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As commutes worsen, drivers seek solutions

At the upcoming Detroit auto show, automakers will be unveiling innovative new ideas that could radically change the way people commute from Point A to Point B every day.
The Saturn Flextreme concept — a hybrid-electric car that’s expected to look like the Opel’s Flextreme concept car (shown here) — will be on display at the Detroit auto show, which gets under way this Sunday.
The Saturn Flextreme concept — a hybrid-electric car that’s expected to look like the Opel’s Flextreme concept car (shown here) — will be on display at the Detroit auto show, which gets under way this Sunday.Axel Wierdemann

Sometime during the postwar economic boom, two-car households became the norm. A commuting format became well-established — suburbanites got into their cars at their houses and out of them again at their offices. Life was simple.

Today, however, life is dramatically less simple. Gasoline is more costly, commutes are longer (in time if not in distance), traffic congestion is worse and in some cities are even charging commuters for driving in them during the busy morning hours.

The solutions to today’s commuting challenges are many and varied, and the result will be that commuting will no longer be the monolithic point-A-to-point-B solo drive in a car that it has been over the past half-century.

The fact remains that commuters want to use as little time as possible to reach work each morning and return home each evening, and they’d like to spend as little money as possible doing it.

Of course, urbanites have long been able to hop on the train to reach work with reasonable convenience and cost. But suburbanites are less fortunate, and they’re looking at a more complicated array of options. They can continue driving, but they may be doing it in a slightly different way.

One possible alternative will be on display at the North American International Auto Show that gets under way in Detroit Sunday.

General Motors will exhibit the Saturn Flextreme concept — a hybrid-electric car that’s expected to look like the Opel’s Flextreme concept car, which made its debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show last September, and is similar in design to the Chevrolet Volt concept shown at last year’s Detroit show. The car is designed to consume as little fuel as possible while driving to the office.

Upon reaching a congestion zone like those in London and Singapore — where it can be prohibitively expensive to continue driving but may be too far to park and walk — the Flextreme driver and one passenger can park the car and complete the journey aboard the pair of Segway scooters that are stowed in the back of the car.

The Flextreme/Segway combination gives the driver the ability to park a car some distance from work without having to walk the rest of the way and without having to wrestle a bicycle out of the back.

“Plenty of people are commuting to work by themselves as one passenger, and they don’t need all of the car all of the time,” said Bryan Nesbitt, chief designer with GM’s Opel division, which shares designs and concept cars with Saturn.

By using only as much vehicle as is necessary for each stage of the trip, drivers use the least amount of fuel possible, he added. “The big thing is managing the energy — how much [of it] do I need to get me a certain distance?”

The Flextreme is also interesting for having found a genuinely useful application for the much-hyped Segway scooter, Nesbitt said. “The Segway is a fascinating invention, but it is a technology looking for a market, almost.”

Another commuting alternative is the idea of ditching a second car and using a shared vehicle to get to and from work. The benefit here is that with multiple drivers using the same car at different times, fewer cars need to find parking spaces in the city during the day.

Today we have FlexCar and Zip Car as car sharing services. Unlike rental cars, there is no long time standing in line at the rental counter every time you want a car. Once signed up for the service you just pick a car up at a designated spot and return it to that spot when you’re finished with it.

A better solution for commuting, however, is one-way sharing, where the car isn’t returned to the same spot. That return spot would ideally be near mass transit stations, because the problem many commuters have is that their homes and offices aren’t typically within walking distance of these locations, said Ryan Chin, a Ph.D. candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology working on the school’s “Smart Cities” project, which is exploring new modes of transportation within cities.

“Using multiple modes of transportation is always problematic because of the mode switch — your office might not be near a train station,” Chin said.

Shared cars could help with that problem, according to Chin. “You could have a massive fleet of them at the last subway station in suburbia,” he said. At the city end of the rail line, users might be able to use shared Segways to help whisk them the final distance to the office, he added.

MIT’s team is also working on vehicles that nest together when parked — folding scooters and cars — to provide even more innovative possibilities for future commuting solutions.

An even more informal method of car sharing is commuting by “slugging.” In this practice, popularized by suburban Washington, D.C., commuters traveling to and from government jobs, especially at The Pentagon, ad hoc groups congregate at parking lots in the morning. Drivers who want to use their car that day, and who want to use the region’s commuter lanes, stop at the slug line and fill their car with riders (called “slugs”) from the front of the line.

The driver gets to drive to and from the city when he wants while using the speedier commuter lanes and the slugging commuters get to go to work for free. In the afternoon, lines form outside the workplace, with a designated destination for each line. This method saves gas, relieves traffic and reduces parking requirements, while providing travelers significant flexibility because there is no set travel time as there is with a car pool. It has the downside of reduced privacy during the commute, but practitioners employ their elevator manners to largely ignore one another.

The question remains: Why use four wheels to move individual workers to their jobs? When commuters need flexible travel times, prefer not to travel with others, want maximum fuel economy, frequently reduced parking charges and a little fun thrown into the mix, two wheels are an increasingly popular solutions.

While recreational riders have mostly boosted Harley-Davidson’s sales, some of them have discovered that their motorcycle is a fun alternative for travel to work, one which provides access to restricted commuters lanes. And scooter sales have increased tenfold in the last decade, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council, with sales reaching 131,000 units in 2006.

“We see people become more interested in using a motorcycle for commuting whenever there is a spike in gas prices,” remarked Lance Oliver, a spokesman for the American Motorcyclist Association. 

While consumers might be reluctant to spend the money to buy a new hybrid-electric car that gets superior gas mileage, “It is not hard to find a motorcycle that will get 50 miles per gallon,” he said. “Motorcycles are an inexpensive alternative that will get you good gas mileage.”

Of course, there are safety and weather concerns, but these are mitigated by rider training groups such as the Motorcycle Safety Foundation and protective riding suits such as the RiderWearHouse Aerostich — a suit that lets commuters wear their work clothes underneath a quick-zip, on-and-off weatherproof outer suit.

“We can spend a fraction of what it costs to buy a new car, get double the gas mileage and arrive at work having fun,” Oliver said. How many other commuters can say the same?

Still further down the transportation food chain is human-powered travel, such as bicycles, skates and walking, which can all play a part in the new fractured commuting schemes that use more than one transportation method for each day’s commute.

These solutions work especially well when shared, so long as there is strict tracking of bikes and users, said MIT’s Chin.

“You need to have accountability for bike-sharing to work,” he explained. For example, a new system in Paris that employs a radio frequency identification tags and global positioning tracking to keep an eye on the bikes is working well, Chin said. 

The Netherlands learned this the hard way with a failed bike-sharing system that had no accountability. 

“There were a bunch of punks who threw the bikes into the river,” Chin chuckled. “Suburban kids went drinking [in the city] and rode the bikes out to the suburbs and abandoned them.”