Tony Hsieh

5 March 2014 – We wrote about Tony Hsieh in late 2012 because he was such a hit at the San Francisco Verge conference, which was a kind of fringe event to the Greenbuild mega conference in San Francisco in November that year.

The Verge audience, made up of people from Google, Facebook, and Forbes magazine, academics from Standford and infrastructure leaders from local government and utilities outfits, seemed fascinated by Hsieh’s ambitions to tackle sustainability in possibly the most unsustainable, car-centred, gambling focused place in the US, Las Vegas.

First Hsieh said he wanted to create a more social, community minded workspace, using funds from his US$350 million Zappos shoe retailing empire.

Now, we see from a great long form article in Atlantic Cities, well worth the read, that he is tackling car travel.

When Hsieh launched the Downtown Project in late 2011, he told anyone who would listen he would invest $200 million in real estate, $50 million in start-ups, $50 million in local businesses, and $50 million in schools. He also planned to move Zappos from its campus in suburban Henderson to a new headquarters downtown in the former City Hall, seeding the new landscape with its 1,500 employees.

In the meantime, he and his deputies got to work terraforming the area into a creative class company town replete with restaurants, bars, co-working spaces, and a “Container Park” guarded by a 40-foot-long praying mantis spitting fire from its antennae. When Zappos finally moved into its new digs last fall, employees found an urban playground waiting for them — and for the dozens of start-ups Hsieh’s money has lured from other cities.

But despite Hsieh’s best efforts at social engineering, the majority of Zappos employees still commute by car from the suburbs. This doesn’t fit with Hsieh’s image of downtown, which is based on what he calls the “three Cs:” collisions, co-learning, and community. Basing his theory on a close reading of Harvard economist and Triumph of the City author Edward Glaeser, Hsieh believes increasing the density of encounters will in turn accelerate the diffusion of good will and good ideas, making downtown more attractive to talented individuals in the far-flung corners of Las Vegas and beyond. One thing holding them back is the costs — real and psychological — of movement to and within downtown.

“No one knows what would people would do if those costs didn’t matter,” says Ware.

Project 100 intends to find out. Its name was derived from the quantity of each vehicle it intended to offer. That is, 100 Tesla S sedans equipped with professional drivers (a la Uber), 100 short-range electric vehicles you drive yourself (e.g. Zipcar or Car2go), 100 bicycles for sharing, and shuttles with 100 stops across the area. At launch, however, the service will be much smaller. No drivers, no shuttles — only a trolley car on an infinite loop and a handful of Teslas rentable by the minute or hour.

Pricing will follow a three-tiered structure with a la carte mobility options costing around $50-$100 a month and all-you-can-move usage pegged at around $500, roughly $250 less than the monthly cost of car ownership including gas and insurance, according to AAA. An app and underlying algorithms yet to be written will not only calculate where the nearest share station is, but also assign which mode to use. The latter is necessary to prevent members from hogging the Teslas; it’s also such a daunting piece of software that, if it works, would give the project a considerable edge over competitors if and when it expands to other cities.

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