You may not know this, but the concept of the commute is fairly recent.
As of just a couple hundred years ago, it didn’t really exist.
People would live and work in the same area…within an hour’s walk. Many worked from home.
But with the invention of the automobile, we were then able to live and work in separate places…and get from one to the other quickly and without much physical effort.
Thus, the commute was born. Along with it, suburbs, rush-hour traffic and a hole in the ozone.
Today, most of us are used to lengthy commutes. Whether it’s in our own car…trying to get in the fast lane like Office Space…or public transportation like buses and the train…we willingly give up some of our leisure time to live farther from where we work.
For some, that means getting out of the city and living out in nature. For others, it means cheaper rent.
Now this phenomenon has heaps of pros, and cons, that come with it, but today I want to talk cars.
Specifically, cars in the city.
It’s no secret that our city roads can’t handle the sheer volume of people moving about the city.
It’s come to a point where driving short distances around town can be more of a hassle than anything else.
Skirting through traffic…
Getting from A to B rarely turns out to be a simple straight line.
The reason for this is primarily the age of the city. It was likely designed for a much smaller population. Fewer cars. A more compact hub of activity.
But as the city has grown, the old layout struggles to keep the flow moving.
Anyone who drives understands this feeling.
A new sheriff in town
There are heaps of potential solutions out there…like Elon Musk’s Hyperloop or China’s bizarre elevated bus.
Source: Xinhua News
But one of the most intriguing ideas is one you’ve probably seen in action — bike sharing.
This time last year, a bunch of bumblebee-coloured bikes showed up around Auckland. You could find them propped up against public bike stands near busy city hubs.
Kathryn King from Auckland Transport told The Spinoff that the bikes appeared without any prior contact from the company behind it all, OnzO.
They just showed up.
But it was a welcome sight. Folks at Auckland Transport knew there was a congestion problem…and that bike sharing could be an interesting solution. Bikes, after all, have helped modernise other congested cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam.
So, the OnzO bikes were allowed to stay…while the urban planners watched carefully. [openx slug=inpost]
Phase two: e-scooters
It must have gone well, because here we are a year later, and the bikes are still there…and now OnzO is taking it up a gear by dabbling with e-scooters too.
About 2,500 yellow and black scooters will hit Auckland’s streets this spring.
They’ll have a 250W motor, which means you won’t need a permit to ride them. They’ll go about 30 kilometres per hour and can go for about an hour before needing to be recharged.
They’re meant for short trips, like between the bus stop and your office.
I’ve seen similar schemes in action in the States. Companies like Bird and Lime have taken over major cities and you’ll find folks zipping around on scooters on most city footpaths.
In fact, Lime just won a contract to trial their e-scooters in Christchurch this month.
It’s a bit more convenient than bikes because a) they are motorised, b) they are easier to ride, and c) they are much smaller and lighter…which jives better for footpath usage.
But there’s a problem…
The big issue with these sorts of sharing systems is that there are people involved.
And when people are involved, things often run off course.
For example, think about OnzO’s bikes now.
They’ll often start the day near the central part of the city…but as the day goes on, they end up further and further downhill. No one wants to ride them uphill.
By midnight, they end up near the harbour or thrown in by drunks.
A vicious cycle (pardon the pun).
I experienced something similar with a bike sharing programme in Baltimore, USA.
It started off fine, but eventually the bikes became easy targets for vandals.
Bikes were found in trees. Others burnt to a crisp. Many were torn apart. Heaps were simply tossed in the Patapsco River.
So, will New Zealand’s schemes have a similar ending?
These new schemes have the odds stacked against them from the beginning.
For one, the companies are still working out the kinks. They’re still learning how it all should work. Imperfections in the process make failure more likely.
At the same time, regulators aren’t sure how to handle it. Who’s liable? And for what?
And lastly, society as a whole is trying to figure out what to think. It’s new. It’s different. It could jeopardise the old paradigms. For example, do scooters belong on our narrow footpaths with pedestrians? If so, how can both groups operate safely?
Amongst all of that, you’ll have your normal groups of thugs and vandals taking their toll on the scheme.
I hope OnzO makes it out alive; I’m rooting for them. I think New Zealand’s cities will be better off for it.
But it’s going to be a long road to get there…if our batteries don’t run out first.
Editor, Money Morning New Zealand