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Buy, Sell, or Hold: Sustainable Transit Edition

By Isaac Pino, CPA – May 5, 2013 at 8:00PM

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A leader in green urban planning provides his insight on trends in sustainable transportation.

In the following interview, we speak with Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. Speck is an architect and city planner in Washington, D.C., oversaw the Mayor's Institute on City Design, and served on the Sustainability Task Force of the Department of Homeland Security.

Speck joins us for a "Buy, Sell, or Hold" segment on sustainable transit issues such as car sharing, driverless cars, and the Segway, and then explains why market-oriented parking solutions and car-sharing programs are a "buy," while Google's (GOOGL 3.04%) driverless car is a "sell."

A transcript follows the video.

Isaac Pino: Let's wrap things up. One of the things we do here at the Fool is a "Buy, Sell, or Hold" segment.

Jeff Speck: I'm ready.

Pino: I think you were a fan of the Fool's podcast, back in the day.

Speck: It wasn't a podcast. We had something called "radio."

Pino: Right, the radio. What is this you speak of?

Speck: You turn these knobs ...

Pino: We'll put you on the hot seat, and you can answer these however you want. If you want to take some time to explain --

Speck: I like the rapid fire, so I'll just say "buy," "sell," or "hold."

Pino: All right, well, let's get it started. The first one is congestion pricing.

Speck: Buy.

Pino: Buy congestion pricing?

Speck: Yes.

Pino: In the near term?

Speck: You're not going to go fast?

Pino: All right, fast.

Speck: Just go fast. Let's get it over with.

Pino: Shopping malls -- the future of shopping malls?

Speck: Sell.

Pino: Sell shopping malls. Tax incentives to attract employers?

Speck: Sell.

Pino: Sell. Market-oriented solutions to parking?

Speck: Buy.

Pino: Does that include ... you discussed privatizing the parking, like Chicago did with Morgan Stanley (MS 4.47%).

Speck: Sell.

Pino: Sell that idea. Car-sharing ideas -- Zipcar.

Speck: Buy. Yeah, absolutely.

Pino: All right, buy that.

Speck: What's the new one that I should recommend to all of you?

Audience member: Car2Go?

Speck: There's Car2Go, but ... oh, he's going to kill me. This colleague of mine has a new one where you all give each other rides. SideCar. SideCar looks fantastic.

Pino: RelayRides, I think, is another one like that. All right, electric cars going mainstream?

Speck: Hold.

Pino: Hold that. Google's driverless car?

Speck: Sell.

Pino: All right. Streetcars?

Speck: Buy.

Pino: Finally, Segways?

Speck: No, streetcars get someone else to buy. That's the trick. Segways, I would sell.

Pino: Sell Segways.

Speck: Yeah, these do deserve some elaboration.

A chapter of my book is stolen from Don Shoup, who wrote the book The High Cost of Free Parking. It's an amazing book, but it's 723 pages and three and a half pounds. It's written as well as any book you'll read, but no one buys a book that big for their pleasure, so I took his book and turned it into a chapter, with his blessing.

It's amazing just how badly we do parking in America. We don't allow it to operate according to market principles, but certainly the smart cities now slowly are beginning to price their parking to get the desired outcome, which is why parking meters were invented in the first place: to have empty spaces -- not many, but a few empty spaces -- in front of shops on a regular basis so people don't have to circle to park and so merchants can sell stuff, so Daddy Warbucks can pull in, in front of the furrier, when he wants to make that purchase.

It's a much longer discussion, though, and you should just read the book.

Electric cars, I think, are the right answer to the wrong question, as are any solution that makes it cleaner and cheaper to drive.

What we've seen, and the one example I have is in Sweden -- where they have the world's largest incentive program for buying hybrid and green cars, and they've achieved the world's largest population of hybrid and green cars -- is that CO2 emissions have gone up, ostensibly as a result. Because people feel so good driving around in their super-green cars, that that one moral constraint, or ethical constraint, to driving is gone.

What I've seen happen in the U.S. is that the hybrids are getting bigger. Have you noticed this? The hybrids are getting bigger and bigger, and now some of them get worse ... there's a Ford (F 7.76%) Explorer hybrid that gets half the mileage of a conventional Geo Metro.

Hybrid doesn't mean anything, except you're getting potentially better mileage than you would, and by the way, you've got a huge battery to get rid of at some point.

The experience is that, thanks to the Jevons paradox -- am I pronouncing that right? Look it up, Jevons paradox -- it basically shows how, when technology has become more efficient and cheaper to use, we use so much more of it that any gains in efficiency are made up for in increased use of that technology.

Then the driverless car -- I read a really good article that I don't remember the name of, about Google's driverless car, but it's one of these circumstances where it's very easy to imagine a long-term outcome in which every car on the street is driverless, but it's impossible to imagine an intermediate stage.

It's all wonderful to imagine a future reality, but if you can't imagine a successful path to that reality, it's not going to happen, and no one seems to have done that math with the driverless car.

Pino: They'll have to banish it in certain cities and only allow driverless cars.

Speck: I don't know, yeah.

Isaac Pino, CPA, owns shares of Google. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Ford and Google. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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