I personally would like to improve those odds.

When we think about the transportation world, everything is major infrastructure change: Let’s build more rail, more transit, more walkable communities. Let’s create more fuel-efficient cars and move to hybrids and alternative fuels. Not one speck of that work is going to have a remote impact in the time frame we’re talking about. So while I think those are critical and important things for the medium run and the long run, we need more people focused on what we’re going to be doing in the next five years.

SG: How does wireless fit in?

RC: From my Zipcar experience and from watching congestion pricing played out in London and Stockholm, I’ve learned that money — market pricing, or accurate reflection of pricing — is what turns people’s behavior on a dime. If we’re serious, that’s where we have to go. Marketing is everything and wireless technologies bring us to a totally different world of possibility.

Zipcar and car-sharing is one example of how the ability to rent a car by the hour easily and therefore pay almost full car costs for that hour causes people to drive dramatically less. You don’t run out and buy your quart of ice cream, because it’s going to cost you ten bucks to buy that quart of ice cream. You say OK, I’ll do without, I’ll eat cookies, I’ll pick up ice cream tomorrow.

Likewise ride sharing, which is what GoLoco is all about. There are a couple of reasons ride-sharing has been underused. One of them is stranger anxiety: I really don’t want to step into a car with anybody. The rise of social networks has transformed that equation. We’re all friends of friends, so we can get some level of comfort around that. Then the whole money-changing-hands piece. People think it’s complicated, why bother. They think it’s dirty, embarrassing and awkward. So we can do an online payment system. And the whole matching-up of people finding those rides–that’s what the Internet and our wireless devices in our hands are all about. That we can make those connections relatively easily.

A screenshot of GoLoco users on Facebook

How can wireless technology and mesh networks enable congestion pricing?

RC: What is shocking about the congestion pricing model that was done in London and in Stockholm and in Singapore is that those systems are creating wireless infrastructures on closed networks with proprietary devices. If we’re going to spend out oodles of money for wireless infrastructure for our transportation systems for congestion pricing and for road pricing, we should be making those open networks using open standards, i.e., things that consumers and businesspeople have devices that hook up to. We’d actually do an open source communications platform. And we can transform this required investment in transportation wireless infrastructure into something that’s an economic development boon and that makes information ubiquitous and very, very low cost, while we’re making carbon — the old economy — high cost.

We can turn the cars into wireless hotspots. So imagine the car becoming a hotspot if you’re within a quarter mile to a mile of a car, that is next to another car, that is next to another car, that is next to a gateway. If we open that up to become an open network with open standards, ultimately your laptop and your cell phone and the traffic light and the parking meter will all be part of the same communications network infrastructure. And all that peer-to-peer communication is free.

The transportation wireless connectivity can be in full flow with the rest of the economy. From a technological standpoint, it takes some of the risk out of the investment — when we invest in a closed, proprietary system and the rest of the world moves on, it means you’re going to have a defunct proprietary system in a very short time. If instead we say we’re going to use open standards and we want individual consumers’ devices to be creating this open network, individuals will be swapping out and buying their own devices as things get upgraded. It’s kind of like the web 2.0 version of transportation technologies.

SG: So how would it work for a car owner?

RC: There would be a black box that you put into your car. It would cost around $50. Individuals will have to go buy that device and install it in the car themselves. It’ll just be plugging it into the cigarette lighter. Once you buy that device with your own money and install it with your own money, I’m going to give you double that in tolls for free. So what we’ve done is instead of the city’s having to go around to every traffic light and put up all the cameras, make the millions of dollars in investment, instead of that we’re saying end users are financing the buy for the hardware and the installation. It will bring the start time for the congestion pricing system up, because we don’t have this complicated stuff going on in the hard infrastructure in the city.

SG: What are the civil liberties implications of this type of system?

RC: Locational privacy is in the [mesh network] software, and we need to demand that. It’s being done with other applications for voting. We really need to protect our locational privacy. And with the camera taking shots of people’s license plates at intersections, we lose that. I realize, yes, we’ve lost it with the cameras that exist downtown, and yes, we all carry a cell phone in our pockets, but I think it takes it to a totally other level if every car in America for road pricing is going to be trackable. We need to put our foot down now.

There are so many issues at stake here. For me, climate change would be number one. But I don’t think we have to give up privacy at that altar and we shouldn’t.

SG: What are the chances of getting anyone to listen to your ideas?

RC: I’ve been having success in getting increasingly higher and higher up to get people to listen. This talk in New York is great, in that I hope to catch the ear of some of those decision-makers.

SG: Does your history with Zipcar help you get people to listen to you, to see you not as an activist but as an entrepreneur?

RC: Yep. Absolutely.

SG: In the ritualized drama of New York politics, all this innovation is a lot to get people to accept.

RC: I realize, it is brutally complicated. And I realize the politics and the economics and the factions. But I think we can make the case that there’s a huge win from many aspects to doing it this way. There’s the economic development potential. Everyone’s looking at the whole homeland security resilience of networks — this comes into play. I feel that we can make a choice. But I’m too much of an outsider to be able to predict.

SG: You talked about road pricing becoming a reality on the national scene.

RC: Gas taxes, as you know, haven’t been raised since the early ’90s. As we push for alternative fuel cars and fuel-efficient cars, what is already an inadequate source of revenue is every day more and more inadequate. Policy makers at the highest levels have completely figured this out. The alternative is you have user fees by the mile instead of by the gallon. So it’s 100 percent positively coming, and since we know it’s coming, we should be doing these technology trials and set-ups so that it’s viable, it’s possible. When we put the congestion pricing question into context, it is truly a trial, a behavioral and technical trial, for what road pricing looks like. And the cordon-and-video-camera technique is not what can be done for road pricing. So we have to realize, now is our window. Let’s get it right.

Because of the time frame we’re working with, I want to see the technology out there and viable, so that the day the politicians finally wrap their mind around it, the next day we can turn it on.

Photo: Phoebe Sexton/Harvard News Office


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