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How the International Transport Forum is scaling up shared mobility

José Viegas, Secretary-General, International Transport Forum

Wondering how growing cities flooded by cars can remain liveable and engines for the prosperity of their citizens? Here are some ideas.

By José Viegas*, Secretary-General of the International Transport Forum (ITF) at the OECD

Cities are where it all happens. They provide personal and economic opportunities for billions of people that simply can’t be found outside densely populated areas. Cities make it easier to find jobs or get a good education; there’s more choice in products to buy and activities to pursue; more like-minded people to meet, work with, and befriend.

Well-working cities can be engines of economic prosperity as well as drivers for social inclusion. Yet their success can also be their undoing. In many emerging economies, the new urban middle class is using higher incomes to buy cars–which bring cities to a halt and make them less liveable.

The problem is already huge. But once car ownership rates in Asia, Latin America or Africa even approach the dimensions of the developed world, it will spin out of control. China today has 39 cars per 1,000 inhabitants, the US has 680. Commuting Americans lose a working week (42 hours) in traffic jams every year and the annual cost of congestion is put at US$160 billion.

Fixing the coming car catastrophe in cities

How can we fix this? Restrictions across the board may seem to address the problem but acceptance is low and it increases inequality. More public transport may help, but the need to transfer, crowded buses and long waiting times work against it. Electric cars reduce local pollution, but not congestion.

The data suggests a pretty obvious alternative: get better at allocating spare car seats and down-time. Companies like Airbnb and Uber have become multi-billion dollar businesses exploiting excess capacity. Cities could use the same principle to tackle their car traffic problem. Average cars sit idle for more than 23 hours every day. In the 50 minutes or so they do what they were built for, they mostly carry a single occupant: the average car occupancy rate in most developed cities is around 1.5 persons, often as low as 1.2.

Scaling up ride sharing has enormous potential for cities. The ITF is using a sophisticated model fed with real travel data, to test how various configurations of shared vehicle fleets would change urban traffic.

The same mobility with 90 percent fewer cars

The results are fascinating: in almost all tests, replacing private cars in a city with shared vehicles provided the same level of mobility, but with 90 percent fewer vehicles–in our most recent scenario, to be published in May–even 97 percent. This would make all public parking space available for other purposes. Carbon dioxide emissions would fall by about one third. Over a third less traffic during peak hours would mean much reduced congestion.

Shared mobility would also deliver better, more equitable access to education, jobs and health services. In our most recent test, mobility provided by a fleet of shared 8- and 16-seater taxi-buses ordered via smart phone allowed virtually all inhabitants to easily reach any educational institution in the city without a transfer: the ratio between the number of places reachable within 30 minutes by the 10th best-served person and the number reachable by the 10th worst-served person falls from 29.2 with the current public transport system to 2.0 with the shared, demand-responsive taxi buses.

Henry Ford reloaded

There sill remains the problem of how to get more people to accept being in cars with others. But we already do it–in buses, in metros, in car-pooling, in aeroplanes. Why not in shared taxis and as the rule, not the exception? Susan Shaheen, a professor of transport at the University of California, proposes an interesting mind game: what if Henry Ford in 1908 marketed his model T as something to share with others, not as something to be owned? It is a question of car ownership rather than of mobility–in a way, we have come to see our car as our castle and perceive ridesharing as intrusion. But smart phones used to request (and pay for) mobility services will also provide better security for passengers, as those abusing the system cannot count on anonymity.

If we can shift the current mindset, the next urban mobility revolution can start–for the benefit of city dwellers, the environment and the economy.

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*José Viegas is Secretary-General of the International Transport Forum at the OECD, a policy think tank that brings together 57 countries. The ITF organises a global summit of transport minister, which will take place from 18-20 May 2016 in Leipzig, Germany, on the theme of ‘Green and Inclusive Transport’