Trade in Your Car for This App

What would it take, other than an unfortunate evening at the blackjack table, for a Las Vegas resident to give up his car? For most residents of Vegas, a city with sprawling growth so dramatic you can actually see it from space, a car is a lifeline, and pretty much the only way to get from homes in far-flung, dislocated neighborhoods to work, stores, or school. Even taxis are hard to come by outside the tourist zones.

Entrepreneur Tony Hsieh, the founder of online shoe retailer Zappo’s, wants to get Vegas residents, including 2,000 Zappo’s employees who are relocating downtown, out of their cars and interacting with each other. He envisions a more connected, interactive city—literally, not virtually--and he thinks he can do it with an app. His new venture, Project 100, is a new kind of transportation system, designed to encourage people to ditch their cars, cut pollution, and get connected to their neighborhoods. It will offer its members a range of transportation options for any trip they need to make, on the spot, including bikes, small electric vehicles, and even chauffeur-driven Teslas, all coordinated via smartphone.

Here’s how it works: you zap your location and destination to Project 100 on your smart phone, and receive a list of options that will get you there. It could be a Tesla, with a driver, at your door in about ten minutes; or an electric vehicle or bicycle parked nearby; or maybe there’s a party bus heading your way soon. No matter which route you choose, you can get where you’re going with minimal hassle, and no pollution, in the exact vehicle that suits your needs. It makes a lot more sense, environmentally and economically, than driving your gas-guzzling minivan, without any passengers, five miles to the store to pick up a carton of milk. And it’s more engaging than avoiding an outing with friends or family because you don’t want to drive home.  

Hsieh is concerned with building community (“Our mission is higher than transportation,” says the Project 100 website), but he’s also a smart businessman running a for-profit venture. He’s targeting the wide-open middle ground of transportation alternatives, the sweet spot between high-priced, highly polluting, convenient private car ownership, and low-cost, low-pollution,  not-so-convenient public transportation, or not-so-safe biking. His timing may be right--recent surveys suggest that Americans are more willing than ever to get out of their cars. In NRDC’s recent nationwide bipartisan poll, three out of four Americans said they were forced to drive more than they wanted to because of a lack of transportation alternatives, and three out of five preferred investment in public transit, and developing communities where driving is optional, over building more roads.

While we do need to get our act together in state, federal, and local government to improve public transportation, and nonprofits like NRDC are helping find smart ways to help people get around, like developing ratings systems for walkable neighborhoods, better mortgage rates for people with shorter commutes, and pushing Congress to pass a comprehensive transportation bill that will help modernize our ailing transportation infrastructure--there’s plenty of room for smart entrepreneurs to carve out space in the transportation sector. Just look at the highly successful crop of intercity bus companies that are luring drivers and flyers with a low-cost yet comfortable alternative, providing fast, convenient downtown-to-downtown transit with perks like free WiFi, leather seats, and even meal service.

Project 100 has already purchased 100 Teslas, and is working on software development as well building out hardware like recharging stations. They’re aiming for a membership fee of about $400 per month, in the range of a typical monthly car payment plus insurance, and beta testing is reportedly happening over the next few months. If their efforts succeed, the company plans to scale up its business to other cities as well. Las Vegas, although extreme in its sprawl, is hardly the only town in this country that lacks adequate public transportation and safe ways to walk or bike around.

It’s a bold move, and one that could engage the private sector in improving the quality of life in sprawling towns everywhere.

[This post originally appeared in GOOD.]

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