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A Million Taxis

A Million Taxis

New apps aim to turn normal cars into ad-hoc taxis, filling empty seats and easing traffic

Author: Reilly Capps/Friday, April 5, 2013/Categories: sustainability, Archive Pick of the Week

By Reilly Capps


You ever sit in a giant traffic jam, alone, in freeway that has become a parking lot, boxed in by cars flatulating noxious fumes, your only companion the radio DJ’s who are dumber than dingleberries? Don’t you feel like driving to city hall and stomping some city planner’s throat, or hocking a loogie on Robert Moses’s grave? “Thanks a lot for the BQE, jackass.” And do you ever catch the eye of a driver next to you? Ever notice that you’re in a car alone and they’re in a car alone and two-thirds of the drivers in their cars alone? And don’t you wonder if they’re thinking the same thing you’re thinking, which is: “I am going to murder someone.”

No, that’s too harsh. That’s not what you’re thinking (not usually). You’re thinking: “When did we all agree to live stuck in traffic? There has got to be a better way.”

Now, a number of tech entrepreneurs are trying to harness the power of mobile phones to coordinate rides between drivers and riders.

Jonathan Fein, 24, is the founding CEO of JP Partners, a company that just this week released what could be a world-shaking app for your smartphone. His app, called Rickshaw, will be able to efficiently match up passengers looking for a ride with everyday motorists who have the time and desire to ferry someone else around.

I spoke with him from his base in Hong Kong. He said he will often be in traffic having the feeling I described above, looking at the other drivers, thinking how smart it would be to carpool, but not having any idea how to go about it. So he’s found a way.

Here’s how it works: Let’s say you live in Marin County, Calif., and, every day, you commute to Downtown San Francisco. Then your car breaks down. You need a lift. You tell Rickshaw or Lyft or Sidecar that you need a ride. Someone else who drives a similar commute would be notified by the app. They would then make an offer, saying that they could take you along for $10 a trip, or whatever. You pay by credit card, and Rickshaw takes a 15 percent cut.

This is not a new idea. A few websites, like eRideShare,   have long tried to match drivers and passengers. But it seems like it rarely works. No one seem to be going where you want to go, and you can’t tell who you’re riding with.

There are a number of companies, such as Lyft and Sidecar, right now attempting to harness the power of smartphones to make this work easily and efficiently. If they can, it has tremendous potential to fix some of our worst transportation problems.

It’s like carpooling or hitchhiking, but way better organized and way safer. And, because it incorporates a profit motive, and is powered by market forces of supply and demand, it has a better chance of succeeding widely than carpooling or hitchhiking.

The difference between Rickshaw and Lyft and Sidecar, Fein points out, is that Rickshaw works in any city anywhere in the world, whereas Lyft and Sidecar are only available in certain major American cities. It also seems to offer more transparency, with lots more pictures of the car and the driver, so you know whether you’ll be riding with a clean businessman in a sparkly BMW or a dirty, scraggly-looking dirt farmer driving a rusted-out Focus. Pictures are key to creating transparency and trust on the Internet.

And, if you ask for a ride and can’t get it, the app lets you call a local taxi company just by pressing a button.

All of these apps, if they can succeed on any level, will be eco-friendly.

Fein points out that taxis spend a substantial portion of their day driving around without a passenger, looking for fares, burning up fuel. He says that informal taxi cabs, sometimes called black taxis, already exist in China and Poland, though they’re disorganized. In this case, most rides would only be arranged with people who were already going that way anyway, and so little extra gas will be burned. And Fein thinks that sharing a car, as opposed to driving alone, will create “a little bit nicer community feel.”

These types of apps are, of course, part of a broader, idealistic movement toward a “sharing economy,” in which the Internet and smart phones are used to better allocate the resources we already have, such as the empty seats in our giant SUV’s (in the case of Rickshaw), or the extra, unused rooms we have in our giant houses (in the case of CouchSurfing and AirBnB). This in lieu of producing more stuff, with greater impact on the planet.

Will Rickshaw succeed? Who knows. There aren’t many people signed up right now.

It will probably depend on how willing average people are to climb into a car with a stranger, how willing they are to give up the supposed freedom they have while driving a car, and how much they believe that lurking in the car next to you is not a chainsaw-swinging murderer, but another human who’s sick of the endless traffic, and wants to find a better way.

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