Ticket to Ride

With a new carpool service, you can text your way home

By Mark Anderson

It’s a solution any 14-year-old would love: The challenges of foreign oil dependency, global warming, and gridlock are not so big that you can’t text-message your way out of them.

Today in Liverpool, England, if you’re downtown at a pub and want to get back to your hotel on the other side of town, you can send a text message containing the postal code of your destination to 83994, and it’s as good as done. By punching a dozen buttons on your cell phone, you’ve contacted the fledgling cab service called Texxi. (“The taxi you text.”) The company, which owns no cars and employs no drivers, acts like an automated travel agent for your ride home: Its computer receives your request and finds other Texxi users whose pickup and destination points are roughly the same, and it summons a single cab from one of the city’s cab companies for everyone to share.

The cost for this Texxi ride with, say, two or three other passengers is less than £4.6 (about $9) each, instead of the £9 (about $18) or more that it would cost to hire a cab solo, and the cab company, on average, earns more total fare per ride. The savings of fuel, pollution, and congestion are at least as much as if you had arranged your own carpool back to your hotel.

Plus, perhaps the biggest drawback of taking a cab—standing outside and waiting—is eliminated: Each passenger receives a text message the moment their ride has arrived. Users can even set up their own Texxi groups to preferentially seek out ideal fellow passengers.

Eric Masaba, inventor of the Texxi system and managing director of its Liverpool pilot program, says that the shared-cab system he’s created could easily be replicated for 9-to-5ers in Raleigh, North Carolina, or football fans in Brisbane, Australia, or—with a large enough passenger base to work from—a denizen of any city going anywhere within that greater metro area at any time. “When I calculated how much this idea is worth on the world market, I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I kept coming up with figures in the hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars.”

Masaba’s lightbulb moment came in 2003, after he had spent more than a decade working as a consultant on problems, in economic wonk-speak, of “maximizing resource efficiency in power grids and in the wake of massive corporate collapses”—such as the Enron implosion of 2001. “It just dawned on me that if we use the existing infrastructure rather than buy a new one, we could get a city up and running very quickly.”

Make no mistake about it: Masaba has big plans for his start-up model, and is now schmoozing with entrepreneurs and potential investors around the world to ensure that someday soon you, too, will be able to text for your taxi.

The idea does have a few hurdles to jump—the main one being the very method that the call system works with. To make something like Texxi work, the majority of a city’s residents, not just cell-phone savvy teenagers, needs to be familiar with text messaging (that heretofore unexplored menu option on your phone that lets you send short text messages to other cell phone users). Overall, Americans have not yet caught the texting bug. When asked in December 2005 if they would be sending a “Happy New Year” text message to anyone, 90 percent of Spanish respondents, 88 percent of Germans, and 92 percent of Italians surveyed said yes—compared to just 35 percent of Americans.

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Back in 1993, I went before Seattle's Metro and proposed that the real solution to traffic was not rail, but computer dispatched shared taxis.

Now you've built it. This is more than just for partiers -- this is the most appropriate system for todays edge and ring cities.

I hope that planners will stop funding over priced "monorails" and implement this -- which is more appropriate for today's cities!

Fair deal for everybody. Shared taxis scheme has huge impact.

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