We Need Cars, But Do We Need to Own Them?

We know our current motor vehicle habits are not sustainable, especially as China and India begin to emulate them. Getting people into busses and trains won’t be easy, so we need an interim step. How can we get Americans out of their cars? Get them into other people’s cars.

Car-share programs are popping up in large cities, offering the public access to a car when they need it, without the burden of owning the car. Car rental companies now market their services for those occasions when people need an extra or larger vehicle.

There’s room for new thinking about how automobiles fit into our lives right now, but pay close attention to why the auto industry is in dire shape. The current crisis spread from houses to autos, because they share the same root cause: a re-evaluation of creditworthiness.

Car companies are reeling because Americans were carrying second mortgages for their transportation. We borrow as much today for a car as our parents borrowed for their first house. People stopped buying cars when the money disappeared.

Burning fossil fuels is not sustainable either, but technological shortcomings represent a different set of problems. For the time being, while fuel costs are moderate, we can focus on the issue of ownership.

Europeans favor mass transit, but busses and trains won’t work (yet) in most of America because everything is farther apart here. We spread out because we can. We want our own space, because there’s plenty.

But how do we get between spaces?

The car has been the most convenient strategy for the last 50 years, and that may continue for another 50 years. Mass transit is vastly more efficient, but only in population centers and after lifestyles have changed. Young professionals piling into the high-rises near Portland’s Max stations and retirees settling into The Tate in Eugene share this: they know that getting around without a car is part of what they’re buying.

They still represent the few. What about the many?

Our cars and roads would double their efficiency if each car had twice as many occupants. But how do we pair drivers with passengers? Chaos theorists have proven that thousands of small operators, guided by one big idea, will outperform the converse. “Swarm intelligence” is gaining the ground that General Motors is losing.

We need a deregulated taxi system. Something less like a limousine service and more like codified hitch-hiking. Where better than Eugene to test a safer version of the transportation choice of the 1960s? I’ve seen it in revival recently.

I spent a week last summer in northern Iraq in a city about the size of Portland. About a third of the passenger vehicles on the road were taxis. Most were not licensed as taxis — no meter, no posted photo ID — but were painted to look like taxis (orange and white). You climbed in, stated your destination, negotiated a price, and off you went. We got doorstep-to-doorstep service, quickly and affordably. Since we never had to park a vehicle, it was faster than if we had driven ourselves. Thousands of Iraqi Kurds drive for several hours a day, collecting enough cash to afford their vehicle for personal use the rest of the time.

That level of anarchy, efficient as it is, couldn’t work here. But lessons can be learned.

Cell phone technology with Global Positioning Software can link drivers with passengers in real time. All we need is a computerized dispatch service, a subsidized livery insurance pool for part-time drivers, and a consumer-driven complaint system to protect passengers. None of these expenditures would currently qualify for the federal funding that our own Representative Peter Defazio oversees as a member of the Transportation Committee in Congress. But why not?

If Defazio decides to run for governor, he’ll need some singular achievements to demonstrate executive skills to match his legislative savvy. Defazio should aim to introduce as much new thinking on transportation funding as John Kitzhaber did on health care reform.

Will new thinking get us where we want to go more quickly? I don’t know, but conventional wisdom has had its turn.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) write for The Register-Guard on Fridays and blogs here, where he welcomes comments from readers.