The Future of Public and Private Transportation with Gabriel Plassat
Today, I have the pleasure to introduce you to a long-standing personal friend. If you are into transportation, which is a rather huge and important topic in an interconnected world, read on!
Watch the Interview (in French)
From Smaller To Larger Systems
As a student, then trainee, Gabriel Plassat soon specialized into motors and fuels. He always had a knack for systems. Motors, at bottom, are small- to middle-scale systems that aim at converting fuel into energy or movement. Thanks to his ease on the field Gabriel was hired by the prestigious group PSA—which owns the well-known car brand Peugeot—where he spent several years before putting his expertise at the service of another important actor, the North American motor-maker BorgWarner.
However, Gabriel’s curiosity caught up, and he drifted from motors to larger-scale systems. Namely, social systems. A holistic vision can apply to both small and large ones, from the simplest motors to the largest social organisms. Recognizing this, a French public undertaking called ADEME, or roughly “Environment and Energy Management Agency”, hired him in 2002. Today, Gabriel still works there. He supervises a particular project, the Mobility Fabric (fabrique des mobilités), which tackles mobility and transportation under its various modalities.
“For at least the past ten years, I have been studying mobility as a system”, Gabriel tells. He had ample time to notice that one of the major problems in the field lied in too many people owning standard, petrol-fuelled automobiles, and using them badly.
Classic car use, with typically one individual driving and occupying her own car alone, leads to what Gabriel describes as three problems:
- first, the massive reliance on fossil energy, which won’t last forever and will at some point deplete or turn too costly to use;
- lots of atmospheric pollution;
- congestion, which leads to a lack of parking space and, more broadly, public space, as well as recurring traffic jams.
- No access to any form of transport for certain persons
The last one is compounded by remote living. Many individuals live far away from their workplace. Combined with congestion and lack of transportation, this makes life difficult to both workers, who are forced to spend long hours commuting, and employers whose potential recruiting pool narrows.
“We already own high-performing systems”, Gabriel says. Considered alone, a car is already efficient. “But they are poorly used.” On average, every moving car in France only hosts 1.2 individual, much less than the 4 to 5 individuals the typical car could host. Thus, “there is a collective intelligence problem”: individuals ought to be better steered or motivated to coordinate optimally.
The Future Is, and Will Be, Electric
Gabriel insists on the idea that we already have the proper technology between our hands. Sure, several projects are already in the starting-blocks, such as the Chinese “straddling bus” which could smoothly slide above cars and avoid congestion, but according to my friend we can really do much without resorting to projects that are still in their test phase.
Electric cars have been often deemed revolutionary or radically new by the media. In truth they have been around, or could have been around, for decades. In the 1960s, car-maker Ford produced an all-electric car, a small prototype called the Comuta, where two adults and two children could fit. This vehicle could travel 60 kilometres (37 mi) at a speed of 40 kilometers per hour (25 mph). Even sooner, during the first half of the 40s, the rationing and scarcity of gasoline caused by the Second World War motivated a French engineer, Paul Arzens, to build an all-electric car: a two-seat, three-wheel, egg-shaped vehicle, with a chassis entirely made of aluminum and Plexiglas. Due to its shape, this bulbous car was soon dubbed the Œuf électrique (“electric egg”). It allowed its inventor to drive almost quietly in Paris while most civilians had to rely on public transportation. The Œuf could travel 100 km (63 miles) at 70 km/h (44 mph) or at 60 km/h (37 mph) if two people were on board.
Today, we use systems which still bear the mark of these cars. In Paris, the Autolib’, a car-borrowing scheme, allows to rent a small electric car for a short time before giving it back near your destination place. Arzens’ “egg” also bears an evident similarity with the tiny “Smart” cars many city-dwellers bought last years—usually after getting frustrated with roaming again and again for an empty parking spot.
Car-sharing schemes such as the Autolib’ ought to be generalized in many metropolis, Gabriel says. Fleets of non-polluting, borrowed-only electric cars could do the job of many privately-owned cars and efficiently reduce both congestion and pollution. The key would be to “consider various types of mobility and the better transportation mode for each”: urbanites using small electric cars most of the time would of course switch to other transportation modes whenever they need to reach a farther area.
Privately owned cars should leave room to various other modes of transportation: “when possible, everyone should use public transportation, where each unit of energy spent is so more efficiently”, especially since public transportation is already relying way more on electricity than classic cars. Scooters, hoverboards, electric bikes, should also do what “smart” cars started doing since they have been hitting the streets.
“The ability to roam the streets will cease to be status-related”, Gabriel predicts. “Paul Arzens compared cars with household appliances.” To urbanites, vehicles or transportation plans would become the same.
Thus, from Gabriel’s point of view, electric energy—before and more likely than hydrogen—is set to become the silver bullet of most transportation problems. Its systematic use will mean less, if not complete independence from oil. Gabriel is optimistic: as the United States and China compete to be the next leader of all-electric transportation, both their rivalry and economies of scale are fated to make the battery components cheaper and cheaper. My host also stresses that, thanks to the absence of clogging, electric motors require almost no maintenance while enjoying a much-higher duration of life than classic fuel motors.
“In the 80s”, Gabriel recalls, “some projects were about cars consuming only 2-3 liters per 100 km. The proper technology has already been around for long. Now, we should aim at making lots of electric cars and fit the most people inside!”
Intelligent Transportation Management
Still, as most people still own or long for a usual car rather than an all-electric, Gabriel thinks that carpooling solutions ought to be encouraged. If only the infamous 1.2 individual per car and journey could jump to 2, the difference would be noticeable on the streets. But this wouldn’t be the ultimate solution.
Indeed, carpooling creates a paradox. When it happens successfully, congestion diminishes on a par with traffic. Yet, at this point, individuals start thinking they could use their car again, or relocate farer from their workplace, and soon the streets suffer anew from traffic density.
To avoid this phenomena, Gabriel refers to a solution which, again, has been implemented in Paris: when some space is earned on the road, parts of the road must be forbidden to cars and be converted into either bus- and taxi-path or bicycle trails. When lots of people are constantly rubbing shoulders on a non-extensible space, the smart solution would be steering them into using fitter transportation means. Individual freedoms suffer, but from a holistic point of view, Gabriel says, this would be necessary for living together well.
“Here, at the Fabrique des mobilités, we have been considering a range of options, and if the system is well managed, we could consume up to four less energy.” A clear improvement for the environment!
“The Fabrique des mobilités aims to be a network for the various players into the mobility field.” Willing to help the entrepreneurs first, the institute produces and indexes commons. It provides anyone interested with a library of substantial information on mobility, from real-time traffic trackers to cycle lanes maps or open source programs. On this basis, entrepreneurs are encouraged to mutualize or pool their abilities.
At this point I can’t help but be skeptical: mobility actors are very different from each other and so are their interests. Small entrepreneurs, multinational companies and public administrations have neither the same viewpoints nor the same desires. How could you pool that?
The failure, Gabriel answers, only comes if managers try acting from general principles. You can’t implement something that looks good in theory without accommodating for who’s already on the field. Instead, success comes with “creating small-scale interest communities. Bicycles, carpooling, accessibility for persons with disabilities, or mutualists, what matters is that individuals share a specific, often local, interest.”
As for other options with a huge potential, Gabriel quotes several:
- What can be done from home or close should be so. If more people worked remotely, “even only one or two days a week, at a large scale, this would cause a great reduction of energy consumption” and pollution.
- Working close from home. This is not always easy, but when it is done, using an eco-friendly transportation mean such as the bicycle becomes much easier.
- As ordering goods on the Internet turns more frequent and usual, individuals travel less because of such goods. On the other hand, the rise of online buying transfers the weight on delivery companies, who will have to manage their delivery routes accordingly. Overall, though, this would be good news, as whatever is managed by either public or private—or public-private partnership professionals—is also easier to optimize.
Our main problem, Gabriel adds, is how much the automobile still holds in collective psyche. He attributes this to carmakers’ propaganda: for each car sold, 1500 euros go into funding advertisements. “TV clips suggest that owning a car means having a special status.” An alternative view is still awaited: bicycle, buses, and other space-saving, low- or non-polluting transportation means should become the dream of tomorrow. “We still need a narrative” able to motivate and influence people.
Will we witness the rise of new Edward Bernayses to advance the cause of carpooling and mass transit? In any case, carpooling has already known some success: the quick growth of BlaBlaCar, a French carpooling company and social network who became the world leader of ride-shares, proves that a potential change can be made quickly.
Gabriel practice what he preaches. Not only does he wilfully refuse to own a car, he also puts a trolley behind his electric bicycle to take his daughters to school. “I can pull up to 150 kgs like this.” A rather creative way to satisfy a need still largely answered by classic gasoline-fuelled cars.
If you want to contribute by yourself, without waiting for some manager or authority to tell you what to do, my host adds, the better thing to do would be analyzing your own needs. Most people use their car to go to work or shop. “Once you are aware of your needs, this maker easier to consider alternatives”, such as buying an electric bike or finding partners for ride-shares. “Social psychologists have seen that people do first, then create a narrative or theory to justify what they have started doing.”
Thus, if you want to contribute to polluting less, using up less space or helping those who struggle for reachability, “do first and speak later.” Leading by example, you could become an ambassador for some future-oriented transportation mean. Another fun yet constructive practice would be following challenges, such as not using one’s car for a week or a month, as these constraining rules force you to reflect on alternatives and experiment.
3 Advises For the Future
To transport our meeting towards its conclusion, I ask Gabriel my proverbial question: what would he advise to someone wishing to be ready for the future?
His two first advises cross what some other hosts already told, but his third, as simple as it may be, strikes me as more original:
- Try new things. Experiment, and when it works, stick with it!
- Read a lot, be open to new, even radically new things and approaches
- Most important, share your experiments, give feedbacks and discusses what you have noticed or been through.