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Taxi Sharing iPhone App: To Conserve, Must People Feel Deprived?

We want to do good. But how badly? What one taxi-sharing app may tell us about our motivations.

If you were to pick the single greenest possibility created by smartphone apps, it might be the chance to make car-sharing easy.

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One need only look at how empty most HOV lanes are to see how much carbon-dioxide we belch simply by driving alone. And while car-sharing used to be a pipe-dream at larger scales — taken up and discarded by many do-gooders over the years — it’s finally possible now, thanks to simple apps that pair people who are taking similar trips.

One such offering is Weeels, an new iPhone app that pairs together people hailing taxis in New York. Urban Omnibus has a long, excellent interview up with its creators, David Mahfouda and Alex Pasternack. So far, the app works with car services — not yellow cabs, but private black cabs — but the duo is now lobbying New York to try out the app in a pilot project. The benefits are vast, once you start considering the trickle-down effect on the system:

It begins to address the incredible excess capacity of New York City’s 13,000-car taxi fleet, much of which is underutilized even when engaged in fares; when not, its drivers must often troll around for rides, wasting time and energy. Starting with the premise that we need to not only improve our bike and train infrastructure, but also better use the road infrastructure and vehicles we already have, the mission is to make transit less costly, more flexible and more social. Think of it as transit-friendly rezoning, like the kind the city has been pushing, but for vehicles.

But it gets even more interesting with Pasternack talks about what inspired them to create the app in the first place:

I lived in China for over two years, working as a journalist on the environment, design and urbanism, and saw a society in the throes of a shift from thrift to Western-style excess. To see that country’s twin impulses ” the ingenious efficiency and sharing attitudes that came from many lean years, evident in my neighbors” ability to reuse practically anything that many in the West might consider trash, and the drive toward luxury, literally, in the hordes of private cars that clog the streets of Beijing ? I could see more clearly than ever the need for being more conscious of our resources.

That, in turn, inspired Mahfouda and Pasternack to create a service where a sense of shared effort can help make car usage a lot more efficient:

The advent of social networking, largely with the rise of Facebook, held out the promise of an interesting technological solution to excess capacity: more responsive shared knowledge, and the many efficiency benefits that could come with it. Imagine a smart version of Craigslist. Now, for instance, we could perhaps know if someone in our friend group was getting rid of a book that we wanted to read ? or had extra room in their car or in their cab.

But why would anyone want to participate?

They’d have to feel the need to share as something urgent and necessary — even if sharing a car becomes almost pain free, it’s still going to be somewhat inconvenient. And only strong personal motivations can overcome that. (Ideo recently argued as much on Co.Design, in a piece titled “Solving the World’s Toughest Problem: Turning Public Policy Into Private Action.”)

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While we have plenty of people who want to do good, we don’t have a population that feels like they have to. As the China example shows, the present conversation efforts might be linked to the tremendous suffering the population has gone through, which spurred an impulse towards reuse. Likewise, something similar happened in America between 1910-1950.

Which makes us wonder: Can we ever hope to instill a sense of conservation, among Americans who’ve never actually known hardship?

That’s maybe the deepest thing that Weeels will be experimenting with. Will they succeed? Can they make conservation so easy and convenient that it doesn’t take much motivation at all? We’ll be watching intently.

[Image by Sakeeb]

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About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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