Shared Electric Vehicles are the Subways of the 21st Century

The 21st century subway system goes from anywhere in the city to anywhere else as fast as a taxi, as affordably as a bus, and as quietly as a bicycle. Every city in the world is getting one. They will make us healthier, wealthier, and happier. In just a few years we will not be able to imagine cities without them.

Cities are shaped by how we move through them. The roads and rails and sidewalks and bridges are the outlines of our homes and workplaces and parks and shops. In places as definitionally crowded as cities, when a new form of transportation is introduced, it pushes boundaries, questions assumptions, and stretches imaginations. And if it is truly better than what came before it, citizens will adopt it, and the shape of the city will change.

I was born in the 20th century as industrialization, mass production, and economies of scale matured and globalized, yielding incredible prosperity and making an environmental mess. I started riding the subway to school when I was 11 years old. Subway systems are the quintessential form of 20th century urban transportation. They are essentially assembly lines for moving people, and are very good at doing the same thing over and over: Moving you from station to station at the same times everyday. By moving people along the same routes between the same stations in the same carriages at the same times, subways achieve great economies of scale, making it possible for cities to move millions of people a day more quickly, more affordably, more reliably, and more cleanly than the horse-drawn streetcars that preceded them.

Cities were reshaped by subway systems. They grew outward into their suburbs, as people could travel longer distances to reach their jobs and homes and the many other people and things that make cities such wonderful places to live. They grew upward with taller buildings, as more people could come together and then disperse more quickly. The streets were cleared of horse manure and its smells and filled with many different people getting on and off the subway, who could now afford to get where they needed to go in the city quickly and cheaply.

If the 20th century’s economies of scale gave us the subway system, the 21st century’s network effects gave us networks of shared electric vehicles you can ride from anywhere in the city to anywhere else whenever you want for just a few dollars. The same 21st century forces that created the smartphone are also transforming urban transportation.

Shared EVs are not organized by rails and schedules, but by GPS and wireless data. Instead of the economies of scale of concentrating transportation in time and space, we get powerful network effects of being able to go from anywhere to anywhere at anytime. Just as a phone becomes more valuable with each additional phone you can call, a transportation network becomes more valuable the more places it can take you. A big subway system could have hundreds of stations, but that is a tiny number compared to the number of addresses in a city which can be directly connected by individual vehicles going wherever there are satellites and cell towers.

A shared electric vehicle network is not powered by massive, fossil-fueled power stations, but by renewable energy and batteries. By sizing each vehicle for individual use in the city, and equipping them with new, super-efficient, electric motors and just enough battery for quick trips around town, this new mode of transportation makes for cleaner, quieter cities, and helps undo some of the climate damage done by the 20th century’s fossil fuel bonanza. Perhaps most surprisingly, it also makes cities more prosperous. The electricity to run these new vehicles can be generated locally and cheaply from renewable sources, unlike other transportation modes that pump hundreds of millions of dollars a year out of the local economy and into far-away oil wells and coal mines.

And finally, this defining mode of urban transportation of the 21st century is open to the public, but privately run. It is funded by the people who use it, not by the government. San Francisco has been working on a 2-mile-long subway line for over 25 years. When it is finished it will have cost $2 billion and will carry only 1% of the trips that San Franciscans take within the city. The 21st century does not move at that pace. A private company could create a city-wide network of shared electric vehicles that would complement the existing mass transit system with first and last mile trips and carry 25% of all travel within San Francisco. It would do this by replacing up to half of the city’s car trips with faster, cheaper, greener rides. But most importantly, that network could be up and running immediately, not just because it wouldn’t require any tunneling, but because it would, unlike any subway system, pay for itself while still charging the same fares a subway does. Welcome to the 21st century.

Subways helped make cities bigger, taller, cleaner, and more productive. Shared electric vehicle networks will make cities quieter, safer, wealthier, more fun, and more civilized:

We will all sleep better at night because cities will be noticeably quieter. By replacing combustion vehicles with electrics, the decibel level of our cities will drop, promoting health, reducing stress, and improving our quality of life.

We will live longer because of the cleaner air and fewer traffic fatalities. Many millions of people die every year from air pollution-related causes and from traffic collisions in cities. Urban electric vehicles aren’t just cleaner. They are smaller, lighter, and don’t move at freeway speeds because they don’t need to, so they are safer for everyone on the street relative to the heavy, overpowered freeway cars we pack our cities with today.

We will be richer. By sharing the high cost of urban vehicle ownership, we will save everyone money. By recirculating their “fuel” cost back into the local economy by way of the electric utility, we will have millions more dollars to spend on each other. By making it easier to get around the city quickly and cheaply, people can get to work faster, or save money on their #1 expense, rent, by living in parts of the city that are more affordable but were previously too far from their jobs or schools.

We will have more fun. We won’t waste time managing our own vehicles, sitting in traffic, circling for parking, or waiting for an Uber. By driving yourself on a shared electric city vehicle you will enjoy your ride to wherever you are going. You can use all that extra time however you like. Have fun.

We will have more public streets. Instead of private cars lining both sides of every street, you will see mini cars for parents to drop kids off at school, electric bicycles for chefs riding home late at night after the restaurant closes, motorbikes for couriers to deliver pizza, and electric kick-style scooters for office workers to ride to meetings. Because shared, electric, city vehicles take up less than 10% of the parking space of private, freeway vehicles, most street parking will become bike lanes, parklets, retail, photovoltaic awnings for charging electric vehicles, and wider sidewalks.

We will know each other better because with safer, quieter streets, and fewer people in cars, you will see and hear more of everyone. You will see more people walking to and from their shared EVs and transit stops. You will see all the people on bicycles or motorbikes or scooters in a way that you can’t see people inside cars. This will make you happy. People are what make cities cities. How much we see and hear each other affects how much we understand each other, trust each other, and accept each other.

There is a sense, on the subway, that we are all in it together, even if only for a few minutes, and even if we are all pretending that no one else is there.

What would it mean for our culture, our economy, and our future if we all shared something we loved?

We do. Our Century. Our Cities. Our Streets.

Michael Keating is Scoot’s founder & CEO. A version of this piece was initially posted in Intelligent Transport Magazine.