Last year we spoke to Robin Chase, the transit visionary behind ZipCar and GoLoco, and we were struck by her commitment to seek out — and exploit (in a good way) — excess capacity everywhere. Transit, and the hard infrastructure that undergirds it, is a system that could obviously benefit from greater efficiency and less waste. But it was the less tangible infrastructure of the Internet that led to her eureka moment, ten years ago: “This is what the Internet was made for, sharing a scarce resource among many people.”
Since speaking with Chase, we have told the stories of innovators using web-enabled technologies to use all kinds of resources more efficiently, from office spaces to regional rail. Today we return to the streets and cars of New York, and talk to David Mahfouda and Alex Pasternack, two of the people behind a new mobile app that makes booking a car service fast, simple, cheap and, if you want, shared. You’ve seen the posters pasted along a sidewalk near you, now read an interview that explains what Weeels is, how it came about, and what the ideas behind it might mean for the future of how we get around.
What is Weeels? How does it work?
Weeels allows users to order cabs with the click of a button, to and from anywhere in the city. The application maps travel routes, provides your fare in advance, and books the ride as well. We work with livery – or chauffeured – cars, which are more prevalent in areas yellow taxis don’t serve.
In addition, leveraging the potential of location-aware social networking, Weeels can pair users taking similar trips so they can share a ride. Users who are flexible about departure time can opt to wait for a match, saving money on the fare and cutting emissions by reducing the total number of car rides.
In short, it links people and taxi cabs to create a more flexible, efficient, reliable, and affordable mode of transit. 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.
The excess capacity in existing infrastructure is something we think about a lot. Say a little more about how this line of thought influenced you as you came up with Weeels?
I started thinking seriously about using existing infrastructure as a design strategy after reading Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building. He dedicates a chapter to repair that makes the case for re-use (“Every act of building…is an act of repair”), not from an ecological perspective, but from a truly environmental perspective.
Christopher Alexander is particularly interested in the positive potential of concerted human attention — if we are all repairers/builders, then our environment can be exponentially denser, richer, etc. I see that ethic in projects that deal with excess capacity as well – information and information technology are used as tools to activate or accentuate human agency and attention. Weeels poses this question explicitly by providing an opportunity for a large community of users to improve their environment by acting together.
I should add that figuring out how to make the city and its inhabitants more responsive to each others’ needs — and turning all of us into agents of repair and renewal — is an especially poignant issue for David. In 2009 he started the Fixer’s Collective, a weekly meeting in Gowanus of amateur and expert tinkerers who attempt to repair and teach how to repair any old household item that New Yorkers bring in.
In 2006 Alex and I took a trip on the Trans Siberian railroad, and the immensity of that movement across Asia inspired me to think seriously about improving mobility in the United States.
I love trains, but the train infrastructure in the United States is impoverished. If you’re going to think about mobility in the context of the United States, you have to address the automobile directly. So I started to ask, What if the car is not a private transit vehicle, but a public transit vehicle?
Something about the idea seemed inevitable to me, perhaps the correspondence between our digital information systems and physical road/car systems. I built some computer models to approximate the behaviors of these socialized cars. Then the iPhone came out and all of a sudden many of my ideas seemed less like science fiction. So I started mocking up a smart-phone interface — and a few years later, here we are.
Weeels unites our need for mobility, our desire to save money and our responsibility to be more efficient, all underwritten by our willingness to share.
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.
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.
And yet, I’ve been dismayed to see that that promise has never been quite fulfilled. Instead we have more diversions, and certainly more data, but not presented in a way that’s often useful. That’s not to mention the many headaches over privacy, which only underscore the commercial interests that underpin so much of our favorite technology.
That’s starting to change now, in part because users recognize a need. Weeels appeals to me because it makes use of our networks to tackle a very straightforward problem that we intuitively know can and should be solved through sharing. Potentially, its solution is a very elegant one: Weeels unites our need for mobility, our desire to save money and our responsibility to be more efficient in our use of natural resources, all underwritten by our willingness to share.
Given the trouble the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) has had setting up cab sharing stations that are actually used in Manhattan, how do you see Weeels as a successful tool?
Rather than asking people to wait at a few locations for a cab, imagine that taxi stands can be anywhere. The taxi stands turned cabs into buses, traveling along a fixed route. But what people deserve are buses that turn into cabs, or simply cabs that are easier to use, more accessible, and potentially cheaper than they currently are.
What has been your experience with livery cab drivers and dispatch companies? How have they responded to and participated in the creation and development of Weeels? What do drivers think?
The company that we’re currently working with, Eastern Car service, one of the largest in the city, has obviously been very responsive to the work that we’re doing. The manager at Eastern, Marvin Aleman, is himself a technologist — he built the driver’s iPhone application that Weeels accesses when booking rides.
The drivers that I talk to are generally positive about the project. I think they understand that sharing is a necessity in these economic times, and they are excited by the prospect of offering rides to more people. Though Weeels rides feel pretty different from a passenger’s perspective, they’re not actually all that different from a driver’s perspective. We built the product with that in mind. We knew there was room to increase the efficiency of this system without drastically disrupting the way the service works from the provider’s standpoint.
How have you interacted with the TLC?
We’ve had conversations with both Commissioner Yassky and Policy Director Gallo. We’re currently waiting to hear back regarding two pilot proposals — one to operate Weeels in a select group of yellow taxis, another to build shared taxi stands/kiosks at transit hubs (like JFK and Grand Central Station) capable of real-time route matching, so that even users without phones can create shared rides to anywhere in NYC.
What is the potential for yellow cabs to eventually be a part of Weeels?
Yeah, it would be a fantastic boon for the city if the TLC decided to pilot the Weeels application in yellow vehicles. Drivers would reduce the number of hours they spend trolling around looking for fares, which would decrease the amount of fuel wasted and CO2 emitted on NYC streets. And because it would eliminate the need for trolling, such an app would also allow drivers to get out of their vehicles in between fares, which would decrease the existent negative health risks associated with driving taxis for 12 hours per day.
Drivers would make more money as shared trips would garner higher fares and, given the reduced cost of a shared ride, more customers. City traffic would be significantly reduced as more cheap mobility in the city would obviate the need and/or desire for private vehicle transit. It would be possible to hail a cab in the rain, and to do it without even having to go outside until the last minute.
The city would effectively multiply its accessible and utilizeable public space as the interior of vehicles becomes a place for encountering the city and its other inhabitants. (That’s especially true if the city chooses a progressive automotive design via the Taxi of Tomorrow competition. This design reorients the interior of the taxi to make it feasible to actually hold a party of four comfortably.)
Regarding the way Weeels will work practically with yellow cabs: rather than using Weeels as a booking instrument, it would be a way for prospectives (taxi-hailers) to access rides already in progress. On the other hand, as a passenger, I would be able to “open” my ride to other prospectives headed my direction. I would be able to identify those prospective passengers, and choose which I would like to pick up to reduce the environmental and monetary cost of my ride.
Also: the TLC recently and quietly ended its accessible cabs program, which allowed handicapped New Yorkers to dispatch yellow cabs specifically designed for handicapped-accessibility. It’s no surprise that handicapped rights groups are upset about this. Weeels for yellow cabs could prove to be one solution.
What about Weeels’ relationship to privately-owned mass transit, which is especially prevalent in Brooklyn with services such as the Flatbush dollar vans. Can you talk about Weeels in the context of multi-modal connectivity between different types and modes of transport.
We’re building Weeels to become an ubiquitous interface for optimizing all kinds of unrouted vehicle transit. The algorithms we’re testing on taxis are directly applicable to many other kinds of unrouted vehicles currently operating on the US roadscape.
Since Weeels runs on digital, responsive infrastructure, not on fixed routes or schedules, it will, as a matter of fact, come to be most useful where other fixed transit infrastructure (again, anything that runs on a fixed schedule or route) doesn’t provide service. Namely, in the seams: Weeels cars and Weeels passengers will be most prevalent wherever existing modes of transport cannot or have not yet provided mobility.
What’s more, these patterns will be self-reinforcing. As Weeels establishes itself as a transit mode along a particular route, that route will become more popular (and cheaper, and more efficient) until individually-organized mobility is no longer needed along that corridor, and Weeels use establishes itself fluidly in some other sector of a city or even county.
Learn more — and get the iPhone and mobile web version of the app — at Weeels.org.