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$9,100 per year. Even if you were a very heavy Zipcar user—renting several times each week and a couple of weekends per month—you would be hard-pressed to spend a third as much.
I suspect the real test of my resolve to stay carless will come when I want to go somewhere that’s hard to access by bike or public transit, like the fantastical World’s End park in Hingham, MA; when I want to take a spontaneous weekend trip; or after I adopt a new dog. Zipcar’s costs for extended reservations can mount up almost as quickly as those of conventional rental car companies, and pets can only ride inside carriers. (Sorry, Buster: no more sticking your head out the window with your sloppy tongue flailing in the wind.) I also have trouble imagining how a couple with young children could manage without a car.
But while unlimited mobility has been a part of the American dream at least since the days of the Ford Model A Roadster in the 1920s and 1930s, the dreamers never envisioned a country with 254 million passenger vehicles—roughly one for every citizen over the age of 16. About one-third of all greenhouse gases released in the U.S. come from vehicles, so accepting the idea that fewer people will own cars in the future is one obvious step toward reducing emissions.
Even in Los Angeles, the city that practically invented sprawl and smog, there are signs of progress toward a future with mixed transit modes. You wouldn’t know it from looking at the clogged freeways, but some 10 to 20 percent of all trips in L.A. are by bus or rail. Dense new housing developments are being built near transit stations. Bike lanes painted green are appearing along major arteries, and bikes are allowed on trains and buses.
Mobile technology is working in our favor here. Vehicle-sharing systems like Hubway and Zipcar are vastly more convenient because of the existence of mobile apps that let you quickly find out where cars or bikes are available and, in Zipcar’s case, make or extend a reservation.
Automotive technology, too, is advancing. Batteries for electric cars are rapidly falling in cost; it’s now conceivable that by 2030, a majority of the cars on the road will be electric. Semi-autonomous vehicles like those being prototyped at Google, Bosch, Daimler, BMW, Ford, GM, and other companies are expected to reduce traffic deaths and increase the capacity of existing highway networks by packing more cars onto the roads safely. Self-driving cars might also encourage more ride-sharing, lessen the need for parking infrastructure, make roads safer for bikers and pedestrians, and have all sorts of other salutary effects.
In short, there are many reasons to be optimistic that developments in transportation technology will lead to more convenient lifestyles and cleaner, smarter cities. I didn’t expect to be so happy about giving up my car, or to learn that bike sharing around Boston is such a breeze. Maybe more consumers are in for similar discoveries.
* * *
This is my 293rd and final Friday column for Xconomy. After seven years working with the finest crew in the tech-journalism business, I’ve taken a new job as acting director of Knight Science Journalism at MIT.
This 31-year-old program brings mid-career science and technology journalists to MIT—where I did my own graduate work—for a year of study, immersion, and retooling. We’ll soon expand the program to study and improve the ways journalists, educators, and other communicators interact with the public around the big science and technology and issues of the day, including global warming and transportation.
No other opportunity could have torn me away from Xconomy, which continues to break new ground in its hyperlocal approach to understanding the business of innovation and the lives of technology entrepreneurs. But I’m staying on as a contributing editor, so I won’t say farewell. I’ll just say: see you in the bike lane.
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