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 / Autumn 2010 / Issue 60(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Thought Leader Interview: Lawrence Burns

Three major impediments get in the way of public transportation. The first is routes. A public transportation system can’t go everywhere, so people have to have a way to get to and from the stations. The second is schedules. You can’t leave exactly when you want to, so you have to arrive before the public transit system arrives to pick you up, which has major impacts on how people schedule their lives. And unfortunately, those schedules aren’t always predictable, so you have to buffer. The third is that since people have to shift modes from how they get to the station — whether it’s in cars, on scooters, or on bicycles — to the public transport mode, you create a need for parking.

In the United States there’s really only one place where the public transportation system overcomes all three impediments, and that’s in Manhattan. In most other cities, the population densities are too low and the amount of subsidies needed to make it work are too high.

My coauthors and I thought about this, and compared what we’re envisioning with public transportation. Think about the 750-pound vehicles that we’re describing: If you put 32 of them in two rows of 16 side by side, they take up the same area footprint as a typical transit bus. As we did our research, we were intrigued by this fact, because it means you can move the same number of people with each approach. Then we said, “How much do 32 of these vehicles weigh?” They weigh less than the bus. And then we said, “How much do 32 of these vehicles cost?” They cost less than the bus. And when you look into the way these vehicles work in the traffic flow, you find that you can move more people through a tunnel, for example, faster and more efficiently than you can in a bus.

You could even look at these vehicles as a new form of mass transit. If you as a policymaker were going to buy enough buses to move everybody in your city, I would conclude you’re going to spend more money and consume more energy and provide less mobility and convenience for your citizens than if you gave everyone one of these machines.

Testing the Concept

S+B: What are the steps to introduce these vehicles, test the concept, and convince consumers to buy them?

BURNS: When you look at an innovation of this type, you start by getting market foothold tests of the building blocks. Some of these, such as electric drive and vehicle telematics, as we discussed, are already pretty far along. And market foothold tests are already starting on different aspects of the Mobility Internet. Those will continue to evolve, and at some point it’s a matter of hooking them together, either all in one step or in partial steps.

It’s largely a matter of one place giving it a try, so that we can prove the concept. There could be opportunities to test it in restricted geographies, such as a college campus, a gated community, or an island. Another way it could come about would be in a nation like Singapore or China, where policymakers and private-sector leaders think differently about the relationship between public and private entities. One of the reasons the Prius became a success was in part how Toyota worked with the Japanese government to build the mechanisms and the supply base necessary to enable a technology to get out in front. Some people refer to that as industrial policy — and I know that can be an inflammatory phrase for some people in nations like the United States — but a nation that thinks differently may see the promise of systems like this and put together the implementation road maps to do something about it.

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