Editor’s note: The original February 2016 column had a correction over no mention of the travel distance in the original New York Times’ story. This version corrected that oversight.
The Chicago office of Ideo, a worldwide design firm perhaps best known for helping to design Apple’s mouse in the early Eighties, was working last year on a “multimodal transportation” scheme for Ford. And the thesis they needed to validate on that brisk fall day was that three Ideo employees, loaded with bulky bags, could travel from their office to lunch at the Knife and Tine restaurant for a mere $10. Oh, and it had to be done in less than 45 minutes.
The takeaway here is that Ford’s executives believe that their future success may depend on their finding the next form of transportation — once the days of making money building cars come to an end.
Reading David Gelles’ story in the New York Times about this day of discovery for future transportation was tough to take; it tended to sell us on the logic of alternative transportation, which none of the facts validated. Further, though he made sure that the reader understood there was a 45-minute time limit to this quest to move three people with “bulky shopping bags” to a dining establishment a mere 3.8 miles away. At least, according to Google maps.
No, instead their first plan was to rent bikes from the city’s Divvy bike-sharing system. Turned out that was too expensive, since it cost $10 per person for first-time users. Then they checked Uber, but the cost was $2 over their spending limit. So they decided to take the ‘L,’ since it cost just $2.25 per person — although when they arrived at the train platform it had just left, and the screens weren’t working to show when the next train might arrive. Of course, 10 minutes later another train appeared and, according to this literary trip down the rabbit hole, it was “hot and rank with body odor.” That’s odd, because the article describes this adventure as taking place on a ‘brisk October’ day. Still, it goes on to say it then took 40 minutes and only got them to within a mile of the restaurant.
So they blew their budget and took a cab the rest of the way.
The column also quoted David King, a Professor of Urban Studies at Columbia, as saying, “Cars are expensive. There are all these new travel options.” Wow. That quote, which was used to justify this ridiculous quest, confused me; particularly because later in the day our intrepid explorers used Uber for a 5-mile run and it cost $32.
First, let’s go on record and say this: If one has $10 to move three people carrying bulky shopping bags a mere 3.8 miles to eat, an automobile would have been the perfect transportation solution. (Cars were blocked from consideration.) Cars are even more valuable had this test been done in winter, when the wind off the Great Lakes can give you frostbite before your lunch is served. Second, what’s with “new forms of transportation”? The safety bicycle dates back to 1885, while Chicago’s (Elevated) ‘L’ was built in the 1890s. Both of these less desirable forms of transportation predate most modern cars.
And expensive? If one used only Uber six days a week to make one 5-mile run (as in this story), that’s a transportation expense of around $770 a month. Double that figure if you need to take another 5-mile Uber ride to go home at night. Quadruple it if you use Uber for a 5-mile run to lunch — and back. And yet Gelles quotes a professor who suggests private cars are expensive?
The story should have validated the obvious, convenient and inexpensive way to get around: Own a car. Not to mention the time they could have saved on this short 3.8-mile luncheon run. After all, taking so long on the L and then a cab cost them an extra hour out of their workday, and that’s lost productivity. That has a real monetary value, too.
Unfortunately, unless the author left out $2,000-a-month parking, the obvious truth is not the answer that Ford, Ideo, Professor King or Mr. Gelles is trying to sell us. It was staring everyone connected with that column in the face — if one could read between the lines.
© Ed Wallace 2017
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, “Wheels,” 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org