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Improving urban mobility

If you’ve ever ridden a busy Toronto streetcar, you’ll know this story:

You’re waiting outside in the cold for a streetcar. When one–actually 4–finally arrive all bunched up together, they’re so packed with people that you’re not actually able to get on. You try one anyways and the driver makes an announcement for everyone to “move back” so that more people can onboard via the front door. After a few minutes of people shuffling to try and get further back, you’re finally able to squeeze on–even if you are virtually sitting on the driver’s lap. You then travel about 2 blocks before the streetcar stops and the same thing repeats. The result is an absolutely infuriating mobility experience that usually makes walking the preferred choice. Who said that downtown already has enough subways?

Over the weekend, I was watching this TED talk with Charlie Rose interviewing Larry Page of Google. One question that Rose asks Page is about why he’s so fascinated with transportation and mobility. That is, why is Google so committed to driverless cars? Page then talks about his experience of waiting for buses when he was a student at the University of Michigan and how he would think about all the inefficiencies in the system. He also talks about how half of the urban fabric of Los Angeles is made up of roads and parking lots and that this is a terrible outcome of the mobility choices made in that city.

I’ve said before that transportation is one of the biggest challenges facing Toronto today. And I truly believe that. But that’s probably the case in most, if not all big cities. Getting people around a city efficiently is such a fundamental need. It stimulates economic growth and it improves quality of life. And those are typically the reasons why people choose to live in cities: to make money and to have a better life. 

Now, I’m a big proponent of public transportation, but I’m also excited by the advances being made outside of mass transit. With driverless cars, electric cars, networks such as Uber and Hailo, and the emergence of the sharing economy, you could easily imagine a bunch of different ways in which mobility could be improved in our cities. Take, for my example, my own driving patterns. I probably drive my car 2, maybe 3 hours per week these days. That translates into a weekly utilization rate of roughly 1.2%! (2 hours / 168 hours week). That’s terribly inefficient. We can do better. And I think we will.

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