Transmobility, part II

Part II of our exploration of transmobility. I want to caution you, again, that this is very much a probe.

Perhaps it’s best to start by backing up a few steps and explaining a little better what I’m trying to do here. What I’m arguing is that the simple act of getting around the city is in the process of changing — as how could it not, when both paths themselves and the vehicles that travel them are becoming endowed with the power to sense and adapt?

Accordingly, I believe we need to conceive of a networked mobility, a transmobility: one that inherently encompasses different modes, that conceptualizes urban space as a field to be traversed and provides for the maximum number of pathways through that field, that gathers up and utilizes whatever resources are available, and that delivers this potential to people in terms they understand.

Yesterday, I posed the question as to how we might devise a transmobility that met all of these conditions, while at the same time acknowledging two additional, all-but-contradictory desiderata. These were the desire, on the one hand, to smoothen out our interactions with transit infrastructure until vehicular transportation becomes as natural as putting one foot in front of another, and on the other to fracture journeys along their length such that any arbitrary point can become a node of experience and appreciation in and of itself. Any system capable of meeting these objectives would clearly present us with a limit case…but then, I believe that limits are there to be approached.

Finally, I’m addressing all of these questions from a relatively unusual disciplinary perspective, which is that of the service, interaction or experience designer. The downside of this is that I’m all but certainly disinterring matters a professional transit planner or mobility designer would regard as settled questions, while missing the terms of art or clever hacks they would call upon as second nature. But there’s a significant upside, too, which is that I’m natively conversant with the interactive systems that will increasingly condition any discussion of mobility, both respectful of their power and professionally wary of the representations of reality that reach us through them.

So petrified, the landscape grows

In addressing the questions I posed yesterday, then, I’m inclined to start by holding up for examination some of the ways in which trips, routes and journeys are currently represented by networked artifacts. Maybe there’s something that can be gleaned from these practices, whether as useful insights or musts-to-avoid.

I would start by suggesting that the proper unit of analysis for any consideration of movement through urban space has to be the whole journey. This means grasping the seemingly obvious fact that from the user’s perspective, all movement from origin to destination comprises a single, coherent journey, no matter how many times a change from mode to mode is required.

I say “seemingly obvious,” because the interactive artifacts I’m familiar with generally haven’t represented circumstances this way.

Take a simple example: a trip that involves walking to the nearest bus stop, riding the bus downtown, and finally walking from the point you alight from the bus to your ultimate destination. Some of the more supple route-planning applications already capture this kind of utterly normal experience — HopStop, for example, is quite good, at least in New York City — but you’d be surprised how many still do not. To date, they’ve tended to treat journeys in terms solely of their discrete component segments: an in-car GPS system plots automotive routes, a transit route-planner provides for trips from station to station, and so on.

But people think about movements through the city in terms that are simultaneously more personal and more holistic. We think of getting to work, stopping off to pick up a few things for dinner on the way home, or heading crosstown to meet friends for drinks.

So contemporary representations already seem well-suited to one of our criteria, in that the seams between methods of getting around are stark and clear, and perhaps even stark and clear enough to imply the self-directed moments of experience that attend a journey on either side. As far as a GPS display is generally concerned, what happens in the car stays in the car, and what happens next is up to you.

Certainly as compared to some overweening, totalizing system that aimed at doing everything and wound up doing none of it well, there’s something refreshing about this humility of ambition. On the other hand, though, such systems manifestly do not lend themselves well to depicting an important variety of end-to-end trips through the city, which are those trips that involve one or more changes of conveyance.

Think back to our rudimentary example, above. It would be useful if, for the portion of the journey on which you take the bus, that bus “understood” that it was essentially functioning as a connector, a linkage between one segment traversed on foot and another.

And this is still truer of journeys involving intermodal junctures where both traffic and the systemic requirements of timetables and schedules permit you less freedom in planning than walking or cycling might. Such journey plans need to be adjusted on the fly, drawing in data from other sources to accurately account for unfolding events as they happen, with signaling carried through to the infrastructure itself so that some delay, misrouting or rupture in the original plan results in the traveler being offered a panoply of appropriate alternatives.

What if, instead of living with the vehicle, the representational system lived with the traveler, and could move with them across and between modes? On this count, we’re obviously most of the way there already: with turn-by-turn directions provided by Google Maps, the iPhone and its Android-equipped competitors spell howling doom for the single-purpose devices offered by Garmin and TomTom. The emergence of truly ambient approaches to informatic provisioning would guarantee that a traveler never lacked for situational awareness, whether or not they had access to personal devices at any given moment.

What if we could provide these systems with enough local intelligence to “know” that a specified endpoint offers n possibilities for onward travel? What if this intelligence was informed by a city’s mesh of active public objects, so that travel times and schedules and real-time conditions could all be taken into account? And finally, instead of presenting journey segments as self-contained, what if we treated them as if they enjoyed magnet physics?

Then, should you want (or be forced by exigencies beyond your control) to alter your travel plans, you could snap out the mode you’re currently using, and swap in another that met whatever bounding constraints you specified, whether those had to do with speed or accessibility or privacy or shelter from the weather. The RATP‘s head of Prospective and Innovative Design, Georges Amar, speaks of enabling transmodality, and this is just what we begin to approach here.

The distinction I’m trying to capture is essentially the same as that Lucy Suchman drew between global, a priori plans on the one hand and situated actions on the other. The result would be a more responsive journey-planning system that, given any set of coordinates in space and time, is capable of popping its head up, having a look around and helping you determine what your best options are.

Moments in modal culture

This isn’t to say that we don’t also conceive of mobility in terms of particular modes of travel, and all the allegiances and affinities they give rise to. As Ivan Illich put it, “Tell me how fast you go, and I’ll tell you who you are.”

It’s not simply the coarser distinctions that tell, either. These shades of meaning and interpretation are crucial even among and between people who share a mode of transport: a fixie rider self-evidently has a different conception of the human-bicycle mesh than a Brompton fan does, while New Yorkers will know perfectly well what I mean if I distinguish two friends by describing them respectively as a 6 train rider and a 7 type. (Though not directly analogous, you can summon up similar images by evoking the L Taraval versus the J Church, the Yamanote-sen against the Hibiya-sen, or the 73 bus against the 15.)

Those of us who ride public transit form personal connections with our stops, our stations and even with particular linkages between lines, and I can only imagine that both our cities and our lives would be impoverished if we gave that up. But there’s no particular reason we need to; all I’m suggesting here is that the total journey needs to be represented as such by all the networked systems traversed in the course of a given outing.

Neither, in devising our transmobility system, can we afford to neglect the specificities and particularities of the component systems that furnish us with its articulated linkages. If one train line isn’t interchangeable with another in the hearts and minds of their riders, the same is true of other kinds of frameworks.

For example, we can’t merely plug some abstract shared bicycle service into the mesh of modal enablers and call it a day. Consider the differing fates of two apparently similar bike-share networks, the Parisian Vélib and Barcelona’s Bicing. In their diverging histories, we can see how differences in business model wind up percolating upward to impact level of service. By limiting the right to use Bicing to residents, by requiring that users open accounts, and having those accounts tied in to the usual variety of identification data, the system provides would-be bad actors with a strong disincentive. You’re personally liable, accountable…responsible.

There are real and problematic downsides to this approach, but the difference this set of decisions makes on the street is immediate and obvious. A rank of Vélib bikes, even in a posh neighborhood, looks like a bicyclical charnelhouse, with maybe three or four out of every five saddles reversed, in what has become Parisians’ folk indicator to one another that a particular bike is damaged to the point that it’s unavailable for use. The Bicing installations that I saw, including ones seeing very heavy use in core commercial districts, aren’t nearly as degraded.

This goes to the point I was trying to make, earlier, by contrasting the older conception of a vehicle as an object to the emergent way of understanding it as a service. Even though they may be physically identical — may draw current from the same grid, may be housed in the same lot, may present the driver with the selfsame control interface — a ZipCar Prius doesn’t function in just exactly the same way as a City CarShare Prius does. You could design a transmobility system so it accounted for either or (preferably) both…but not interchangeably.

Smooth sailing

Again, though I want to enable smooth transitions, I’m not arguing for perfect seamlessness in transit, or anything like it. Kevin Lynch reminds us, in The Image of the City, that “[a]ny breaks in transportation — nodes, decision points — are places of intensified perception.” We ought to welcome some of this heightened awareness, as a counterpoint to the automaticity that can all too easily accompany the rhythms of transit ridership, especially when experienced on a daily or twice-daily basis. On the other hand, it’s true that some of this “intensified perception” is almost certainly down to the anxiety that attends any such decision under circumstances of time pressure, human density and the urgent necessity to perform modal transitions correctly — and this is the fraction I’d argue we’d be better off designing out of transmobility.

At most, I mean for transmobility systems to bolster, not replace, human intuition. Where alternative modes or routings exist, we’re already generally pretty good at using them tactically to optimize against one or another criterion. Sometimes you know the subway’s the only way you can possibly beat the gridlock and get to your appointment on time; other times you choose a taxi instead, because you need to arrive at a meeting looking fresh and composed. One day you have the time to take the bus and daydream your way downtown, and the next it doesn’t get you nearly close enough to where you need to be.

You know this, I know this. So if we’re going to propose any technical intervention at all, it had better be something that builds on our native nous for the city, not overwrites it with autistic AI.

And before we can even begin to speak credibly of integrated mobility services, we’d need to see existing systems display some awareness of the plenitude of alternatives travelers have available to them, some understanding of all the different real-time factors likely to influence journey planning.

To take the most basic example, journey planning for walkers requires a different kind of thinking about the city than, particularly, turn-by-turn directions for drivers. This isn’t simply for the obvious reasons, like car-centric routings that represent a neighborhood as a an impenetrable thicket, a maze of one-way streets all alike, that a walker would stroll on through placidly and unconcernedly.

It’s because, as thinkers from Reyner Banham to Jane Jacobs and Kevin Lynch to Ivan Illich have reminded us — and as anyone who’s ever ridden in a car already understands quite perfectly well — velocity is something like destiny. You simply attend to different cues as a walker than you do as a driver, you notice textures of a different gauge, different things matter. And of course the same thing is true for cyclists vis à vis both walkers and drivers.

Over the past eighteen months, I’ve finally seen some first sentinel signs of this recognition trickle into consumer-grade interactive systems, but we’ve still got a long, long way to go.

Musique concrète

A final step would be to design the built environment itself, the ground against which all journeys transpire, to accommodate transmobility. Why wouldn’t you, at least, plan and design buildings, street furniture and other hard infrastructure so they account for the fact of networked mobility services — both in terms of the hardware that underwrites their provision, and of the potential for variability, dynamism, and open-endedness they bring to the built landscape?

In other words: why shouldn’t a bus shelter be designed with a mobile application in mind, and vice versa? Why shouldn’t both be planned so as to take into account the vehicles and embedded sensors connected to the same network? When are we finally going to take this word “network” at face value?

Of course these technologies change — over time they get lighter, more powerful, cheaper. That’s why you design things to be easy-access, easily extensible, as modular as can be: so you can swap out the CAT5 cable and spool in CAT6 (or replace it with a WiMax transponder, or whatever). Nobody’s recommending that we ought to be hard-wiring the precise state of the art as it existed last Tuesday morning into our urban infrastructure. But anyone in a position of power who, going forward, greenlights the development of such infrastructures without ensuring their ability to accommodate networked digital interaction ought to be called to account by constituents at the very next opportunity.

You know I believe that we used to call “ubiquitous computing” is now, simply, real life. Anybody who cares about cities and the people who live in them can no longer afford to treat pervasively networked informatic systems as a novelty, or even a point of municipal distinction. It’s always hard to estimate and account for, let alone attach precise dollar figures to, missed opportunities, to count the spectral fruits of paths not taken. But given how intimate the relationship between an individual’s ability to get around and a region’s economic competitiveness is known to be, there is no excuse for not pursuing advantage through the adroit use of networked systems to enhance individual and collective mobility.

What we ought to be designing are systems that allow people to compose coherent journeys, working from whatever parameters make most sense to them. We need to be asking ourselves how movement through urban space will express itself (and be experienced as travelers as a cohesive experience) across the various modes, nodes and couplings that will necessarily be involved.

The challenge before us remains integrating this tangle of pressures, constraints, opportunities and affordances into coherent user-facing propositions, ones that would offer people smoother, more flexible, more graceful and more finely-grained control over their movements through urban space. Then we could, perhaps, begin to speak of a true transmobility.

5 responses to “Transmobility, part II”

  1. Liz Buckley says :

    I believe the big difference you have made apparent is that a person’s real time routing has to do with increasing a person’s power or energy; empowerment not efficiency.

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