Public transportation 2.1

I was inspired by Tara’s post, Public Transportation 2.0, to add more than a comment.

When I was in Bangalore in 2007, I was struck by the utility of the ubiquitous motorized rickshaws, known locally as autocabs or just autos:

Any visitor to Asia has seen these things, since they’re in every Asian city. And they are cheap and they are everywhere. When I mentioned them to one of the panjandrums of the Bay Area public transportation scene, the executive director of one of the NGOs that lobbies for transportation policy, he was dismissive. “Oh, the tuk-tuks,” he said. “They clog up the streets, and they pollute. That’s not what we need. We need commuter rail that goes everywhere.”

Oh, fine, Mr. Bay Area Transit Boss! So I’m on my way to work in the morning. Never mind how I get to the BART station; I take a train across the bay to, say, Ashby. Now that I have alighted at your gigantor 1970s-era concrete monster BART station, I need to get to work, 2.3 miles away. It’s too far to walk. I could wait 20 minutes for a bus, and then that bus would take 20 minutes to poke along for the two miles, making my trip to work take over an hour… And that’s why I drive every day instead.

Yes, we need rail. It would be great, for example, if there were another BART line running through Oakland and Berkeley, with stops at the Grand Lake cinema, College and Telegraph, Sather Gate, North Gate, and the Gourmet Ghetto — call it the Yuppie line, and color it pink. It will be great when we have electrified CalTrain (target: 2015), and a bullet train from L.A. to downtown S.F. (target: 2018), and the Central Subway (target: 2016).

But then what do you do when you get to your stop? What if you have three heavy bags of groceries and live eight blocks up a hill? What if you just live three blocks from a bus line and you’re old, or injured — how do you shop? Sure, you could call a taxicab, and wait for twenty minutes, spend five dollars, and have to deal with a pissed-off driver who is mad at you because the short trip hardly registers on the meter and he’s having enough trouble today making his gate fee — if he shows up at all — and who, because he’s pissed off, won’t help you with your bags.

And why does it take twenty minutes? Because we’ll never have enough taxicabs in San Francisco — the whole issue is too political, and no mayor or public transportation commission has had the political will to fix the broken system. We have to have an alternative that works, goes door-to-door (or door-to-transit hub), won’t take two decades to put in place, and — extra benefit! — employs hundreds or thousands of people.

Take the worst part of autorickshaws: they’re smelly and noisy. Get rid of the smoky two-stroke engine, and electrify the things. On a battery, they’ve got enough juice to go 35 mph, and that’s more than enough for city driving. Maybe the driver will have to switch out the batteries once or twice during the day — fine, put battery switch-out stations all around the city in any of the hundreds of parking lots and vacant storefronts. (You’ll need the infrastructure eventually for the day when cars have the same system.)

Now, the other objection: that by being small enough to squeeze between larger vehicles, the autorickshaws contribute to traffic congestion rather than solve it. No — they’re going to be replacing cars on the road. Have you ever been to Rainbow Grocery on a busy day or evening? There are cars stretching in a line out of the parking lot, down 13th St., and sometimes around the corner onto Folsom. Since most of the people who shop at Rainbow are hippies or former hippies who would like nothing better than to grasp a green alternative, I’m betting they’d jump at the chance to take a less-polluting form of transport to shop. Multiply that by the thousands of shopping trips city residents take every day. Shit, just two days ago I drove one mile from my house in Bernal Heights to 23rd and Mission to pick up fish tacos at La Corneta. I was extremely lucky to find a parking place within a hundred yards, but if I take an autocab, there’s no need to find a parking place, no need to run my car for the two-mile trip, and now the Mission St. buses can get on their way without my car in the way. Yes, the thousands of autorickshaws would take up space on the roads. But a lot less than the taxis we have now, and a lot less than the cars they’d replace.

They’d also get cars off the road by increasing the attractiveness of large public transit systems like BART, because they allow me to get to and from transit hubs easily.

Oh, yes — I could ride a bicycle to and from BART too. But BART famously hates bicycles, banning them from the system during commute hours. I mean, hello!? CalTrain is better; they devote a car to bicycles on many trains, though the car often fills up. And I did ride a bike when I worked at that company 2.3 miles from Ashby BART — ten years ago. I’m now 52 years old; frankly, a bicycle is no longer an option for my commute.

So — I wish we had autorickshaws.

4 Comments so far

  1. Tara Tiger Brown (tarabrown) on February 1st, 2009 @ 5:21 pm

    That is an amazing idea, Mark! I also have been to India a couple of times and those rickshaws were super handy. I find myself avoiding grocery shopping to the last minute because I’m never sure how I’m going to deal with the groceries because I don’t have a car and I only have bikes. I never feel like renting a Zip Car to get groceries although I guess that’s the point…

    If they were driven by responsible drivers (I was scared out of my mind a couple of times in India) and were electric, I think it would be a great investment for the city.

    Good one!!

  2. Matt Bruensteiner (thephoton) on February 1st, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

    Hi Mark, You mention that the auto-rickshaws in Asia are cheap. I’m guessing that might have a lot to do with most Asian countries having a much more flexible approach to minimum wage than we do. Your Berkeley taxi-driver might be hoping for more than a $5 fare because he need more than $5 to make a decent living; not because his vehicle is so much more expensive than the Asian autorickshaw. I’ll also mention I’ve been to Asia, but only to the richer areas (mostly Singapore) and never seen an autorickshaw, so even in Asia these might be something that doesn’t make sense once the cost of living gets to a certain point.

    On the flip side, I was in central Europe for a couple of weeks last summer, and every city there (Budapest, Prague, Vienna, Olomouc) had an affordable, well-used light rail system that seemed to run within 4 blocks of almost anywhere in the city centers. That’s something I’d sure like to see develop in the US, though I’m not holding my breath. Those cities have been organizing their development around those transit systems for 100 years, where we in the western US have been organizing around the idea of everyone having their own car for at least the last 50 years. San Francisco or Oakland might be able to recover their old streetcar-oriented centers, but San Jose or Phoenix will have a hell of a time recreating what was never there.

  3. Mark Pritchard (markpritchard) on February 1st, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

    I’m not surprised they don’t have them in Singapore — they’re too chaotic and anarchic for a city that emphasizes control and over-organization. But clearly I was overstating they’re "every Asian city."

    As for the low fares, you’re right that they would be more expensive here, but I think the ability to do many small trips — as opposed to a relatively few long trips that taxicab drivers hope for — will help keep the prices down. They can also be subsidized in a number of ways, from making the electricity cheap or free to subsidizing drivers’ health care costs and insurance.

  4. Texting For A Ride | Pay4Rides (pingback) on February 2nd, 2009 @ 9:39 pm

    […] another writer at this blog, Mark Pritchard, was also inspired by Tara’s story and he posted Public Transportation 2.1 as a response.  He makes a very good case for small battery powered autocabs to supplement trains […]

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