High-speed buses, Electric cars, smart parking, taxi sharing – there are lots of innovative ideas being dreamed up and put into action to reinvent city traffic and turn it into something manageable and sustainable. A full 177 approaches as of latest count, according to a site called Newmobility.
But as John Thackra notes in his excellent new piece, “The Gram Junkies“, any solution that assumes current transportation levels will remain constant or grow turns out not to be viable. Every such improvement to the system gets offset by some unintended consequence of the improvement, which leaves us back where we were before, or worse.
But there is a way to really impact traffic. Not improve it incrementally, but disrupt the system entirely: get people to stay where they are, and not become part of the traffic problem in the first place.
How do you do that? You do it by creating viable local alternatives to the things people are driving to get to. Give them those things within easy walking distance, so they don’t need to drive or take public transportation at all.
In the case of the cafe in your neighborhood, what you’re giving them is a place to work (and coffee, of course). And if their co-workers/bosses are reasonable, they will let them work there part of their week instead of commuting in to work every day.
So by opening a cafe, equipping it with good wifi, and nice spaces for people to work, you can take a couple dozen people out of the commute every day.
You’re not just putting them into a smart carpool, or putting them on a smart bus, you’re canceling their ride entirely. That’s sustainable, no?
My own local cafe, Building on Bond, does this, and every single day there are around ten people working there instead of commuting to an office somewhere farther away.
We don’t think of cafes as answers to the traffic problem, but they are. (Maybe those cafes should be eligible for tax breaks from the city for relieving the strain on transit systems? That’s not really my domain, but feel free to take that and run with it if it’s yours.)
When you look at the problem of traffic, there are two ways to look at it. One is “how can we move more people, more efficiently, using less energy and creating less waste than we do currently?” The other is “how can we eliminate the need for people to move outside of their immediate area altogether, in situations where it might not really be necessary?”
The first way is how most people looking at the problem are approaching it. And that gets you part way there. But the second way is how we need to think as well in order to fully solve the problem.
The first way is incremental change, improvement within the existing system. The second way is a change of the system itself. That’s what’s needed here, in anything other than the immediate short-term.
Of course if you’re really talking about disrupting the system, you need to do more than just open a cafe. You need to do something system-wide. But the cafe is an interesting place to start – it’s a model that gets you thinking about how you could get to that system-wide thing.
I can think of a business idea off the top of my head that could be a great, profitable way to put this kind of change into action system-wide. It’s a bit outside of my own scope for starting businesses, but the right team, with the right backing, could get it started fairly easily. (As with anything I say on this blog, if anyone wants to discuss further, write me – I’m always happy to talk).
If you’re an innovator/entrepreneur who wants to really impact traffic levels and carbon footprints, it might be interesting to think less about “smart solutions” to traffic and think more about local solutions. Getting people to stay where they are rather than being more efficient at moving them around needlessly.
Innovations that improve transportation efficiency will of course be a huge part of the traffic solution. We’re not going to stop moving entirely, are we? But if you’re only looking at increasing efficiency in the current system by bits and pieces, you’re never going to arrive at the new system that needs to come into being, you’re just going to have a better version of the current system. Which isn’t really a solution in this case, is it?