How sharing will define the future of urban life

How sharing will define the future of urban life

Recently, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced a remarkable finding: in 2013, some 95 percent of New York City cabs could have been shared had passengers been willing to amend their schedules by no more than a minute. The reductions in congestion, emissions and costs simply would have been dramatic.

At Bandwagon, the Brooklyn-based startup where we’ve built an app for sharing taxis, the MIT research finding proved gratifying. It also came as little surprise. Analyzing the data we've collected at taxi lines and events has shown that sharing not only reduces costs and congestion but also accelerates the flow of people and cars.

The potential for savings are huge: the costs of congestion at hubs and taxi lines hasn't been fully studied, but our own findings show that at peak hours, wait times for rides at NYC airports can stretch to over 45 minutes.

Of course, the ridesharing concept isn't new: carpooling has been part of American mobility since the Model T, and it’s an essential part of getting around in much of the world, from Beirut's servees to Israel's sherut, from Senegal's car rapides to the carro público of the Dominican Republic.

Sharing rides in an ad-hoc and real-time fashion is a bit more complicated. A few years ago, we brought the idea to one heavy-hitting entrepreneur. He grinned and chuckled and wished us good luck. He knew how hard a problem it was, he said; his dad had tried to address it while in college in the 1960s, using a computer program to help his classmates commute home during spring break.

[Learn more about the sharing economy at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.]

The tools for making a system like this work are here, now. The time is right too. As governments look for affordable ways to upgrade infrastructure, we’re buying fewer cars. Vehicle ownership is decreasing, while on-demand vehicle services such as taxi apps and carsharing — defined by flexibility, speed and lower costs — are increasing.

The question is, how well can we connect these dots to everyone's advantage? This goes for so many ideas in our future cities, by the way.

We know that sharing works best when the pool of potential sharers is large, access to the system is fast and service can be provided by a range of multiple providers — be it a cab, an e-hail app or another readily accessible car service.

To solve this, we’ve sought an open, interoperable approach. At airports and events, for instance, Bandwagon users can locate others nearby with similar routes, no matter what kind of vehicles are available. In Las Vegas at CES 2014, Bandwagon augmented the app with an "HOV" lane that allowed sharing riders to skip the long lines. The savings were dramatic: 1,000 attendees using Bandwagon cut 1,117 miles from the crowded streets, eliminated half a ton of CO2 and spent 250 fewer hours waiting on line. Altogether, the value of that saved time and reduced cab fare saved users over $18,000. As a cool bonus, people reported good vibes as they skipped the line and made new friends along the way.

Bandwagon also works with companies and organizations to coordinate multiple itineraries for repeat ride-shares or instant rides. By helping a city-based Fortune 500 company share 33 percent of its rides, for example, we can help reduce its spending on transportation by more than $446,000 and lower its emissions by over 32 tons of CO2 annually.

But as we’ve learned, successfully plugging tech into our future urban life isn't simply a matter of building an app. It's about design, safety, comfort and incentives. And it depends upon bringing a collaborative spirit to the entire urban ecosystem.

Openness and options: As our cities turn toward apps to improve transit, for instance, keeping data open is imperative. Similarly, different networks must be able to communicate with each other; services such as RideScout and CityMapper, which aggregate various transit data on one screen, are noteworthy examples. If we go down the path of closed systems instead, we risk locking ourselves into silos that only create more inefficiencies.

Public-private teamwork: By working together, the public and private sectors can help new ideas “plug in” to our cities more easily. As MIT’s taxi researchers suggested, for instance, regulators could design a fare structure specifically for shared rides that would better distribute the benefits of sharing to drivers, and better incentivize them to build support for sharing.

Meanwhile, as the MIT study itself demonstrated, both the private and public sectors greatly can benefit from each others' experiments. At Bandwagon we value our relationships with academic transportation researchers, from the scientists at MIT to our partners closer to home. For example, some of our neighbors at NYU Poly's Center for Urban Science and Progress also have been studying the behavior of taxi cabs in the world's densest taxi environment, driven by an interest we share: to lessen the environmental impact of the taxi network and make it more responsive to a greater group of riders.

Speed and access: Apps shouldn’t make urban life any more complicated. The easier it is to tap into a network — and the more people who can be part of it — the more powerful that network becomes. Also, if access to digital services remains confined to only certain groups of people, our networks will be less effective and will risk perpetuating inequalities.

As our future cities take shape, sharing rides is just one piece of a larger puzzle that citizens and innovators are assembling. The smarter we are at working together now on all of those pieces, the better we’ll be at embracing what our cities always have been: elegant, sustainable machines for collaboration.

Top image by Luciano Mortula via Shutterstock.