Around here we call Cambridge the “People’s Republic” for a reason. The city’s politics veer somewhere to the left of Leningrad circa 1985. So when they set out to reduce car ownership in the city a few years ago it had a decidedly liberal bent … and the predictable outcome. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

A few years ago, Cambridge set a goal to reduce car ownership out of environmental concerns and started by trying to encourage people to go without and instead rely on buses and bike routes and the usual stuff that works for singles and small households, but not larger middle class families. The gentle carrot approach didn’t work as much as they’d hoped so now they’re going for a little less gentle approach of limiting the available parking, on or off street. And if that doesn’t work…. can taxes or “congestion fees” or any number of punitive steps be far behind?

Unfortunately, Cambridge’s policies seem to assume that most people who live in Cambridge work in the city or in neighboring Boston and don’t really venture outside those cities for anything. Of course, if you have five kids like we do, you’re already a pariah in the PRC so complaints about schlepping kids and their stuff around or wanting to visit family in the ‘burbs or go on vacation or even just go to the grocery story once a week fall on deaf ears. Instead, you get suggestions that maybe you should pay for Instacart or Uber or Zipcar or a bunch of other expensive services that still aren’t quite aimed at big families or the poor for that matter.

Still, there’s a future coming in which there may be a way to reduce car ownership without onerous regulation, but relies on private enterprise to fill some of the gap. That’s because we’re very close to having autonomous electric vehicles available.

Imagine this: You open an app on your phone, like Uber or Lyft, and summon a vehicle. You need to go to the store and run a couple of errands. An autonomous vehicle pulls up in front of your house, you get a notification on your phone, you go out and hop in. You get dropped off at the first location and go in to shop while the car drives off to the next passenger. You come out with your bags, having summoned another vehicle as you were checking out, and it’s there on the curb waiting for you. It takes you to the post office where, for a little extra fee, you keep it waiting for you with your bags safely locked inside as you run. You come out, complete your errands and return home.

What would you pay for a such a service? Before you answer, consider how much you’re saving: I’d gladly give up my $170 car payment for our sedan, plus about $100 per month insurance, plus annual registration fees, plus gasoline and maintenance and repairs, plus the hassle of finding parking spaces, and all the rest. If a subscription to this car service cost $150 per month, you’d be saving money, perhaps even if it were $200.

Think of the benefits to the elderly who would have the assurance of getting where they want without the worries of dealing with cab drivers or Uber or Lyft drivers1 You could put kids to young to drive in them to get to after school activities or the store or whatnot.

Meanwhile, you have a fleet of small, autonomous, electric cars that can be many fewer because, let’s face it, most of our cars are sitting doing nothing most of the time, while these cars-on-call can be working continuously. And the city could incentivize them by letting them drive in bus lanes or give other perqs. Reduce congestion and pollution, make the city more accessible.

Okay, so what about the poor? Sure most poor people can’t afford to pay that kind of monthly money. But what if there were an ancillary service that acted like a cross between a bus and a cab? Instead of cars going point to point, you could pay less for a carpool-like van. Using some machine learning smarts, it could carry up to a dozen people, picking them up and dropping them off individually along routes that are determined to be efficient by algorithm. It doesn’t have quite the same convenience of going point to point, but it could work.

Some people would still need to own a car, but perhaps families with two cars could get by with one. We’d still need our van because most service don’t envision the need to carry a big family. And the problem of car seats would need to be figured out.

Reducing congestion and pollution and improving quality of life by not having to sit in traffic aren’t just liberal goals accomplishable by liberal policy. Some smart technology and entrepreneurship could go a long way toward fixing these urban problems.

  1. A story in the news recently told of a dispute between an elderly couple heading to the doctor and their Uber driver that had the driver pulling to the side of the road and leaving them there to fend for themselves.

Image Credit

  • a-woman-holding-the-steering-wheel-of-a-car-with-one-hand-while-driving_BKeWG8qRHi.844979b1cfbb497182ce8c693d569cc1: Graphicstock | Copyright by owner. Used with permission.

Domenico Bettinelli, Jr., is a father of five and husband, a Roman Catholic, born in Boston, educated at Franciscan University of Steubenville, who has worked in Catholic media--print, broadcast, and online--since the mid-90s. Find out all about Dom on his About Me page.