Author Archives: ezra goldman

Upshift: Zipcar meets car leasing

You may have noticed that I haven’t been blogging very actively on this site for awhile. That’s because I’ve because been working hard at reinventing the future of carsharing. I’ve moved to San Francisco where I am developing a new carshare model to give recurrent but infrequent urban drivers more affordable, convenient access to a vehicle when they need it.

So why carshare? What happened to bikes? The data for modal shift from cars to, well, all things non-car is just fantastic- arguably better than for bikes. 9-13 cars are taken off the road for every carshare vehicle placed on the road. 47% less driving from members in a carshare service.

Getting people on bikes (and transit) by giving them a car seems counter intuitive, but unless you get people to let go of the steering wheel, it’s very difficult to convince them to do anything else. It’s too cheap and easy to just keep driving for most people. Once they do let go, they are much more open to investigating alternatives like a bicycle.

Carshare needs a new model to help it scale out of its current niche market and throw a huge monkey wrench in the car culture machine. That’s what we are working on reinventing at Upshift. Signup on our landing page at www.upshiftcars.com to stay abreast of our developments. You can also ping me at ezra [at] upshiftcars [dot] com to learn more.

Will the future be “fast” or “slow”?

This article is a response to John Whitelegg’s post on WorldStreets this morning. He quotes at length from a great article written in 1933 articulating how speed and time savings with new transportation infrastructure and technology often isn’t either. I would tend to agree. In fact, it often leads to things being farther apart and the time savings being pushed off into lost time for other road users. What I want to know though is how we can build “slow” communities where everything is in close proximity in the face of high housing costs, the need for space for families, income disparities, and how to deal with the technological innovation on the horizon.

Building walkable/bikeable/transit oriented cities is great but often makes the neighborhood unaffordable. The flip side of this is that, at least in the US, people’s demands on acceptable space for raising a family are quite large as is their tolerance for traffic. Couple these two with people’s desire to be “not too far” from the city and nature and you can see the popularity of suburbs. The city still cannot compete for many. Even if desirable (not a given), it is unaffordable given the spatial “requirements” people have.

Perhaps we are starting to see a change of attitude (lead by the wealthy and educated who can afford it) to try to raise kids in the city, however many of them still move out once children hit school age. And this is really only a possibility in cities like San Francisco for highly paid, double income families. If you are in a smaller city like Pittsburgh or Cleveland, perhaps it’s a bit easier.

I also think that the bicycle is not a paragon of “slowness”. We should quickly do away with this idea. The bicycle is, in fact, a technology that enables greater speed in a competitive landscape where the alternatives are congested traffic and disaggregated transit corridors over short distances. I think the reason people are bicycling is probably more evidence of a failed transportation system and an indicator that further significant innovation is required to develop transportation that makes sense in dense urban settings. I bike for much the same people drive cars: it’s faster, easier, and more convenient than the alternatives presented to me. It’s just that I have geared my life in such a way that everything I need is biking distance (eg, proximate). I think that people’s choices in the future once they have better ones will still be primarily about speed and convenience.

I have two big concerns though.

First, I am worried that cities will become gated “sustainable” communities for the elite who can afford the luxury of a short, bikeable/bussable/walkable commute and the poor will be stuck driving the elites’ old gas guzzlers long distances. Will they be the ones paying congestion charging and high parking fees to clean the luxury urban condos of the wealthy. Or will they just stay out of the urban core entirely because it’s too expensive? Proximity is a luxury good.

Second, the technological innovation happening right now is unprecedented since Detroit 100 years ago when it comes to materials, vehicle architecture, energy, wireless connectivity, ownership and usage, etc. Silicon Valley and Paris (and parts of southern Germany) are rapidly becoming the new US and EU Detroits where new models are being explored. Presumably there are hubs in India, China, Brazil etc. but I am less familiar with them outside of Bangalore perhaps. Bicycles, motorcycles and cars are being ripped apart and refashioned into whole cloth new vehicles in much the same way that cars and motorcycles were developed. The “car” is not long for this world in its present conception. Major innovations like self-driving vehicles and wireless mesh networking promise ever greater speed, safety and convenience but possibly at the cost of even greater distances and privacy. Even more worrying, is that this discussion- or awareness- is completely absent from the broader urban planning conversations.

In other words, I think the middle class future will continue to be faster and farther away. The “slower” versions with everything in easy proximity will likely be a luxury good for the wealthy (combined, of course, with easy access to the nearest international airport), or all that the poorest citizens can afford.

Levi’s jeans made for bicycling

I went to the store to buy some pants today (yes, I know, black Friday and all but I really needed some pants). I was surprised to see that Levi’s is now selling bicycle “commuter” jeans that are water resistant, have extra sewing on the inseam for ruggedization, stretch fabric, a “utility” waistbelt to carry a U-lock, antimicrobial protection against odors, and when you turn up the cuff, they have a reflector sewn in. Kudos, Levi’s! Unfortunately, I didn’t like them as much as the pair I ended up buying but I’m glad they are available. Clearly designed with the Mission/Williamsburg hipster crowd in mind.

Why is locking a bike harder than locking my car?

In Copenhagen, parking my bike is fantastic- at least from the cyclists’ perspective. No one locks their bike ‘to’ anything. They just roll up to their destination and flip the integrated lock on the back wheel. This can be a hassle for pedestrians, handicap, elderly and shop owners if it blocks the sidewalk, shop windows etc. so that is still an issue. But people pretty much just want to park as close as possible to their destination, preferably about less than 50meters/yards. If there are racks and they aren’t full in Copenhagen, people will usually use them. But if they are farther away or full then people generally won’t use them.

In the US, bikes are typically more expensive (more commonly designed for recreational use, though this is changing) and theft is higher. People want to lock their bikes to something. But there is often nothing to park to. So people park to meters or have to get more inventive.

Even if there is something to park to, you often end up scraping the paint off the bike, fighting with mis-sized pole/lock combos, pushing around other bikes attached to the same post, getting grease on your pants and hassling for a long time with your cable. And then what do you do with the helmet? Take it with you or lock it with your bike?

Let us imagine a comparable situation in a car. A person rolls into a parking space, only it’s not a ‘space’ it’s just some spot on the sidewalk wide enough for a car and there’s already another car next to it. There isn’t enough room for both really, so they have to get so close that they actually scratch the paint off a  door. The guy squirms out the passenger door and then spends the next minute crawling around on the ground trying to attach his front wheel to a parking meter with a chain so no one steals his tires. He gets dirt and grease and junk all over his professional clothing. It’s a bit farther than he thought though and the cable doesn’t reach so he has to move the car another foot, scratching up his car and the other car more. This whole time, people are watching and getting annoyed. He goes back in the car, takes out ‘the club’ and attaches it to his steering wheel. He then gets out of the car and locks the door. He walks off, exasperated. Pedestrians and grandmothers can’t walk down the sidewalk. The other guy comes back and gets pissed that he’s ‘parked in’ and the door is scratched. Plus the guy accidentally locked his wheel too.

Can someone make a rough approximation of this into a catchy video?

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Here are some good ideas for bicycle locks.

Stereo systems for bikes

I’ve often wondered why bikes can’t have stereos. One of the great joys of driving your own car is being able to listen to your own music, even at high volume. But the only way to do that on a bike is headphones- which are dangerous due to traffic- or boomboxes attached to the bike – which may annoy passersby.

This is a neat version of the latter but obviously not especially practical. Here are some slightly better versions but they are still far from your ears so would need to be loud with low sound quality and high neighbor disturbance.

I think there’s still room for more innovation in “bike stereo systems” that allows me to listen to music without it being dangerous and without annoying everyone else around me.

Tunebug seems like it might fit the bill by putting the music near my ears but not in my ears. Probably requires wearing a helmet though and if you are wearing one you probably already feel unsafe and may not want to reduce your safety further. But this seems to be the right direction.

Anyone know of any others?

Semi-formalism: a new global agenda for “development”?

As you may have noticed, I have been offline on this blog for the past few months. Needless to say, my thinking has been shifting quite considerably on where I see the future of transportation heading and the role of the bicycle within it as a piece of a broader system- not the end objective of a “sustainable” city. I still love my bike, but I’ve been becoming increasingly interested in developments in shared vehicles, multi-modalism and the idea of “mobility as a service”.

I’ve moved to San Francisco and started digging into these issues in some specific startup projects which will be unveiled over time, though one can be viewed in a recent New York Times write-up.

This blog will likely take a new shape (and perhaps a new name) to reflect these changes. In the meantime, here is grand theoretical musing for your reading pleasure to get a sense of where my head is these days. Looking forward to feedback on what is still a somewhat nascent idea.

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“Semi-formal” systems should be the new model for global development.

Generally, I see the global north being “too” formal in its development. Formalization can improve health and well being, and reduce societal risks (eg, traffic rules). However, it can also be far too rigid and slow moving and restricts innovation, possibilities and potentialities that do not meet all regulations.

The global south is “too” informal. Excessive informality can lead to corruption, safety and health issues, lack of consumer rights, etc. The north’s development efforts (and funding) largely go to formalization of the south under the premises of “modernization” and “progress” with the north presumed as the zenith. This doesn’t always work for lots of reasons (cultural, political, etc.).

For instance, an experiment in Phnom Penh to put in a bus line failed. Why ride on this thing that only leaves once every 15 minutes and gives a fixed route? Why bother when I can hop on the back of anyone’s motorcycle taxi and go anywhere anytime?

In Bangkok, however, they have what I see as the trappings of a semi-formal system. It’s easy to become a moto taxi but you need to register and get a license, have a helmet for passengers, and wear a special yellow jacket. It’s not as regulated as say the NYC taxi system while still providing some level of protection for consumers. Minibusses and shared cabs, when somewhat regulated, could also provide a semi-formal transport mode which provide the benefits of a flexible system with the safety regulations of a formal system. And why don’t we have any of these systems in more “developed” countries?

What I think we are starting to see (rideshare, carshare, bikeshare, collaborative consumption, etc.) is a move toward a new form of development, a new concept. In my more radical theorizing, we are even moving beyond capitalism. Our means of exchange are in flux, borrowing from older concepts (trade/barter/share) but advanced by some of the securities of new technologies (trust/reputation/accountability).

We will start seeing new monetary systems developed (eg, bitcoin) and new funding mechanisms that are more grassroots and peer-to-peer (eg, kiva, kickstarter). There will be more “money” than ever before in the new economy. We are living in the times of economic deprivation by comparison.

I think the north is becoming less formal as an economic system, particularly as we continue into our fourth year of economic “downturn” with no upturn in sight. What we should be setting as a new target for development globally is something less formal than the north, while more formal than the south. The north should stop presuming it has all the answers and start learning from the south. The south should be reflecting on its own context and develop solutions that grow out of its own needs.

My proposition is that semi-formality should be the new target to be met, putting north and south on equitable terms toward a common, more sustainable global pursuit, hybridizing the best of formal and informal systems. Specific solutions can draw on other models globally for inspiration but should be refined and rethought – perhaps even radically – to be locally and contextually relevant. Collaborative consumption, peer-to-peer carsharing, bikesharing, and ridesharing particularly, are just instances of a much larger trend that I see in the horizon.

Let us build toward this convergence toward a common global aim. The lines between public and private transport will blur. The lines between modern and old fashioned will blur. The future will be better. The future will be semi-formal.

A city with real problems worth fighting for

Now compare that last post with a city with real problems like New York City. Here’s a great video by of an intersection in the Big Apple showing very clearly that what cyclists do (or should) fear in NYC is definitely not other cyclists, but everything else on the street.