Can a zero-emissions rideshare startup help reimagine transportation in Madison?

Zerology has a fleet of 25 electric Teslas
Can a zero-emissions rideshare startup help reimagine transportation in Madison?

I just spent two weeks in Switzerland and France (groan, I know), and one of the highlights of that trip was the interconnected public and private transportation options, or mode share. I could get anywhere I wanted using my smartphone. I could walk out my door and hop on a bus to the train station. I could wave my phone and locate an Uber bicycle near me. I could use my apps to find and pay for a cab, scooter or the subway, sometimes all in the same trip.

It wasn’t that there weren’t any cars. There were plenty. It’s that cars weren’t the automatic first choice. It was almost … un-American.

Back in Madison — where 62% of commuters drove to work alone in their cars in 2017 — Shree Kalluri was already dreaming of creating a different mode share option. The tech entrepreneur and founder of Forte Research Systems has worried about climate change for years, and he purchased an expensive, all-electric Tesla Model S in 2017. But he felt funny driving such an extravagant vehicle and gave it up as soon as the waitlist opened for the slightly more affordable Model 3.

Kalluri spent the next four months without a car, using rideshares instead. And he loved it. He met other like-minded commuters, learning that families spend on average $9,000 a year per car to drive. Rideshare made sense — one vehicle on the beltline instead of four or five — but it was still responsible for a lot of gas-guzzling miles.

Then one frigid night in February 2019, he poured an after-work scotch and listened as Tesla announced that its latest model could finally be purchased for less than $40,000. America’s average new car costs $35,000, so he realized this was a game-changer. Kalluri poured another drink and got out his notebook.

Six months later, it was full-speed ahead with Zerology. Zerology’s mission is simple: “Eco-friendly carsharing through our easy-to-use app.” Zerology already has a fleet of 25 electric Teslas — some for rent hourly, some for picking Edgewood College students up from outlying areas, some for use by Green Cab — with a goal of 50 by the end of January 2020. The fleet is earmarked for Green Cab, which announced in October it would convert early next year to all-electric Teslas.

The app might be an even bigger game changer. Kalluri’s team of 12 includes former Uber employee Brad Rutta who is tasked with developing an app that will pull all public and private transportation options into one place, including Madison Metro, Uber, Lyft, B-Cycle and more. Eventually, we’ll be able to choose where we want to go, and how. Do you want the greenest route? The cheapest? The quickest? Press a button and ride.

The day Kalluri and I met, his passion was infectious. He already had verbal agreements with three property developers and was in talks with city and state officials and Madison Gas and Electric. He’d opened an office in StartingBlock and was about to close his friends and family round of fundraising. His big-picture dream — 25% fewer cars on the road; solar-powered charging stations instead of gas stations; collaboration (not competition) with the city’s mass transit systems and bicycle share and cab companies; cheap, quick, eco-friendly transportation for even the most disenfranchised residents; fewer parking lots and more greenspace that could lead to more affordable housing, maybe even world peace — almost seemed possible.

But I was jet-lagged, and sheepish about my own carbon footprint created by my overseas flights and my beloved Subaru parked outside. And I felt a bit cynical: You can build all the systems you want, I thought. But if you can’t change a car-obsessed culture, what’s the point? That’s where entrepreneurs come in, Kalluri said with a grin.

Startups are innovative and nimble change agents. They’re capable of moving at a high-speed train’s pace when governments walk. It’s why he’s focused on transforming the broader ecosystem of Madison instead of just putting cool cars on the road.

Zerology doesn’t want to own everything, he says. It wants to work with what’s already here to make it easier and cheaper for all of us to go green together.

We’ll see if Madison’s along for the ride.

Maggie Ginsberg is a monthly columnist and senior contributing writer to Madison Magazine.