Bruce Jeffreys was interviewed by Siobhan Toohill for Out the Front in August 2013.
SIOBHAN: Tonight on Out the Front, we're thrilled to be joined by Bruce Jeffreys. We could think of no better guest for our first episode. In 2003, Bruce and Nic Lowe launched an innovative car-sharing scheme called GoGet. As a former member of the NSW Government's Sustainability Unit, Jeffreys' sustainability credentials are impressive. Right now, he's in Out the Front, in our kitchen, having a chat! So Bruce, tell me, what is GoGet?
BRUCE: Well, GoGet allows people in the inner city areas of Australian cities to live without a car, but still be able to access one for those times that come up when they need them. Before we started GoGet you had a pretty stark choice. You either owned a car that you didn't use a lot, or you didn't own a car, and whenever you needed a car you got stuck. So we started GoGet to solve that problem, and give people the ability to go, oh right, I actually don't need a car for the next few weeks, great, and then don't get the costs of it , but when you do need that car, you get the right car for that trip and forget about it.
SIOBHAN: How is it different from a taxi or from renting a car?
BRUCE: Well the main thing is, the trip in the GoGet car is much like a private trip that a car owner would do. So unlike a taxi, which is normally more like a one-way trip, or a car rental car which is more of a leisure, longer style rental by the day, a GoGet trip is that trip to the shops, that out-and-about recreation day with friends, or doing a one-off activity that is close to where you live. So the cars really do get used often like a private car ... and that's the key to it. We try and give people the ability to do those trips and not actually have the burden of a car when they don't need it.
SIOBHAN: Does it only work in certain parts of cities? I remember when it was called Newtown Carshare, it started here in Newtown. Are there certain parts of cities where it does and doesn't work?
BRUCE: It does really find its home in a place where people find it really easy to walk around – that's the key thing. If you can get around on foot in your local area, then GoGet is a really good complement. Because for people, when they need a car, they've got to walk to it. If you're already walking around, then it's not really that big a deal. If you live in a place where you're used to driving everywhere, and driving to get everything, and you've got to actually walk a few hundred metres to get a GoGet car, those 200 metres seem like a long way. But in these little inner city parts of Australia, people are used to it ... it's part of what they do. So just like you go and you access a whole bunch of services locally whether it's the shops, or a library, or a cinema – we're just part of that mix. So we really work in the places where it's a rich, diverse area where there's lots of different services, and we add to that.
SIOBHAN: Where do you see car share going? We've seen what's happened in the U.S where it's been bought out by rental cars ... do you see it changing? Where do you see the direction of this?
BRUCE: Well, it's a really new service. So, when we started GoGet, we never imagined it would get to the size it's at now. We really did start it for our area of Newtown, and then slowly grow it to other parts of Sydney, and then it expanded to Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane. I mean it's a really evolving market. Right now, one of the really big areas of potential for carsharing services is starting to integrate with government fleets.There's a large number of education and health service providers that have tonnes of cars that sit around after hours on weekends not doing anything. There's a real natural complement between what they do and what we do. So, it's really in someways like going from a service that was really on the periphery, on the margin, was a bit 'added-in' to our local suburbs, to something that's now getting a lot more integrated into how we actually get around. So whether that's with public transport, or with other large fleet providers, it's changing quite quickly.
SIOBHAN: As a brand, people have quite an affinity with GoGet. Certainly around here in Newtown, people feel quite proud, you know. "My car is a GoGet car" or "my second car is a GoGet car", and the cars have got names as well. Tell us a bit about the personality of GoGet.
BRUCE: The personality really comes from how we started it. The service is not something that was funded by a venture capital firm. It didn't come out of a big fancy business plan. It really just came out of a couple of people, with the help of their friends and neighbours, in a local suburb, just giving it a go. It really has just grown organically from that. So, there's a real sense to it being not corporate. It is what it is. It's a local service, and we really strive to keep close to the members and close to the locations which we operate in. It's not something we actually designed, or thought ahead of time. It's just the way that we did it ... and it's worked, so that's how we continue to do it.
SIOBHAN: And across the fleet, do you have a personal favourite car?
BRUCE: For the first many years, I was the Fleet Manager. It was pretty funny – me and Nic gave each other titles, because we were the only people working in the business. so I would be the Fleet Manager, and Nic would be in charge of IT and systems.
SIOBHAN: And who washed the cars?!
BRUCE: It was me. Being the Fleet Manager, you had some really really fantastically attractive roles, like washing the cars, and taking them for services and repairs.
SIOBHAN: But now you have a little car that goes around and does all that.
BRUCE: Yes! We have a team that work hard to keep the cars ship shape. So I had a lot more affinity with the earlier cars because they were a bit odd. Like the first car we had was this crazy diesel Corolla imported from Fiji. It was really the only one of its type in Australia, it was a bit of a character.
SIOBHAN: Do you remember its name?
BRUCE: It was Cath the Corolla which was named after my partner Cath. Which could be taken as a compliment ... or not! But she was happy with it. Yeah, so we had some pretty odd cars to begin with. I mean, I remember those first Yaris' we bought, you knew their names and exactly who they were, and what they were. I still, today, can't get my head around the number of Yaris' we've got. We've got around 700 or 800 of them. Up to about the first couple of hundred cars, I did remember every number plate, and every name, and then it got beyond me.
SIOBHAN: You like to say that car sharing is not so much a new idea – it's quite an old idea. Can you talk a bit about that?
BRUCE: People look at these things as new trends or fads, and for me, actually, living in a place like Newtown, you think, this suburb has been around for a long time, and people have actually only had cars for the last hundred or so years. There's a whole hundred plus years of history when we didn't have cars. So, it wasn't a suburb full of horses. In those days in Newtown, people didn't own a horse for every particular house. They basically had stables on the end of each street, and they shared horses. People forget too quickly I think, how the current system, the dream of everybody owning a car each, is quite a new thing, and completely doesn't work in our little, dense, packed-in parts of Australia. So for me, carsharing fits with a bit of an older ethos of quite a neighbourly thing. People thought everybody is going to trash the cars, and they won't look after it, but actually quite the opposite happens. People really do look after it much more than a rental car., because it's a car that lives in that particular locality, and it's got a name and a personality. So, that way of treating the service and the car, in a way is a revival of a different way of doing things.
SIOBHAN: You're kind of thinking of it more as a community asset as opposed to the old mindset of drive it like a rental, that doesn't play out here.
BRUCE: That's exactly it!
SIOBHAN: You've talked about the old idea of sharing a horse, the idea of sharing a car. Where do you see it going in the future?
BRUCE: Well, I think there's going to be some pretty dramatic changes. I mean, you can see that there's a convergence, there's a number of major issues in terms of the popularity and the demand for living close to city centres. There are more and more people moving in close to the city. Cities continue to be really big places of jobs growth. And the jobs growth is not the traditional big workplace type growth but micro businesses. There's a lot of different work originating in the city. So there's a lot of demand and pressure on the city, and it's not like the suburban dream is now the answer to everything. If you go back twenty or thirty years, people were saying it's all about decentralisation, and everyone wants to move to Gosford, or Liverpool.
SIOBHAN: Or the north coast.
BRUCE: Or the north coast - well there are some people that do. The reality is that the densities are here to stay. So there's much more of a shift to 'how are we going to solve these bigger problems'. Because you can't just keep adding cars. You can't just keep building more roads. So it's actually quite an exciting time in terms of... well, we're past the rubicon of the old days of 'hey it will be okay'. We realise we've got to do public transport and we've got to actually change how we move around.
SIOBHAN: How do you think we're going to be moving around in the future?
BRUCE: Well, one thing that me and Nic are quite passionate about, is leading or being at the forefront of the introduction of driverless autonomous cars. We think that's a really dramatic example of how in ten to fifteen years time, it will be very different for young people, for example, not getting drivers licenses because they'll actually be chauffeured around by computer driven vehicles. While it sounds really futuristic, if you look at what has happened in aviation, there's a really good precursor to what is possible with motor vehicles and roads. One of the things I think excites us about driverless vehicles, it's not the computer technology side of it. It's more that the car will stop being so irrational, and the reason why cars are so irrational is because they're driven by people. And people, when they get behind the wheel of a car, are crazily irrational - myself included. A car that is driven by a computer that approaches a cyclist, is not going to be thinking 'bloody cyclists, get off the road!'. It's going to be thinking 'right, there's an object there' ...well it won't be thinking. That's the best thing about it!
SIOBHAN: You're learning a new language at the moment! You're learning German! Why?
BRUCE: I don't know, to be honest! I don't know why I'm learning German. I have always loved hanging around Germans. In fact I used to go out with Germans, and they'd all speak German, and I'd just hang out and listen to them. I spent a little bit of time in Germany and found it really intriguing, because it was completely not the place that I thought it would be. It was contrary to the stereotypes. And I find it a beautiful language.
SIOBHAN: From Germany to ... Turkey! You spent a big chunk of last year in Istanbul. Why did you go to Istanbul?
BRUCE: Well me and Cath, my partner, we actually accidently ended up living there for a couple of years in our twenties. We never planned to. We were actually on our way to Bombay where my mother's family is, and we were passing through Istanbul and got jobs, and two weeks became a couple of months, and a couple of months became half a year. And before you knew it we were there for a couple of years. It was such a magical place and time, we've been going back.
SIOBHAN: You took your family there, what was that like?
BRUCE: It was great! We've got a couple of girls. One of them is just turning ten, and the other has just turned seven. For them, it's so interesting what they remember and associate with a place like Turkey. I mean Rani, my younger daughter, just the other night said 'you know what's great about Turkey? They make fantastic waffles and eclairs'. She picked two things that are just so un-Turkish! But when she was there, she loved the waffle shops. So, that's what's great about seeing it through the eyes of kids, they just have a completely different take.
SIOBHAN: Now you're running a car-share organisation, but what is it that led you to get you to the place that you are now? Is there a point in time where you think 'yeah that was the moment where I started engaging with this idea around car-sharing and community'? Is there a moment in time that you think led to where you are now?
BRUCE: A really big part of it was not a deliberate plan or strategy. I remember my uncle was really fond of asking these 'so where will you be in five years time?' and I would always annoy him and say, well my goal was not to know where I was going to be in five years time. And he found that really irritating! So a big part of it, to me, has been going with opportunities that are happening at the time, and giving that a go, and trying as many things as possible. So, spending a couple of years in Turkey, I think that's a really good example of being completely unintended. In a way, if you thought about that as a career move, it was such a bad career move because we got back to Australia, and people.. and me and Cath did some amazing work in Turkey ... and it was completely unrecognised.
SIOBHAN: What sort of work were you doing there?
BRUCE: I worked for the Istanbul Film Festival, and Cath did quite a bit of teaching, and then we ended up organising the Australian film festival in Turkey. We basically proposed it, and ran the entire thing, and it was a great experience. But you get back to Australia, and Turkey is just one of those places that doesn't equate. If we'd done the same thing in London or New York, people would have got it. But Turkey, people didn't get it. So it's a good example ... often you do things from a career sense that really don't make any sense at the time, but later it all comes together. To be honest, Turkey for me was where I really learnt about business because it is a really entrepreneurial culture. There isn't government there providing everything, and there is not a sense that government will provide the solutions. Especially when we were living there it was very dysfunctional so there's a real sense of people going we've got to sort this out ourselves. Whereas Australia has a real culture of 'well we've got this problem, surely government can fix that'.
SIOBHAN: You went from working in Turkey in the film sector, and then you ended up working in government. What led you from working in Turkey in the film sector to ending up in government in NSW?
BRUCE: It was actually really quite a winding and long road. Really the one thing that's in common to everything I've done has been closely related to marketing. The film festival is a good example. I worked in the marketing department of the Istanbul Film Festival. Then I came back to Perth, and I was lucky to land a job at Murdoch University.I worked in the Administration for about four years which was quite an amazing experience to work in university administration. It was actually a bit of a shock to be in what is really a profoundly dysfunctional bureaucracy. But universities are. They really do take the cake. It was from that environment, that I happened to be there when the internet was really just taking off. So I jumped from that, into doing website production and development. Me and Cath moved to Sydney and I got a job in the advertising industry. I worked for Singleton, Ogilvy & Mather interactive division at the time, which was only a brand new set-up and that was quite an amazing little experience. I wasn't there long, but it was long enough to really fall in love with Sydney as well because it was a lot of fun, and you're working with a lot of really bright people ... made some really great friends. The dot-com crisis was just around the corner, and I was really lucky in that I saw it coming, and switched out of that and into government a few months before the industry hit the wall. Essentially I took my skills from marketing, advertising and website design and development, into government, and that's how I got into government.
SIOBHAN: How did you end up in the Sustainability Unit in Planning?
BRUCE: Completely by accident! They were organising a conference. You know, the Department of Planning is full of planners who, putting it politely... a conference is a very different beast. So I was brought in as part of a team to organise this conference for the government. And they really wanted something a bit out of the ordinary, possibly to cover up how ordinary things were going at the time.So the conference went really well, and there was a newly formed Sustainability unit, and I was basically offered a permanent gig there.
SIOBHAN: Wow. And what did you do there ... what was the special thing there?
BRUCE: It was a really lucky time. Because the Sustainability Unit was set up as a separate section within the Department of Planning that reported straight to Sue Holliday, the then Director General. So we had a very specific mandate which was to produce innovative reform. Small team ... you know, between five or six people in those early days, and a very defined mission with none of the bureaucracy, or none of the hierarchy that normally traps you. It was a great lesson in how you can get innovation within a large organisation. We essentially developed the BASIX program amongst a whole bunch of other work, but BASIX was the final thing that got adopted, which is the Building Sustainability Index, which is now a mandatory assessment tool that people have to use for new buildings in NSW. We basically took it from an idea all the way through to final policy adoption.
SIOBHAN: Is that when you first started thinking about sustainability as an idea, as a concept?
BRUCE: Not really. It had been pretty ingrained for me. To me, my first thoughts about sustainability really came from a stint I did as a child, a high-school kid in India. As part of my studies there, I looked at how the sugar cane industry worked as a closed loop type system. Not that I ever used that terminology, but as a child going back and forth between India and Australia, you became really aware of resource use, really aware, because it's so completely ... our countries are in some ways opposite spectrums. That's really where it started, and when I studied at university, I had a real environmental flavour to what I was looking at. I come from a family of environmental activists as well, so in some ways it was something I grew up with and have always been passionate about.
SIOBHAN: I think what is interesting here though is that when you talk about sustainability, it's not about the technology, it's about what you do. It becomes more about a social movement. Do you think it's this idea of the social movement that's informed what you've been doing at GoGet?
BRUCE: Yes, completely. I mean that's the stuff that's really long-term worthwhile. The technology at the end of the day just fulfils a function. Whereas when you actually change a behaviour, or you actually enable something to happen, that's the profound part of it. To me that is the value. And I think that gets missed all the time. People don't recognise the whole range of benefits.
SIOBHAN: Thanks Bruce for joining us tonight on Out the Front. It's been fantastic talking with you.
BRUCE: Thank you!
Interview: Siobhan Toohill
Photography: Dean Sewell / Oculi
Art direction: Sara Jinga
Transcript: Kate Read
Published by: Adrian Wiggins in Interviews