Thursday, May 10, 2007

Transit Systems as the "New Agora"

Let's take a break from the quitodian news of (somewhat illusory) job cuts at the CTA, speculation that the Governor has added transit to his priority list, and the somewhat pitiful efforts of a group of Chicago alderman (where was the Mayor?) to lobby on behalf of increased public transit funding.

So here's a link to a zippy recent article in the Boston Globe with the extended title of "From Boston to Brazil, city planners and transportation gurus are reimagining the possibilities of the humble motorbus, using high-tech 'smart mobility' to challenge the preeminence of the car -- and revive the urban commons."

The article summarizes some of the innovations in bus transit from around the world. Examples include on-board Wi-Fi in Seattle, real-time bus arrival information kiosks in London, bus stop (rather than on-bus) fare payment in Curitiba, and extensive traffic signal prioritization in Los Angeles. What is especially exciting is the innovative approach to public transit that drives these technical innovations:

At the heart of much of the new thinking is a concept that some urban planners call "smart mobility" -- integrating the flow of people with the flow of information. Whereas transit companies have traditionally seen their passengers as ciphers who want nothing more than to be physically moved from one place to another, the future of transit reform lies in seeing these passengers as active participants in a constantly evolving information cluster. The transportation system should share as much information with passengers as possible -- how buses are flowing, when the next one is expected. It should give passengers access to information about the outside world -- from international news, to e-mail, to data about the passing neighborhoods. And passengers, in turn, should be empowered to share information with the system and, if they want, with fellow riders.

The article goes on to describe the somewhat extravagant claim that public transit systems are the "new agora" in sprawling urbanized regions where people are isolated and alienated:

Good bus systems have the power to improve states and cities in a deep way, enthusiasts say. From the time of the first motor-driven bus, introduced by Karl Benz in 1895 in Germany, the bus and other forms of mass transit have literally moved people across cities divided by race and class. Now, as telecommuting and suburban expansion are making urban life increasingly decentralized, these thinkers argue that the bus and the subway lines are the new agora -- that they represent one of the few remaining urban commons. Boosted by the latest technology, they say, riding the bus should be as rich an experience as possible.

(What, have these folks never been to a shopping mall!)

There appears to be a persistent strain of thought associated with Anthony Downs that traffic congestion is inevitable and likely to get worse. This congestion may offer a market opportunity for public transit by bus, but only if it can-

(A) reduce public transit's speed disadvantage through a variety of tactics such as dedicated lanes (including HOT lanes available to others), traffic signal prioritization and real-time bus arrival information that reduces wait-times; and

(B) make the experience of riding the bus more interesting and pleasurable by exploiting the fact that one big comparative advantage of the bus is that you can do stuff other than driving.

Our public transit providers have a decided institutional preference for Type A initiatives because these initiatives are consistent with the "passengers as ciphers who want nothing more than to be physically moved from one place to another" model that still predominates.

Maybe it is time to give equal emphasis to Type B solutions, especially with the advent of devices like the iPhone that gives you internet connectivity in the palm of your hand. Transit agencies could put out the rolling internet/software platform and turn loose the open source community to come up with all sorts of applications--e.g., social networking ("who's on my bus"), area attractions ("free cup of coffee at Joe's next stop"), predicted time of arrival, on-board multi-player games that any rider can join. Maybe if buses became the place to go to connect with the world and a very temporary rolling "community," rather than one of life's dead zones, people would be less mindful of the slow progress of their bus down the crowded streets.

We'll get quotidian again soon.


Anonymous said...

Everything you mentioned is well known, tested and ready to locally...all that's missing is the will.

Anonymous said...

Nea Agora has the best lamb and goat in the city. Any meaning/connection?

Moderator said...

Anonymous #1: What's your assessment as to why there is a lack of will? Is it lack of money, lack of imagination, both, or neither?

Anonymous #2: I suppose that communal feasting on flesh builds community too.

Anonymous said...

Same anonymous.

1) RTA has a quasi-secret website called check out your vision there... it will be like dejavu all over again. But now, maybe Hamos' muscular new bill solves the lack of will issue...mostly.

2) Communal feasting of flesh? Wow, sounds a lot more ominous than communal feasting of bond issuances. Any way, you must not be from Chicago. Look up Nea Agora in the phone book--like I said...freshest lamb and goat in the city.

Anonymous said...

Funny nobody mentioned the Metra in here. This is what Metra is-- a much improved alternative to more agreeable than either (i) being in the car, OR (ii) being stuck next to social undesireables-- otherwise known as the "CTA effect."

It's not PC to mention it, but that impact effects peoples' decisions, even if they won't admit it.