If you ask anyone who has been in the District for more than a week to name two of the city's most pressing problems, the words "traffic" and "parking" will inevitably surface at some point early in the conversation. D.C. was touted as the worst city for traffic by a 2013 Texas A&M Transportation Institute study
and parking in some neighborhoods can be a daily game of roulette.
These transportation challenges have led some District denizens—particularly Millennials--to abandon car ownership entirely. The challenges have also paved the way for myriad startups in the transportation sector to open up shop in D.C. and see if they can help alleviate some of the strain. In preparation for a panel discussion
organized by Smart Growth America and co-sponsored by Elevation DC, we asked some local (and formerly local) stakeholders to weigh in on how these startups are changing all things transportation in the city.
It starts with the people
For Marty Bauer, founder of the ridesharing company RidePost
, the changes he sees in D.C.'s transportation industry start with the people. "People from the suburbs are moving downtown," he says. "D.C. is a really popular place to live. This is where the jobs are. And the public transportation system gives them the ability to not have a car. So it isn't the effect that transportation is having on the city, but the effect that [the people are having on the transportation industry]."
Not owning a car frees up a significant amount of cash; Bauer estimates city dwellers can save between $9,000 and $10,000 a year by not shelling out for car payments, maintenance, gas, insurance, parking and the like.
Donna Harris, co-founder of startup incubator 1776
, says that much of the innovation in the transportation sector comes "at the intersection of transportation and energy," and that it is fueled by the Millennial generation. "They want to know, 'How do I get out of owning my own vehicle?'" she relates. "Biking, ridesharing, carsharing…apps targeted at the general transportation population [can help]."
Oh, those apps
. Parking Panda
. Capital Bikeshare
. Transit Screen
. The list of transportation and parking companies that promise to ease the pain of urban living, whether you own a car and need a parking space, or have decided to be car-less, seems to grow every week.
"There are a lot of startups in the transportation and innovation space right now," says Clara Brenner, CEO of Tumml
, an urban ventures accelerator based in San Francisco. Brenner grew up in the District and worked as an associate for WestMill Capital before heading west. "Everyone has a personal story. There are so many reasons why people start companies. They recognize challenges and want to solve them."
"The entire urban area is ripe [for transportation disruption]," says Harris. "D.C. is fairly small and self-contained, but we have millions of commuters."
Brenner says the innovation "makes certain neighborhoods more accessible," particularly neighborhoods that are not served by Metro lines. "In D.C., everyone relies so heavily on Metro," she says. "I lived on Rhode Island Ave, and there was a bus, but it only ran certain times. It's nice to be able to go to a neighborhood and not have to rely on only one form of transportation."
"The old paradigm was to leave home, drive to work and drive home. Now when people leave home, they're not sure how they're going to get to work. They might take a bike or a bus."
"[Transportation] startups are allowing people to live in D.C. without owning cars," says Sam Zimbabwe, associate director of the Policy, Planning and Sustainability Administration in the District Department of Transportation (DDOT). And, in fact, it’s not just startups. He points out that while Car2Go is often lumped in with startups, the company is actually a "large corporation and a subsidiary of Daimler, and that rental car companies have moved into the carsharing [sphere]." In another example of carsharing going mainstream, the Avis Budget Group bought Zipcar earlier in 2013.
"Some of the growth in places like NoMa, and its attractiveness to residents, wouldn't be possible without the new Red Line station or [Capital Bikeshare]," Zimbabwe says. "Emerging neighborhoods, such as H St., NoMa, Bloomingdale and Petworth, [grow] when people have access to transit but aren't right next to it."
Zimbabwe explains that D.C. is undergoing a transportation paradigm shift, and that shift is having an effect on some of its outlying neighborhoods. "The old paradigm," he says, "was to leave home, drive to work and drive home. Now when people leave home, they're not sure how they're going to get to work. They might take a bike or a bus."
"We're not trying to cater to everyone driving their car [to work] every time," he continues. "It's about the richness of choices. That's what it's going to take to make a sustainable transportation system overall."
Zimbabwe says there is often tension when paradigms shift. Outer NW neighborhoods want their bikeshare stations. Other neighborhoods are upset when DDOT allows Car2Go to park on residential streets. "There are trade-offs," he says. "But in the long run, allowing Zipcar or Car2Go to park on residential streets will mean that one less person will own a car, which will ultimately alleviate parking problems. But it's hard to see that far down the road."
Bauer echoes the longer vision that Zimbabwe says is necessary. When you give up a car, he explains, "you change lifestyles." That can mean going to the grocery story more often and buying fewer items per trip, or using a taxi-hailing app or peer-to-peer rideshare for trips where you would have used your car.
Bauer attributes this shift to the ubiquity of the mobile phone, which allows users to make on-the-fly decisions about their transportation needs by choosing from any number of apps. "People are becoming more mobile. People between ages 35 and 60 haven't grown up their entire lives with a cell phone. People between ages 18 and 35 have. [They] have the tools in front of [them] for the ride."
Join us Sept. 25 to continue the discussion about transportation startups, transit, and creating better neighborhoods. Register for the free panel event and networking session here.