Interview about Mobility Cooperative

06/nov/2017 - Economia -
Arnd N. Bätzner is MSc ETH, cand. Ph.D. University of St.Gallen.
Arnd N. Bätzner

Carsharing in Brazil is still crawling if we compare with what already happens in Europe and the United States, for example. How do you see the growth potential of carsharing in Brazil?

Let me start by pointing out that the growth of car sharing in Europe and the US over the past two decades is due to a set of infrastructural and socio-economic factors: First, urban form allowing for a certain level of walkability and bikeability, so that the use of a car is not required for every single short trip. Second, the availability of a good level of public transport service – frequent, reliable, affordable, safe and easy to use. Third, and in parallel, we observe the emergence of a lifestyle-oriented, ecologically- minded urban middle class, focused on making the best use of their time, and no longer willing to deal with the tedious intricacies tied to car ownership.

In Brazil, I see an increasing number of areas where similar developments can be observed: Not only SP and RJ, but also Salvador, Fortaleza, Recife, Porto Alegre and others have the structural potential for car sharing to succeed. Once the word spreads about of how much having access to a vehicle 24/7, when you need it, where you need it, is not only less of a hassle, but also more economical than owning one, more and more people will get interested. This is the basic mechanism we observed in Europe and the US.

A key factor is the readiness for an initial investment to get car sharing off the ground and make it better known to citizens – we have lately seen some very promising initiatives in Brazil.

Would it be a restricted solution for large urban centres, such as São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro?

One of the key factors is a certain level of urban density, a lively urban environment where retail and services are easily easy to reachable and close by. In such an environment, residents generally prefer to dedicate street space to enriching activities, to make it a sphere of social interaction, with thriving corner shops, cafés and restaurants, with zones for citizens to interact and for children to play. Cars are widely perceived as anti-social elements that do not belong in such an environment.

Statistically, most privately-owned cars are not moving 23 out of 24 hours a day. Instead they sit in a parking bay occupying valuable space. This applies to major cities in Brazil as it does to European or North American areas. Dense Urban centres have in most cases been the incubators and cores for the emergence and growth of car sharing systems. But from there, they can spread beyond, once they are known to citizens and increasingly become part of their daily lives.

Suburban areas are more difficult: Unfortunately since the late 1970s, Brazil has in many places seen the adoption of a suburban lifestyle modelled on the US – residential areas with single detached homes and strip malls, greedy in land and energy, making commutes long and time-consuming. This is the very opposite of a sustainable development: Sprawling areas are difficult to serve with quality transit, and sometimes impossible even to retrofit. In some areas though, where sprawl happened along infrastructure corridors and can be densified by adding small-scale services and more compact housing, transit options can be added to reduce car dependency. An example is Barra de Tijuca RJ, where the extension of the metro rail corridor, BRT lines and feeder buses for last-mile services will better the situation significantly. Once this is established, car sharing has the grounds to work locally, and will actively help reduce car ownership.

When we talk about carsharing we are talking about a change of culture, which prioritizes the use and no longer the possession. How was this barrier overcome in Switzerland?

As mentioned, one factor is that car ownership is expensive not only in terms of money, but also in personal time invested: A car needs a parking space, or even two if it is used for commuting, it needs to be serviced, duties and insurances to be paid.

Switzerland has a countrywide, fully integrated public transport system with a high level of service and good reliability – one single ticket gives you access to a combined trip starting with a tram ride to the station, then an intercity train, and finally a rural bus to your destination, or even a cable car trip to a mountain village. Annual subscription passes make you pay once and use any mode, countrywide, as often as you need for the next 365 days.

On the main lines, services run every 30 minutes or more often, and even regional, trunk or mountain services operate at least every hour, from early morning until late at night. Schedules are fully integrated between modes for immediate short connections. Why would you drive if you can be driven, travelling in a comfortable seat, giving you time to work, relax or have a drink in the on-board restaurant car?

Ultimately, it is a question of priorities – if you can use your travel time in a productive way, you’ll have more time for what matters at your destination, like spending time with your family. Basically, it is this spirit that made car sharing grow in Switzerland: It is a more rational choice that gives you extra degrees of freedom. And then, if you specifically need a car, say if you have something bulky to haul, if your kids play a hockey match, for an extended trip to the mall or a trip at night when transit doesn’t run, car sharing allows you to have access to a car near you within minutes. Use it, put it back, done. Nothing else to worry about.

The second factor is governance: Not only has Switzerland zoning laws preventing an excess of sprawl, policymakers also actively limit the availability of public and private parking spaces. Decision on such regulations becoming effective is made by popular votes, so they are signed into law by citizens themselves. Also, there are heavy fines for traffic violations: As an example in the city of Zurich, Switzerland’s largest, a speed excess of over 15 km/h where the normal inner-city limit of 50 km/h applies not only automatically gets you a minimum of one night in jail, it also comes with a heavy fine that can be proportional to your income, and is meant to hurt you.

The idea is that because car use comes with a whole set of negative externalities that a civil society has to burden, it is to be proactively limited: Whoever can use public transportation should do so. On the other hand, those that do need to use a vehicle, such as servicemen with heavy tools oder delivery people, find less congested roads. In the end, this makes transportation more efficient for all and helps reduce overall costs to society.

How does Mobility work in Switzerland?

The Mobility car sharing system operates nationwide and is fully integrated with public transportation: About 3’000 cars all across Switzerland are located in the places where people live and work. Many cars sit in rail stations and transit hubs – all are available in self service 24/7 from your smartphone or our call center. This means that you can use the train and bus system for the long part of your trip, and use a car sharing vehicle to reach your final destination, e.g. if you carry heavy luggage. Increasingly, condos have Mobility cars on site, making it easier for residents to have access to a car if they need one. Also, more and more businesses also have their corporate fleets replaced by Mobility vehicles – they block them for use during business hours, and private customers can use them e.g. on the weekends.

We have all popular sizes, from 2-seater Smarts to delivery vans, including an increasing fleet of electric sedans. All cars are strictly chosen for safety and environmental compliance – our own fleet standards exceed the already tough legal requirements in Switzerland.

On top of this service, we operate free-floating systems in the cities of Zurich and Basel: Here, small urban cars can be picked up and dropped off on any legal parking spot within the area of operation.

All Mobility car sharing cars can be opened using the RFID public transport fare media that virtually all residents of Switzerland carry.

What do you think Brazil can learn from this case? What can be applied here?

As mentioned before, a good level of transit service has been shown to be an essential requirement for car sharing to thrive in a given location. Transit succeeds if it is affordable, accessible, and reliable. The last factor is still a major issue in some Brazilian cities, as is public security and a respect for public assets: Car sharing cars are self-drive public transportation, they complement and extend the reach of mass transit.

Those cars require a tacit agreement to be treated in a reasonable way. No car sharing operator can afford vehicles to be torched or customers fearing to get robbed when accessing a parking lot. This is a complex problem – at the end of the day, it comes down to who owns public space: Do we want liveable cities for an inclusive society, where streets – as trains and buses – are places where people meet and share assets and experiences? Brazil, a country so incredibly rich in heritage, culture and with greatest potential for the 21st century, needs the civil society to take back control over its public sphere.

As an example, if commuter trains in the Baixada Fluminense were more reliable and safer to use at all times of the day, if the teleféricos serving the Morro do Alemão and Morro da Providência – built to provide an essential connectivity to residents – were back in operation after a year of closure, conditions would improve so that also car sharing operators can move in. Car sharing vehicles in stations could be an attractive service, strengthening the value of existing transit.

And wherever a family or job situation makes the ownership of one car unavoidable, car sharing can also replace the ownership of a second vehicle. This even includes fun vehicles such as SUVs or pick-up trucks: in the summer months for instance, Mobility adds convertibles to the fleet, and they are very popular even with people that already own a car.

The market potential in Brazil is definitely there, but unfortunately parts of it are at this time negatively impacted by external factors.

How do you see the future of mobility and how does carsharing fit into this tomorrow?

Within the next 10 years, we will see a big improvement in quality of so-called last-mile services – from the doorstep of your home or work to a transportation hub. Similarly, short-range collective point-to-point transportation will be made available using self-driving vehicles. Some parts of the functionalities that are today addressed by car sharing today, will be taken over by such new services, and car sharing operators are well placed to provide them – they have the market knowledge, the data and the expertise to understand and address customers’ mobility needs.

It is crucial that car share operators keep the commitment to first and foremost serve society, as integral part of a mobility ecosystem to which they contribute. The time for standalone solutions or aggressive, so-called “disruptors” that are mainly interested in market dominance is over: future mobility solutions need to be equitable, inclusive and multi-modal, while providing entirely new levels of comfort for the user. Urban mobility systems today are key performance indicators for a local environment, increasingly deciding on liveability and the potential to attract investments generating wealth. It is about building a smartly governed, well-managed, integrated mobility ecosystem: We will see new models of pricing for the use of public assets such as road space, and anything only else but a system where all actors, public and private, play together and collaborate can not be financed in the long run.

Mass transit, especially rail, will remain the backbone for sustainable, liveable and inclusive cities: Historically, it was subways and commuter trains that globally made the dense, modern city possible at the end of the 19th century. Only mass transit – updated and ramped-up with services to fit the digital age, and integrated with last-mile connectors – can provide the necessary capacities at peak times. It is mainly for this reason that visions of capsule transportation, where small vehicles carrying 4 or 6 people, take over all land transport, are not feasible: These scenarios are nothing else than the re-packaged, re-branded 1950s dreams of the automobile age that we have seen fail so spectacularly. Also, capsule transport isn’t desirable from a social coherence point of view: Humans are social beings, and in democratic societies, ever-increasing segregation will invariably lead into a crisis.

Brazil has all prerequisites and opportunities to be part of this 21st century mobility landscape. But since it involves sharing, again, security seems to be the major issue. All around the world when travelling, I tend to ride transit to get to airports – it is generally faster, less stressful and more environmentally friendly than using a taxi and generating an extra car trip just for myself. The day I can do this in Rio, when even bus operators would no longer need to deter me from riding the 915 Bonsuccesso x Galeão bus, transit will be back doing what it should do: Serve the citizens. That day, car sharing will be an integral part of it.