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Top of mind at a public symposium on the future of mobility was how the auto industry appears to be putting cost at the forefront of new policy decisions

Globe Drive recently held a public symposium on the future of mobility at The Globe and Mail’s conference centre in Toronto.

Assessing the true cost of driving isn't a new concept.

As the argument goes, drivers underpay for the use of their cars. Not all citizens drive regularly. Some don't even own cars. Yet everyone pays for roadwork, emergency services, environmental damage, lost economic opportunities for land that could be used more productively and so on. This is an imbalance.

What's different now, however, is that the revolution under way in transportation and in the auto industry appears to be putting the issue of true costs at the forefront of new policy decisions.

Carsharing, ridesharing, denser urbanization and the frantic race to develop self-driving vehicles are all causing policy makers to redraw the entire cost-and-benefit analysis on the true price of driving.

"All of the bad things we think about transportation stem from underpricing. It's the root cause of our transportation problems," argued Robin Chase, the co-founder and past chief executive of the car-sharing company Zipcar. She was speaking at Globe Drive's public symposium on the future of mobility held recently at The Globe and Mail's conference centre in Toronto.

Robin Chase, co-founder and past chief executive of the car-sharing company Zipcar, says underpricing is the root of transportation problems. Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Chase believes there is now an ultra-rare opportunity to redo city planning to completely rethink how to satisfy the human need for mobility yet still survive climate change.

"Done right – if we do all of the tech-enabled disruption that has got our whole industry in this huge turmoil, if we can get through this next 10 years correctly – we can have cities that will only need 10 to 15 per cent of the cars they have," she said.

"In your mind, imagine what this city would be like, or wherever you live would look like, if you only had 10 per cent of the cars. Imagine what you could do with the streets, what we could do with the infill parking garages. It's this incredible opportunity," she said.

For instance, Ms. Chase pointed to the Cheonggyecheon River project in Seoul. The river running through the centre of the city had previously been a paved-over, traffic-clogged roadway. The pavement has now been removed, restoring the running water and riverbank to the open air, creating an oasis of nature in the city and attracting tens of thousands daily.

As for all the roads that remain, the changing way we use transportation puts new demands on the roads themselves. The increased competition for curbside space comes not only from the proliferation of carshare and rideshare services parking or picking up customers, but from the greater use of mass transit and bike lanes. These are all making curbs that much busier.

And this further changes the true cost of driving a personal car. Especially in heavy congestion, what is the full cost of a person taking up a carload of valuable space on a busy road?

"We still do not have the right pricing situation going on," Ms. Chase argued, adding that one Zipcar vehicle in use in a city throughout the day replaces the use of 12 personal cars.

Yet municipal officials need to understand the priorities they are working toward, rather than simply allowing technology and market forces to run their course.

"What is the objective?" asked Josipa Petrunic, executive director and chief executive of the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium, an organization which includes the participation of numerous private-sector and public-sector organizations and universities.

Speaking at the mobility symposium, Ms. Petrunic pointed to safety, economic productivity and environmentalism as the main priorities cities generally have for their transportation policies, particularly when policy makers consider a world of driverless vehicles. "I truly believe these three principles are what we need to focus on from a city perspective."

The changing way we use transportation puts new demands on the roads themselves.

Meeting these three goals requires, in turn, a three-pronged transit approach: First, there would be low-speed autonomous vehicles for the very start and end of a commute, for the first and last mile, she advised. (If cities truly want to improve safety, they need to get rid of cars altogether, she added.) Second, commuters would then ride low-speed electric and driverless shuttles for the next part of their journey. And these would then feed commuters into the third portion, which would be a high-speed, electric mass-transit system. This is a model commonly envisioned by many mass-transit experts.

Yet the larger point here is that transportation policy is likely to take revolutionary turns in the near future. And it is being spurred by the highly varied way people are quickly adopting new means of getting around.

"There is kind of a war brewing behind the curtains between the automotive sector and the transit sector as to who is going to be delivering these shared-mobility, autonomous, electrified services," Ms. Petrunic said.

"One business plan is that you have the Ubers and the Lyfts of the world going out there in the private world and delivering it. [But] I never want to get to a stage where Uber, Lyft or some similar company is setting transit or mobility policy for a city. That is not a good approach. It's happening, but that's what we did 100 years ago with the auto sector setting urban planning design," she said.

Josipa Petrunic, executive director and chief executive of the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium, says safety, economic productivity and environmentalism are cities’ main priorities for transportation policy.

So, where does this leave cities in the near term? Barbara Gray, general manager of transportation services for the City of Toronto, noted various initiatives that the city is planning to help satisfy the growing demand on curb space from ride-sharing. Many are stop-gap solutions similar to the on-the-spot measures the city is implementing to ease congestion (from new signs and traffic cops to "quick-clear squads," a pilot program with towing vehicles stationed in high-traffic areas to respond to accidents and stalled cars quickly).

These give some clues on how the implementation of new transportation policies will arrive.

Some changes may be small and incremental. Some may be dramatic and controversial. All will depend on people's willingness to adapt, as seen with Toronto's latest pilot traffic programs, such as the downtown King Street project which gives priority to mass-transit streetcars, while restricting access by cars.

"Let me just clarify on the pilots. I'm not sure everybody loves the pilots. I think Toronto is comfortable with the concept of doing the pilot," Ms. Gray said. In other words, people are generally willing at least to try new initiatives to see what, in the long run, will work.

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