The unbundling of the car is an essential force driving the future of mobility

An interview with healthy streets activist, angel investor and software entrepreneur Matt Brezina (founder Xobni, co-founder Sincerely, Inc.) about the future of mobility, the demise of the personal automobile, and...

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September 27, 2018

Matt Brezina, who has used a bicycle as his primary mode of urban transportation since the age of 12, believes that the design of our streets determines how we use our land and how people move around our cities, and our planet.

He is motivated by a desire to see our streets transformed “for a future where we are emitting fewer greenhouse gases as we get around” and to protect those who are most vulnerable. “Generally the bigger your vehicle, the more priority you have. And the more giant cars on the road, the more it becomes the only safe way for other people to travel.” It should be that the smaller, slower and lower road users are given priority, he said. “These are also the most environmentally conscious.”

For our streets to be safer for multi-use, cars need to be slowed down, he argued, both through strategic road design (think raised crosswalks, speed bumps and lots of bends) and by giving more space – such as protected lanes – to bikes, shared transport and light electric vehicles. “There are so many other ways to get across town that are going to be better for us, our fellow humans beings and the planet.”

The future of the automobile as we know it

It may not come as a surprise then to hear that Matt is unapologetically (and strongly) opposed to the automobile. He argued that we have become so accustomed to the privately owned car that we don’t stop to question it. “We don’t consider the amount of space cars take up, the amount of damage they are doing to the environment – not to mention the high numbers of automobile-related deaths. I just don't think it’s sustainable for every human on the planet to have a 4000-pound appendage that's used for every daily activity, and thrown out every 10 years.”

He supports the notion that the private automobile is being – and urgently needs to be – “unbundled”, distinguishing between ‘daily use’ and ‘infrequent use’. “Right now we use the same vehicle to go one mile to the grocery store and a hundred miles to visit Grandma! Research suggests that most car trips are under five miles. We don't need a large vehicle that can travel at 100 miles an hour for that.”

Which is why, unlike so many in the field of mobility, Matt is “not that excited” about Tesla’s electric cars and questions whether we aren’t just buying into the ‘faster horse’ mindset – though he would, of course, prefer every car that is on the road to be converted to electric to reduce emissions. As for self-driving vehicles, he sees a place for this technology as an option among many others, and preferably not as another form of dependence on large, personally owned automobiles. “Sometimes I have to be careful that I see the reality and not what I want the reality to be!” he laughed. “The unbundling of the car, though, is both something I want to see happen and something that I think will happen.”

What’s coming?

Matt considers shared mobility and light electric transport as the factors that will have the most impact on how we travel from A to B, and the most important if we are to promote “greener, healthier, happier and more equitable cities”. For transportation to truly serve us (and the environment), there needs to be, according to Matt, a variety of options to suit different mobility needs.

“The introduction of cheap electric batteries and motors, coupled with the cellphone revolution, has opened up the ability to share all kinds of light vehicles – without the expense of owning them – and to find them quickly with your phone. People are going to be open to the idea of moving around by electric bicycle and electric scooter, for example, which are much lighter and cheaper and still offer the same independence of a car. You might want, or need, to drive a car occasionally, but you won’t need to personally own one.” Of course, we’ll also start to see a whole range of new vehicles that we can’t yet imagine.

After travelling in China in early 2016 and seeing how big bike-sharing has become there, Matt decided to invest in shared bicycle and scooter company Spin back home (another of his investments is in Jump – recently acquired by Uber). He foresees a growth in this trend, particularly in densely populated areas, “where it’s really hard – and expensive – to store a private bicycle, never mind a car”. “Sharing a bicycle is also a more efficient use of its hard materials,” he added. “Just like a personally owned car, a personally owned bike sits idle much of its time.”

For less dense environments, he believes in the value of autonomous bicycles (“bicycles that come to you, like an Uber does”). He added that the technology, which involves the two-wheelers bouncing along with a gyroscope, is already working.

Above all, Matt is adamant that urban mobility and its challenges are not going to be solved “just by making a bunch of new shared vehicles”. We need to reimagine our streets and cities in parallel with our move into this new future, and that requires political leadership. “We need lots of people to note that this is an important cause; we need to elect and influence politicians who make the necessary changes,” he said. “And now is the time to do it. That's one reason I’m working so hard on this. Every day that I can accelerate this transition that can help stop climate disaster as well as improve the social and physical health of humans is, I think, time well spent.”

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September 27, 2018