Bikesharing, Podcars, and “Cloud Commuting”
Recently I began working for a downtown NGO, which has provided a very useful opportunity to try commuting from Howard Town to Metro Center regularly with DC and Arlington’s jointly-operated Capital Bikeshare service. While the Bixi-style bikes are a bit clunky for experienced cyclists, both their hybridized design and variable rents have precisely the casual commuter in mind.
Admittedly, some cyclists who shall remain nameless tend to commute downhill and ride the bus uphill, which increases the energy footprint of the trip from [zero give or take food] to something like [1/30th that of a bus plus 1/20th that of a truck (or however many bicycles are towed from station to station at once)]. Nonetheless, it’s a very convenient alternative when commuting or performing light errands, so long as there are stations relatively convenient to where one begins and ends the trip. (It also goes without saying that it can serve as an aerobics regimen that saves time and money instead of wasting both.)
Another of the most valuable aspects of this service, one that’s rarely been articulated, is how it acts as a distributed transit network, one that has the (relatively) self-directed flexibility of driving in one’s own car, compared to the necessary linearity of regular rail- and bus-transit service or the hub-and-spoke logistics of Zipcar and other current carsharing services. Both of these things are valid in their own context, though these concepts may be given a run for their money by the growing possibility of “cloud commuting”, something that ephemeralizes the storage and exchange of transportation, like with finance and information storage before it:
Once upon a time, people kept their life savings on their person or at their homes, stored in physical material like gold and jewelry and property. Then money was invented as a medium of exchange, and people stored a surrogate of their wealth. Then banking was invented, and people centralized their holdings in a bank, and were paid interest for the privilege. Why were they paid? Because the banks could reuse their money by lending it out, at an even greater rate of interest. Money is fungible. I do not lose anything by storing it at the bank (and allowing them to lend it) except the privacy of keeping secret how much money I have, and risk that the bank will be unable to pay me back. The first is resolved through regulations, and the use of multiple banks, the latter by insurance. In any case, it is much safer than storing the money in a mattress at home.
Once upon a time, people kept their life’s information on their person or on computers at their home or work, stored in physical material like floppy disk drives, hard disk drives, solid state drives, CDs, DVDs, and USB chips. Then the internet was invented, and centralized servers were made inexpensively and redundantly, and people could store their information in the “cloud”. In many cases the cloud is free, or charges only a small fee. In exchange, the recipients agree to allow their personal information to be used to generate customized advertising targeted at them personally. But imagine their were a way for the cloud to earn interest on information much the same way banks earn interest on money, by synthesizing it and “lending it out”. Since information is not rivalrous, this may prove viable with sufficient artificial intelligence aimed at developing ontologies and computer intelligence. The risk is the loss of privacy. Alternatively the customer pays the cloud for storage and computation, retaining privacy, in exchange being relieved of duties of backup, which when neglected lead to all too much data loss.
Once upon a time people kept their personal transportation near their person, parking cars and bikes at their homes, workplaces, or other destinations. This was the only way to guarantee point to point transportation in a timely way where densities were low, incomes high, and taxis scarce. Then “cloud commuting” was invented, cars from a giant pool operated by organizations in the cloud would dispatch a vehicle that drives to the customer on demand and in short order, and then deliver the customer to the destination.
A model of “bikeable” distributed mobility, the Bixi model of interchangeable bikes at interchangeable stations, best favors walkable, medium-density areas with equitable jobs-housing balance rather than “strong centers” that drain commuters from everywhere around it. This is a major part of why large-scale bikesharing has largely succeeded wherever it has been practiced in Europe, and potentially could bode well in decentralized, medium-density U.S. cities like Los Angeles.
Even more interesting news for (and out of) California, though, is Google’s apparent breakthrough in self-driving cars. This could be considered one of the holy grails of both cybernetic engineering and automotive design – the realization of “personal rapid transit“, if designed for use in such a way as to promote distributed sharing. That said, there are still myriad problems with the Google Car, not least of which is its deadly ignorance of pedestrians; some, like Diana Lind, ask if autopilot is something desirable whatsoever. Nonetheless, regardless of whether this reduces or increases automobile use, shared and distributed podcars might reduce the overall number of cars, marginally reduce emissions, and dramatically reduce car ownership and transportation costs while improving mobility for entire systems of users generally.
Nonetheless, would the emergence of “the cloud” truly make conventional transit obsolete? Even if the energy and physical footprints of cars were dramatically reduced, even if those cars were efficient, entirely electric systems, podcars would still have a dramatically larger physical footprint than transit riders or pedestrians. It may well have a place in completing the last mile of many transit trips, but in order to service the high-density business districts that currently exist – as long as cultures and economies dictate that many, many people arrive at any destination at the same time, traveling along basically the same paths – there still is a role for bikes, buses, and trains in providing for immediate, high-impact urban transportation needs.