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Car sharing can help ease traffic snarls

Dec 21. 2017
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WHEN I first arrived in Asia in the early 90s, the journey from the Bangkok city centre to Don Mueang airport was so long it had spawned a unique side industry.

Roadside hawkers selling portable toilets for those who couldn’t make it to the airport without a bathroom break.

Perhaps people are better prepared for gridlock these days because I haven’t seen those salespeople on recent trips to Bangkok. But even with the city’s ever-expanding mass rapid transit system, and kilometres of new roads, traffic congestion is only getting worse.

While Bangkok might be one of the worst places in Asia for congestion, it is far from alone. The region’s fast-growing cities regularly populate the rankings of the world’s most miserable places to commute in. 

According to Boston Consulting Group, Bangkok drivers spend an average of 72 minutes per day in traffic. This horrifying amount of time lost in congestion is followed by Jakarta in second place at 68 minutes per day. Manila, Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur score 66, 58 and 53 minutes per day spent in traffic, respectively.

The causes of congestion are complex, and fixing the problem won’t be easy. But along with investment in public transit and better urban planning, there is another solution at hand, and one that doesn’t require massive government expenditure. It’s about using the technology that is already in our pockets – smartphones – and the cars already on the street.

That may sound strange, but it’s not if you think about it. Apps like Uber make it easy for people to share their ride, getting more people into fewer cars.

That can help reduce congestion because it creates a viable alternative to private car ownership. After all, if you can press a button and get an affordable ride across town or to the MRT station within minutes at any time of day or night, why bother to own a car at all? 

In research we commissioned, The Boston Consulting Group found that up to 70 per cent of private vehicles on the road today in Asia could be removed if ridesharing becomes a viable substitute for private vehicle ownership.

Cars take up space when they are moving, but there is another, less immediately obvious cost to the way cities get around currently: the land taken up when they are stationary. 

Cities that embrace ridesharing drastically reduce the need for parking, freeing up space for parks, public squares, schools or vital infrastructure. In fact, the BCG research has shown that parking all the cars in Southeast Asia would require a parking lot 25 times the size of Hong Kong.

So making it easier to share the cars on the road can help reduce congestion. But we also know that cities need robust public transport networks to get moving. Yet building MRT lines and train stations isn’t enough. Governments also have to think about how people will get people to and from them, the so-called first mile/last mile problem.

Ridesharing is proving well suited to filling this gap. Just last month, Singapore announced its intention to curb private car growth altogether and boost investment in public transit, citing the need to move to a “car-lite” future. 

It’s no coincidence that the country has long welcomed ridesharing companies like Uber, which are an important partner in this vision. Our data shows that close to 30 per cent of all Uber trips begin or end close to an MRT station in Singapore. In Bangkok, this number is about 20 per cent and growing. 

By making it easy for people to give their fellow citizens a lift, we can turn the growing number of cars on our cities’ roads into part of the solution.

 It’s counterintuitive, I know, but the best solution to “carmageddon” is not to demonise cars; it’s to use them more efficiently.

The writer is chief business officer, APACx Uber.


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