Carless in Cambridge: Bike & Car Sharing and the Future of Traffic

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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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11 responses to “Carless in Cambridge: Bike & Car Sharing and the Future of Traffic”

  1. Billiam says:

    Get a bike. The MTBA (as you will learn) is not good option. Hubway closes up during the winter. When the weather is the worst (or even just bad) Boston traffic grinds to a halt (the first snowfall of the year is always the worst – triple/quadruple/or worse the commute time. For short trips in bad weather, a bike will get it done faster, easier and be less stressful. If you get a bike, watch out for MBTA bus drivers – they are the biggest threat to cyclists (there is a reason that they kill a good % of all cyclists killed – and it is not road time – cabbies kill far fewer).

  2. Wade- Great piece. I had two bikes stolen this summer in Boston. One at the Back Bay commuter rail station. My mistake: not using a U-Lock.

    • Wade Roush says:

      Sorry to hear that, Mark. My mistake was locking my bike to a pole that (I realized too late) had nothing attached at the top, like a street sign or something. It was a very tall pole, but somehow the thief was able to lift the bike over the top of it. This occurred in broad daylight on Third Street in San Francisco, right outside the lobby of the St. Regis Hotel.

  3. @cmirabile says:

    Wade: you buried the headline here, which is that WWWade is returning to Boston. Welcome back!

  4. testcase6 says:

    When cars hit bikes, the result is very bad for the cyclist. This has to do with the physics of the situation: cars are faster and weigh more. Why would anyone ever ride a bike in Boston? Are you willing to give up your personal health and maybe your life for the “green” movement? Anyway, I wonder how cities are not liable for the increase in accidents given that they have painted all the new bike lanes which don’t offer any additional safety to cyclists. Doesn’t the law say cyclists have a legal right to use the full lane? I have a lot of questions. Wade: I hope will will pursue these issues in future discussions.

    • pipetodevnull says:

      I believe that most of your questions can be answered in one word: infrastructure. Different modes of transportation require different considerations (and yes, sometimes they compete), but the US could certainly do a much better job. There is cause for hope and motivation for investment.
      I don’t know why you put green in quotes. Don’t we all depend on the health and sustainability of our shared environment? And “give up your life”? Seems extraordinarily dire. Riding a bike burns fat and saves money. Driving a car burns money and makes fat.

    • dave says:

      This is common sentiment, and it comes up often.

      The same could be said about cars hitting pedestrians, should we remove walking from our cities and go entirely to a car-based infrastructure? Would every single pedestrian, cyclist, and public transit rider in a car actually make anything better for anyone?

      Let’s look at it another way. in a Car v Cyclist or Car v Pedestrian issue or even Car v Car road rage, Cars (the people in them) are the one inflicting the damage to humans and to property. Shouldn’t we be doing something about the cars? Is your convenience worth the danger to the greater public? A school yard bully is running around hitting smaller children, do we tell the smaller children they shouldn’t be in the way because the bully is bigger? Because that’s what’s happening here.

      Of course it’s unrealistic for cars to go away completely, nor is anyone saying that, and sure environment and health play a factor but this isn’t necessarily about being “green”. All these transportation alternatives and this article and people advocate for improve the city for people that just want to get from point a to point b with the least hassle (and maybe save a few bucks along the way). Next time you’re in traffic in an urban center, do you really want more cars in your way? Maybe me going a mile down the road to get a coffee I don’t need to drive, maybe to get to NYC, I’ll take the Train instead, in those situations driving is getting in the way of my convenience. But when I’m visiting my parents in the suburbs for Thanksgiving, I’m definitely driving.

      But you’re asking specifically about bikes and safety and I may have wandered a bit. Here’s the rub, bicycles are statistically safer than cars, in Boston and anywhere else. the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that in 2011 “pedalcycles” accounted for 2% of traffic fatalities in the US. Since launching a bike share in NYC, Citibike has logged over 23 Million trips, 0 fatalities. In fact, since the launch of the first bike share in the US in 2007 in Tulsa, OK to today, with 35 bike share programs operating in the country, there have been 0 fatalities. In contrast, between 2007 and 2012 there have been over 211 Thousand motor vehicle deaths. Your perception is not in line with reality. Your perception actually speaks more to your own confidence in your ability to navigate traffic on a bike projected on to the general public, which advocates understand. Painted bike lanes are a first step, physically separated and protected bike lanes are the next, maybe then we’ll see you on a bike for that 1mi trip to the coffee shop. But for now, we need to use what we’ve got.

      In the end, everything is potentially dangerous: you can choke on a hotdog at a baseball game, you can sprain your ankle playing soccer. I would say, going to the beach is a more deadly activity due to a risks of: water-born bacteria, animal attacks, lightening strikes, skin cancer, etc… but somehow we deem it safe enough for millions of people to go every year. Yet, a method of transportation with a 2% fatality rate relative to other forms of transportation is too dangerous?

  5. Benjamin Williams says:

    My husband and I found that day trips are quite manageable using the commuter rail system and Amtrak, which together service a huge portion of the region. Porter Square or North Station are both super accessible from Cambridge.

  6. Wade, I’m going through a similar honeymoon phase (which I hope lasts) with the transport options from my new apartment. I decided to go carless for a three day weekend just to see if the same options you mention would work for me. Hubway really won out and I immediately bought an annual membership. I am really enamored with the service…which was of little relevance to me when I lived in the suburbs. I should have taken the time to learn the system just for my workdays, but I did not. It’s when handling a commute is an option that it becomes really special.

    BUT…I agree with Christopher…the real “lead’ of this story is your return to Boston! I am so glad you are back.