The co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar has transformed cities through transportation innovation and is now looking toward the future
Robin Chase’s work has reshaped mobility in cities and our understanding of how we can share resources. Offering a compelling vision for a greener and more multimodal future of transportation, she hopes to deliver more value to the lives of many through a communal ethos.
The American transportation entrepreneur is a pioneering thinker on the sharing economy, the future of transportation, and climate change mitigation. Chase believes these issues are not mutually exclusive, but interlinked. “It’s a very symbiotic relationship,” she says in The Ideal City. “Transportation is the glue that makes your day possible; it’s your gateway to opportunity. And from a climate change perspective, it’s a very significant contributor.” Chase’s mission is for cities to embrace a diversity of modes of transport and to build an economy where abundant assets are shared. Her various initiatives and start-ups, including Zipcar, Buzzcar, and Veniam, support this mission and are geared toward facilitating greater mobility in cities.
In 2017, Chase created the Shared Mobility Principles For Livable Cities, an initiative backed by a consortium of 190 public and private sector entities. The initiative constitutes 10 principles designed to help guide urban decision-makers to build mobility that is safe, efficient, and pollution-free. Some of the 10 principles include “prioritizing people over vehicles, leading the transition toward a zero-emission future and renewable energy,” and “supporting fair user fees across all modes.”
Mobility advocates and urban planners can use these principles to push policymakers and private companies to adopt more energy-efficient and equitable transportation options. Uber’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi used the principles to determine how to allocate Uber’s Fund for Sustainable Mobility, the €8.5 million ($10 million) fund advocates for issues such as congestion pricing and safer street design. “The principles have been a nice uniter of the private and public sector, and advocates around shared goals,” Chase explains. “It is successful because these principles can be applied to 95% of cities worldwide.” However, no matter where you are, whether it is Slovenia or Senegal, there is never a singular solution that works in every place.
Although transportation is necessary everywhere, “it is extremely local and fine-grained,” Chase says. “So a single-mode will never work for everybody. But the goal of building multimodal transportation applies to every city.” With this, Chase is referring to a mix of public transit, like buses, trams, and subway systems, and private transportation, like personal car ownership, taxis, or car-sharing services like Zipcar. “Regardless of how dense or how sprawling, or how rich or how poor, you need to have a multiplicity of modes,” she adds. Providing more options is a great benefit to cities, as people are less reliant on one or two dominant ways.
In recent years, it has become increasingly popular to earn money from our unused assets or spare time, with start-ups focused on the idea of sharing one’s resources—your house, clothes, car, or skills—exploding into the cultural establishment. However before this concept came into mainstream consciousness, there was Zipcar: the American car-sharing scheme created by Chase, now the largest car-sharing business in the world. With the advent of Zipcar in 1999, Chase popularized the idea of non-ownership and introduced an early example of innovation in the collaborative economy—one of the biggest commercial enterprises of our time.
By introducing car-obsessed America to the concept of sharing, Zipcar quietly ushered in a new urban lifestyle that moves away from purchasing cars—assets that are expensive to maintain and insure—and toward creating communities that co-use just one asset instead. Using a wireless key, location awareness, and online billing, members of the app enjoy access to cars at different locations whenever they like. The benefits of this are widespread. Beyond financial reasons, car-sharing reduces the overall number of vehicles on the road, which has positive environmental impacts and creates safer and healthier places to live. “One shared vehicle can replace 15 individual cars on the street,” she says. Fewer cars on the road also mean we need to allocate less space for parking. “There is an absolute scarcity of space on city streets, so it’s dramatically better to share,” says Chase.
Since leaving Zipcar, Chase has launched a variety of successful companies and projects. This includes Buzzcar, the peer-to-peer rental platform in France, and Veniam, a start-up that moves data between vehicles and the cloud, essentially turning a car into an intelligent networking platform. Benefits include expanded internet coverage, reduced data costs, and improved human experiences through increased connectivity. What binds each of these start-ups together in likeness though, is that they are all platforms for participation. “When excess capacity is harnessed by the platform and diverse peers participate, a new dynamic can occur,” Chase says. One of the driving forces behind this phenomenon is resource scarcity. “It’s a scarcity of money, space, and of the asset itself,” she says. “Yet on the flip side, there is this issue of abundance. But we can only obtain abundance if we unlock the excess capacity.”
One advantage of these types of platforms is that those who have excess capacity of their resource make money, while those who need more of that resource save money. This cycle is transforming the economics of how abundance is delivered in society, a concept Chase explores in her book, Peers Inc: How People and Platforms are Inventing the Collaborative Economy and Reinventing Capitalism. According to Chase, the new economy is based on people (the Peers) who choose to provide their time, products, or services to a platform because a company (the Inc) has the industrial strengths to make it convenient and inexpensive. “It gives the power of that large entity to the small, while that localization, specialization, and creativity from the small is given to the large,” says Chase. It is a collaborative effort, “both sides need the other profoundly, but the platform economy without humans is nothing.” An example of this is Airbnb, the vacation rental website where those with extra bedrooms in their homes can rent on short or long-term requests.
The perfect city is an idea that has been chased unsuccessfully for centuries, but there inspiring projects across the world that point toward a brighter future. Learn more through The Ideal City.