Time to Share the Load and that Empty Car Seat

An edited version of this piece appeared in The West Australian, Opinion Section, Thursday May 26, 2016.  It has been written for a Perth audience.

Once again, politicians are seducing us with money to fix transport in Perth, and it’s our money of course.  Yet both main parties are still offering solutions from the last century: more roads and railways.

Self-driving cars will soon be here. They will bring disruptive changes in urban transport, possibly within a decade, sooner than a Metronet or Freight Link could be completed.

Public transport is expensive and infrequent in Perth and needs large government subsidies because we have such a low population density.  According to a 2011 report, 30% of people in Sydney live in densities of 44 persons/ha or more – compared 12% in Melbourne, 5% in Brisbane, and less than 2% in Perth.

That’s we use cars.  As a consequence, Perth freeways and main roads are clogged every day with hundreds of thousands of slow-moving empty seats.  What a waste of expensive roads and cars and valuable time!

At other times, we see expensive trains and buses travelling hundreds of thousands of kilometres every day and night, almost empty.

If only we could find a way to use some of those empty seats in our cars. Then we could avoid paying billions of dollars for expensive railways and empty trains and buses. And have less traffic congestion at the same time.

We have much of the technology we need: smart phones that travel in our pockets and handbags.  We just need a smarter way to use phones and cars together.

Here’s one idea, a proposal, just to start a conversation about making better use of cars and phones.

If you fly to Melbourne for the footy grand final, you know you’re going to have to pay more for your air ticket and hotel because so many other people want to do that too.

It is just as reasonable that we should pay extra to use a car at peak times, especially if we insist on having three or more empty seats with us.

Our phones know where we are at any time and they connect to our hands-free system in the car, so it is technically feasible to collect a toll payment today without expensive electronic e-tag systems used in other cities.

Of course, charging tolls for using congested roads and freeways that we have already paid for through our taxes is not a good election slogan for politicians.

Now think again.  How about being paid to carry passengers in your empty seats on the way to work, or even at other times?  You would only have to pay extra to use the roads if you insist on having your empty seats travelling with you.  And if you really want empty seats to travel with you for free, then drive at times when the roads are not congested.

How would this work?

Ride-sharing apps are pointing the way ahead.  US cities are experimenting with similar ideas today (http://www.citylab.com/commute/2016/04/uber-lyft-ridesharing-apps-public-transportation/475908/).  Canberra is thinking about it too (http://www.smh.com.au/digital-life/digital-life-news/ridesharing-applications-may-help-solve-canberras-coming-transport-crisis-20150814-gizc4t.html).

When you start your trip, if you want to avoid paying extra at peak times, you would select your destination on your phone, just like with Google maps, and how many empty seats you have with you.  Your phone would notify a transport hub server, and you would receive directions to pick up other people waiting for a ride. They would come with you for part of your journey.

Doctors and emergency workers, tradies, and others with legitimate urgent transport needs would be exempt, of course.  Female passengers could request a female driver if they felt safer.

The role of government today is not just building more roads or railways.  Instead, we should ask our politicians to lead forward-thinking discussions and help work out incentives and rules to allow enterprising tech start-ups to try out new transport ideas.

Let’s ask our WA politicians to explain just how much each bus or train ride really costs, at different times of the day.  Including all the hidden indirect costs.

Our railway has transport police and a state-of-the art security surveillance system costing tens of millions of dollars, just to provide security so that passengers will use trains late at night.

Public transport in Perth is far more costly than most of us realise.  And of course it is necessary.  And the service for those who need it most is appalling.  If I live in Forrestdale, not by means a far-flung suburb, and I want to reach The University of WA for a 9 am lecture, I have to be at the bus stop by 6:40 AM.  We could do much better than that.

Government needs to make space for enterprising start-ups to try out safe, secure and cost-effective alternative transport ideas that make better use of the roads and rail we have already paid for.

PS: When I purchased a copy of the paper to see the article in print, the Indonesian newsagent told me how in Jakarta there is a 3-in-1 rule for the central business district. Cars can only enter carrying three or more people.  “Joka” boys hitch rides at the road side as you approach the 3-in-1 boundary, just out of sight of the police enforcing the rule at the check points.  But, here’s the catch.  Drivers pay the jokas to ride with them past the police check point, and then let them off just out of sight of the police.  That way they avoid fines or having to pay bribes.  The joka fee…. about half the cost of a bribe.  Entirely predictable human behaviour.

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