If Auckland Transport, Auckland Council and ACC have had nightmares about Lime and other brands of e-scooter, they should be very worried about the implications of this new disruptive transport mode, the electric water scooter being developed by Kiwi engineer Graham Piddington.
It’s the sort of concept I joked about on The Future Diaries back in 2013, when the Aquada was still making waves; suggesting private commuting could be the new Auckland Transport Plan.
As the article from Stuff explains, Piddington offers many great reasons why this is an awesome concept. It’s electric and green, creates no noise or wake, it has to be loads of fun and he’s hoping to keep the purchase price low and accessible.
In the Stuff interview he was quoted, saying “If you take the Devonport to Auckland city commute, it’s five minutes on an e-foil compared to 25 minutes if you’re lucky in rush hour.” That is compelling.
But here’s my problem. Imagine hundreds of people launching their e-foils by Devonport Wharf, in Auckland, at rush hour. In the morning you have ferries and other craft on the harbour, and in the evening you also have yacht races. Then if they were to also come from Mission Bay, St Heliers and even Takapuna or Browns Bay (e-foils are fast and the battery lasts 2 hours), the picture gets really interesting.
They would be competing with the many cruise ships that now come into the harbour, container ships and other commercial craft (not to mention our Navy). Kayakers have been known to take great risks getting close to craft that need miles to manoevre a turn, and the curiosity of people with little or no water safety knowledge is going to be high to explore.
One would assume that business people would take a professional approach to this mode of transport, but there are many issues, mostly impacting safety:
- There is no marked path, although an option could be to approve a certain track, say beneath the Auckland Harbour Bridge, at certain times of day. A key issue with that is the exposure to strong tidal currents, which are even more dangerous when the wind is blowing against the tide, which flows quickly through that area.
- These are foiling devices. They can only foil when they reach a minimum speed. They can’t just hover on a spot if there is busy traffic, someone falls over, or crashes into another vehicle.
- Take the example of Lime. Despite age restrictions, many young people (some I’ve watched in school uniform, thus below the legal age) enjoy curb jumping and other tricks on rental e-scooters. The many related injuries covered by ACC will attest to that.
- Current transport bylaws are not suitable either for commuters using water scooters for transport, or as pleasure craft. The only relevant bylaws are probably those that jet skis go by and they are not really comparable.
- We don’t have safety or security personnel to maintain a semblance of order or to rescue people who, for whatever reason, need help.
- Where will they all be stored? I’m assuming you don’t put an e-foil under your arm and walk the last mile to your place of work, or to public transport.
I’m often frustrated by government’s lack of commitment to preparing for smart cities and disruptive modes of transport. They have many training courses and meetings about change management, but don’t seem to have resources exploring what new modes of transport are being introduced by startups in other cities, where commuters face similar problems to ours.
We humans are extremely resourceful and when devices appear, like hoverboards and scooters that would be fun to use, whether they are just devices purchased privately, or a mode seeking transport legitimacy, we are never ready for them.
Most transport demand management improvements are based on fixing legacy modes, rather than exploring new ones. That’s because that is where the skills and funding are focused. Even in the world of ITS, 87.23% (I made that number up) of papers, presentations and workshops are extensions, perhaps improvements on legacy transport systems and the solutions are band aids, often targeted at politically convenient single location improvements. That seems a bit like the Model A Ford detractors who said we needed faster horses. A sustainable modern solution to that might be adding Spirulina to the horse feed.
Now, I love this concept and the fact is that we need to think differently. Instead of looking excitedly towards the Internet of Things to flood the city with 5G sensors, that can tell us how bad the traffic is, why don’t we have a Work and Transport Institute of Future Studies, funded by government, corporates and our main universities? Why not team up with innovation hubs around the world and develop new solutions?
Whether it is Graham Piddington’s e-foil, a new Segway, e-bikes, e-scooters, drones, or something we haven’t even seen yet, why don’t we research new innovation and go back to the future with New Zealand as the ‘Number 8 Fencing Wire’ innovators of the world? We certainly have the capacity.
While we’re at it. We also seriously need to look at how and where we work. Some years ago, one of my senior managers at NZTA suggested that maybe there could be an opportunity to look at telecommuting hubs, such as the many successful shared offices in the US. I told him I had done some research in that space and shared how telecommuting was making big changes in the US, to where people live (moving to lifestyle and more affordable small towns), work, such as from home or from shared hubs, meeting together periodically as appropriate to the job.
Telecommuting is one of the fastest work mode changes around the world. When I say fast, it began probably 30 years ago with the advent of hot desks in large corporates like IBM and entrepreneurs taking their laptop to a Starbucks with free WiFi. But the pace at which it is changing today is exponential.
Is one of the most effective transport modes and choices, to stay at home? Why didn’t it happen sooner? IMHO because many managers didn’t trust their staff to work from home and thought productivity would suffer. The evidence disproves this theory with companies reporting reduced costs, reduced staff churn, increased productivity and job satisfaction.
Why didn’t we think of this before? Because our organisations aren’t set up for it. Our national and state Transport Agencies and DOTs build and maintain roads. Our City Transport agencies build and maintain local roads and control public transport modes. There are silos of great people in some of these organisations, but they are seen as a nuisance to much of the leadership, tasked with maintaining an orderly status quo.
As Sam Cooke sang, “A change is going to come.” But I fear that, like the change he was singing about, that it will come despite ‘The System’ we pay our taxes and rates to, rather than because of it. Because the government organisations have to maintain the status quo, we will continue to have tension and frustration, instead of going back to being in the global spotlight, as we used to be, with large corporates wanting to have innovation hubs in New Zealand.