I really want to recommend to you this Olivier Thereaux post about broken bus systems and how they might be fixed (and not just because I happen to be taking the MUNI a great deal lately).
What Olivier absolutely nails is the expression of a thought I’ve come back to again and again over the years: that buses and bus networks are by their nature so intimidating to potential users that many people will do just about anything to avoid engaging them. I don’t mind admitting that, depending on the city, the language in use, and my relative level of energy, I’m definitely to be numbered among those people. When buses are effectively the only mode of public transit available, that “just about anything” has occasionally meant laying out ridiculous sums on taxis; more often, it’s resulted in my walking equally absurd distances across cities I barely know.
“Intimidating,” in this context, doesn’t need to mean “terrifying.” It simply implies that the system is just complicated enough, just hard enough to form a mental model of, that the fear of winding up miles away from your intended destination — and possibly with no clear return route, not enough or the right kind of money to pay for a ticket, and no way of asking for clarification — is a real thing. There’s a threshold of comfort involved, and for quite a few categories of users (the young, the old, visitors, immigrants, people with literacy or other impairments) that threshold is set too high. People in this position wind up seeking alternatives…and if practical alternatives do not exist, they do without mobility altogether. They are lost to the city, and the city is lost to them.
The point is more broadly applicable, as well. You know I believe that cities are connection machines, networks of potential subject to Metcalfe’s law. What this means in the abstract is that the total value of an urban network rises as the square of the number of nodes connected to it. What this means in human terms is that a situation in which people are too intimidated to ride the bus (or walk down the street, or leave the apartment) is a sorrow compounded. Again: everything they could offer the network that is the city is lost. And everything we take for granted about the possibilities and promise of great urban places is foreclosed to them.
If you understand things this way, there’s a clear moral imperative inscribed in the design of systems like bus networks and interfaces. Every incremental thing the designer can do to demystify, explain, clarify, and ultimately to lower the threshold at which a potential user decides the risk of climbing aboard is worth taking does a double service — if the Metcalfe’s law construction of things rings true to you, a geometrical service. You are simultaneously improving the conditions under which an individual lives his or her life, and contributing materially to the commonweal. Not bad for a day’s work, if you ask me.
This is personal for me, too, and not just because I’ve occasionally found a route map overwhelming, or decided to walk from Bloomsbury to Dalston instead of chancing the N38 and winding up in, who knows, Calais. What I’ve come to understand, in these last few years of intense concentration on issues of urban design, is that my fascination with cities grows not at all out of ease or comfort with them, but the opposite. I’m an introvert, I’ve never been comfortable approaching strangers with questions, I’m twitchily hyperaware when I’m inconveniencing others (e.g. holding up a bus by asking questions of a driver) and my gifts for language are not great. Above all, I don’t like looking vulnerable and confused any more than anyone does, especially when traveling.
I’ve gotten better on all these counts over the course of my life, but they’re still issues. They can pop to the surface at any time, and, of course, are more likely to do so under conditions of stress. Taken together, what they spell for me is a relatively circumscribed ability to get around and enjoy the things the cities I visit have to offer — relatively, that is, compared to other able-bodied people my own age and with similar levels of privilege. Even this limitation, though, makes me acutely aware of just how difficult getting around can be, how very intimidating it can all seem, and what both people and place stand to lose each and every single time this intimidation is allowed to govern outcomes.
This is why I believe Olivier is absolutely right to focus on design interventions that reduce user stress, and, with all due respect, it’s why I think people like this Speedbird commenter, who understand cities solely as generators of upside potential, are missing something in the empathy department. There are an awful lot of people, everywhere around us, in every city, who have difficulty negotiating the mobility (and other) systems that are supposed to serve their needs. As far as I’m concerned, anyway, it is the proper and maybe even the primary task of the urban systems designer to work with compassion and fearless empathy to address this difficulty. Only by doing so can we extend the very real promise of that upside potential to the greatest possible number of people who would otherwise be denied it, in part or in full, and only by doing so can we realize in turn the full flowering of what they have to offer us.
I’m halfway through Reinventing the Automobile at the moment, which I figure represents the final comprehensive statement of Bill Mitchell’s thinking about urban mobility. As you’d imagine, it’s a passionately-held and painstakingly worked-out vision, basically the summation of all the work anyone with an interest in the space has seen in dribs and drabs over the past few years; it’s clear, for example, that this is what all the work on P.U.M.A. and MIT CityCar was informed by and leading towards.
In outline, Reinventing presents the reader with four essential propositions about the nature of next-generation urban mobility, none of which I necessarily disagree with prima facie:
- That the design principles and assumptions underlying the contemporary automobile — descended as they are, in an almost straight line, from the horseless carriage — are badly obsolete. Specifically, industry conventions regarding a vehicle’s source of motive power, drive and control mechanism, and mode of operation ought to be discarded in their entirety and replaced with ones more appropriate to an age of dense cities, networks, lightweight materials, clean energy and great personal choice.
- That mobility itself is being transformed by information; that extraordinary efficiencies can be realized and tremendous amounts of latent value unlocked if passenger, vehicle and the ground against which both are moving are reconceived as sources and brokers of, and agents upon, real-time data. (Where have I heard that before?)
- That the physical and conceptual infrastructure underlying the generation, storage and distribution of energy is also, and simultaneously, being transformed by information, with implications (again) for the generation of motive power, as well as the provision of environmental, information, communication and entertainment services to vehicles.
- That the above three developments permit (compel?) the wholesale reconceptualization of vehicles as agents in dynamic pricing markets for energy, road-space and parking resources, as well as significantly more conventional vehicle-share schemes.
It’s only that last one that I have any particular quibbles with. Even before accounting for the creepy hints of emergent AI in commodity-trading software I keep bumping up against (and that’s only meant about 75% tongue-in-cheek), I’m not at all convinced that empowering mobile software avatars to bid on road resources in tightly-coupled, nanosecond loops will ever lead to anything but the worst and most literal sort of gridlock.
But that’s not the real problem I have with this body of work. What I really tripped over, as I read, was the titanic dissonance between the MIT vision of urban life and mobility and the one that I was immersed in as I rode the 33 bus across town. It’s a cheap shot, maybe, but I just couldn’t get past the gulf between the actual San Franciscans around me — the enormous, sweet-looking Polynesian kid lost in a half-hour-long spell of autistic head-banging that took him from Oak and Stanyan clear into the Mission; the grizzled but curiously sylphlike person of frankly indeterminate gender, stepping from the bus with a croaked “God bless you, driver” — and the book’s depiction of sleekly silhouetted personae-people reclining into the Pellicle couches of their front-loading CityCars.
Any next-generation personal mobility system that didn’t take the needs and capabilities of people like these — no: these people, as individuals with lives and stories — into account…well, I can’t imagine that any such thing would be worth the very significant effort of bringing it into being. And despite some well-intentioned gestures toward the real urban world in the lattermost part of the book, projected mobility-on-demand sitings for Taipei and so on, there’s very little here that treats present-day reality as anything but something that Shall Be Overcome. It’s almost as if the very, very bright people responsible for Reinventing the Automobile have had to fend off any taint of human frailty, constraint or limitation in order to haul their total vision up into the light. (You want to ask, particularly, if any of them had ever read Aramis.)
Weirdly enough, the whiff of Gesamtkunstwerk I caught off of Reinventing reminded me of nothing so much as a work you’d be hard-pressed to think of as anything but its polar opposite, J.H. Crawford’s Carfree Cities. That, too, is a work where an ungodly amount of effort has been lavished on detailed depictions of the clean-slate future…and that, too, strikes me as refusing to engage the world as it is.
Maybe I wind up so critical of these dueling visions of future cities and mobility in them precisely because they are total solutions, and I’m acutely aware of my own weakness for and tendency toward same. I don’t think I’d mind, at all, living in one of Crawford’s carfree places, nor can I imagine that the MIT cityscape would be anything but an improvement on the status quo (if the devil was hauled out of its details and treated to a righteous ass-whupping). But to paraphrase one of my favorite philosophers, you go to the future with the cities, vehicles and people you have, not the ones you want. I have to imagine — have to — that the truly progressive and meaningful mobility intervention has a lot more to do with building on what people are already doing, and that’s even stipulating the four points above.
Bolt-on kits. Adaptive reuse. Provisional and experimental rezoning. Frameworks, visualizations and models that incorporate existing systems and assets, slowly revealing them (to users, planners, onlookers) to be nothing other than the weavings of a field, elements of a transmobility condition. And maybe someone whose job it is to account for everyone sidelined by the sleek little pods, left out of the renderings when the New Mobility was pitched to its sponsors.
Bottom line: this book is totally worth buying, reading and engaging if you have even the slightest interest in this topic. Its spinal arguments are very well framed, very clearly articulated, constructed in a way that makes them very difficult to mount cogent objections to…and almost certainly irrelevant to the way personal urban mobility is going to evolve, at least at the level of whole systems. And that’s the trouble, really, because so much of the value in the system described in these pages only works as a holism.
Like my every other negotiation with Bill Mitchell’s thought, including both engagements with his work and encounters in person, I want to be convinced. I want to believe. I want to be seduced by the optimism and the confidence that these are the right answers. But ultimately, as on those other occasions, I’m left with the sense that there are some important questions that have gone unasked, and which could not in any event have been satisfactorily answered in the framework offered. It may or may not say more about me than it does about anything else, but I just can’t see how the folks on the 33 Stanyan fit into the MIT futurama.
Just in case folks here in town are feeling neglected, fear not: we’re doing events here as well.
As part of Helsinki’s World Design Capital 2010 Ideas Forum, and collaboration with our good friends at Nordkapp, I’m delighted to announce a workshop called “Touchscapes: Toward the next urban ecology.”
Touchscapes is inspired, in large part, by our frustration with the Symbicon/ClearChannel screens currently deployed around Helsinki, how little is being done with them, and how far short of their potential they’ve fallen. Our sense is that we are now surrounded by screens as we move through the city — personal devices, shared interactive surfaces, and now even building-sized displays — and if thinking about how to design for each of these things individually was hard enough, virtually nobody has given much thought to how they function together, as a coherent informational ecosystem.
Until now, that is, because that’s just what we aim to do in the workshop. Join us for a day of activity dedicated to understanding the challenges presented by this swarm of screens, the possibilities they offer for tangible, touch-based interaction, and their implications for the new urban information design. We’ll move back and forth between conceptual thinking and practical doing, developing solid ideas about making the most meaningful use of these emerging resources culturally, commercially, personally and socially.
Attendance is free, but spaces in the workshop are limited, so I recommend you sign up
at Nordkapp on the Facebook event page as soon as you possibly can. See you on the 22nd!
Crossposted with Do projects.
The response to the Systems/Layers walkshop we held in Wellington a few months back was tremendously gratifying, and given how much people seem to have gotten out of it we’ve been determined to set up similar events, in cities around the planet, ever since. (Previously on Do, and see participant CJ Wells’s writeup here.)
We’re fairly far along with plans to bring Systems/Layers to Barcelona in June (thanks Chris and Enric!), have just started getting into how we might do it in Taipei (thanks Sophie and TH!), and understand from e-mail inquiries that there’s interest in walkshops in Vancouver and Toronto as well. This is, of course, wonderfully exciting to us, and we’re hoping to learn as much from each of these as we did from Wellington.
What we’ve discovered is that the initial planning stages are significantly smoother if potential sponsors and other partners understand a little bit more about what Systems/Layers is, what it’s for and what people get out of it. The following is a brief summary designed to answer just these questions, and you are more than welcome to use it to raise interest in your part of the world. We’d love to hold walkshops in as many cities as are interested in having them.
Systems/Layers is a half-day “walkshop,” held in two parts. The first portion of the activity is dedicated to a slow and considered walk through a reasonably dense and built-up section of the city at hand. What we’re looking for are appearances of the networked digital in the physical, and vice versa: apertures through which the things that happen in the real world drive the “network weather,” and contexts in which that weather affects what people see, confront and are able to do.
Participants are asked to pay particular attention to:
- Places where information is being collected by the network.
- Places where networked information is being displayed.
- Places where networked information is being acted upon, either by people directly, or by physical systems that affect the choices people have available to them.
You’ll want to bring seasonally-appropriate clothing, good comfortable shoes, and a camera. We’ll provide maps of “the box,” the area through which we’ll be walking.
This portion of the day will take around 90 minutes, after which we gather in a convenient “command post” to map, review and discuss the things we’ve encountered. We allot an hour for this, but since we’re inclined to choose a command post offering reasonably-priced food and drink, discussion can go on as long as participants feel like hanging out.
Do projects’ Nurri Kim and Adam Greenfield plan and run the workshop, with the assistance of a qualified local expert/maven/mayor. (In Wellington, Tom Beard did a splendid job of this, for which we remain grateful.)
We feel the walkshop works best if it’s limited to roughly 30 participants in total, split into two teams for the walking segment and reunited for the discussion.
In order for us to bring Systems/Layers to your town, we need the sponsorship of a local arts, architecture or urbanist organization — generally, but not necessarily, a non-profit. They’ll cover the cost of our travel and accommodation, and defray these expenses by charging for participation in the walkshop. In turn, we’ll ensure both that the registration fee remains reasonable, and that one or two scholarship places are available for those who absolutely cannot afford to participate otherwise.
If you’re a representative of such an organization, and you’re interested in us putting on a Systems/Layers walkshop in your area, please get in touch. If you’re not, but you still want us to come, you could try to put together enough participants who are willing to register and pay ahead of time, so we could book flights and hotels. But really, we’ve found that the best way to do things is to approach a local gallery, community group or NGO and ask them to sponsor the event.
At least as we have it set up now, you should know that we’re not financially compensated in any way for our organization of these walkshops, beyond having our travel, accommodation and transfer expenses covered.
Our schedule tends to fill up 4-6 months ahead of time, so we’re already talking about events in the (Northern Hemisphere) spring of 2011. And of course, it’s generally cheapest to book flights and hotels well in advance. If you think Systems/Layers would be a good fit for your city, please do get in touch as soon as you possibly can. As we’ve mentioned, we’d be thrilled to work with you, and look forward to hearing from you with genuine anticipation and excitement. Wellington was amazing, Barcelona is shaping up to be pretty special, and Taipei, if we can pull it off, will be awesome. It’d mean a lot to us to add your city to this list. Thanks!
So I’ve been working my way through the late Spiro Kostof’s monumental study The City Shaped over the last few weeks, as I’ve found the time, and it’s been one of the most voluptuously enjoyable reading experiences I’ve had in years. If Kostof’s prose is occasionally a little turgid, the payoffs are both genuine and reliably regular. The book has already blown my mind once, and continues to stop me in my tracks every few paragraphs, so I can have another swallow or two of coffee and ponder what I’ve read.
This is not to say that it isn’t also, on occasion, fairly depressing. There’s a specific historical example — or, I guess, set of examples — that Kostof uses to challenge the notion that there’s a useful distinction to be made between planned cities and more “organic” processes of urban structuration. It’s what happens in city after city in the few centuries following the fall of Rome:
The background for the urban retrenchment and readjustment in post-Roman Europe is well known — depopulation, reduced circumstances, and a social revolution that consigned towns built for a pagan culture…to the monotheistic religions…
With the impairment of municipal controls in the post-Roman city, natural movement soon carved shortcuts through the large rigid blocks of the grid. Tracks skirting or crossing the ruins of those public buildings for which there was no longer any use also crystallized into new streets. (p. 48)
“Impairment of municipal controls”! Yeah: otherwise known as “having anyone who might stand in their fur-swathed way being put to the sword by barbarians.” Here’s the motif again, in these comments on the “superimposition of a medieval agrarian settlement pattern over a Roman grid” at the German town of Grier, a few pages later:
By the 12th century a greatly contracted Trier had redrawn its defensive perimeter, excluding about a third of the area formerly enclosed. The great Roman public institutions…thermae, amphitheater, and forum — were abandoned, their ruins appropriated for private use. (p. 50)
In reading these simple, flat, declarative statements, I can’t help but translate them into more visceral terms — and truly, the world implied by them could not possibly be less pretty. Outside the city gates, The Road; within, a bleak bürgerlich peace, imposed and maintained by a brutally patriarchal familial order. For centuries. The sheer human waste involved reminds me of that ultimate dork-elegiac image of my childhood: the Rick Sternbach illo, in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, of the Roman starship launched by a culture that had never sacked the library at Alexandria.
This was Christian Europe. Elsewhere, of course, there was the superimposition of a different structuring logic, no less inimical to any notion of a public sphere. From pp. 62-63:
Neighborhood cohesion based on kinship, tribal affiliation or ethnicity was strong enough…to re-arrange an inherited pre-Muslim grid of Greco-Roman origin, and fuse and invert its [public-facing modular elements] into exclusive superblocks…
How was this privatized urban order wrought? The main thing to remember is that city-form was allowed to work itself out subject only to the respect of custom, ownership, and the Muslim’s right to visual privacy. You were not told what to do, what kind of city to design; you were only enjoined from doing things that threatened accepted social behavior. The concern for privacy, for example, determined where doors and windows would go on building fronts and how high buildings would rise. Visual corridors were consequently avoided, whether at the fine scale of a cluster of houses, or in the broader sense of urban vistas. More basically, this concern asserted itself in the introversion of the house, the appearance toward the street being unimportant.
Sure, the language verges on loaded here. Even putting that to the side, though, I’d be a lot more comfortable with this thought of designing for privacy if I didn’t primarily understand it to mean a proprietary concern for the visibility of women, and the concomitant “promotion of virtue and the suppression of vice.”
Medieval Islamic urbanism had some fairly impressive provisions, and in its later stages at least gave rise to by far the most cosmopolitan cities the pre-modern world would ever know. But living out one’s life in a world built on bonds of “kinship, tribal affiliation or ethnicity” sounds nightmarish to me — as nightmarish as anything cooked up by medieval Christendom, if not more so, and I’m a man.
What’s clear to me is that, as both Islam and Christianity literally and physically turned away from Roman notions of public space, a broad sweep of the world that had once been knit together shattered into ten thousand mutually incommunicant particles. Provinces into towns and bishoprics; towns into isolar, fortified blocks; streets into passages. And free citizens into, at best, villagers — unless you happened to be female, in which case you became something with the status and value of property.
For, again, a thousand, maybe fifteen hundred years. Call it forty generations.
I already knew this story, and so did you, but Koslof’s immensely thorough and detailed review of the physical evidence brought the human cost home to me in a way few other texts ever have. Whatever you think about Empire — and in its current incarnation, I cannot possibly be numbered among its fans — it’s sobering to be reminded of what generally comes in the wake of its passing.
• Further reading:
- The wonderful “How to Build a City: Roman Operating System,” in the Harvard Project on the City volume Mutations. (On p. 3, this PDF offers a brief taste, but believe me, it’s worth digging up the full text.)
This last installment of our series (I, II) on networked mobility is more of a coda than anything else, and it goes directly to the question of systemic cost, and who bears it. (In the interest of full disclosure, I ought to mention that I’ve been having some lovely conversations with Snapper, the company that provides farecard-based payment services to the transit riders of Wellington, and now Auckland as well, and that I have a stake in the success of their endeavor.)
Any time you’re shifting atoms on the scale presented by even a small town’s transit infrastructure, there’s obviously going to be expense involved, and that has to be recovered somehow. Maintaining such a network once you’ve brought it into being? Another recurring expense, on a permanent basis. Rolling stock, of course, doesn’t grow on trees. Training and paying the front- and back-of-house staff — the people who oversee operations, design the signs, drive the trams, clean the stations, even the folks who get to snap on blue latex and haul the belligerent piss-drunks off the buses — another enormous ongoing outlay. Pensions, unplanned overtime, insurance coverage: these things don’t pay for themselves. All stipulated.
So why do I still believe that transit ought to be free to the user?
Because access to good, low- or no-cost public institutions clearly, consistently catalyzes upward social mobility. This was true in my own family — the free CUNY system was my father’s springboard out of the working class — and it continues to be quantifiably true in the context of urban transportation. The returns to society are the things most all of us, across the center of the political spectrum broadly defined, at least claim to want: greater innovation, a healthier and more empowered citizenry, and an enhanced tax base, for starters.
I’m going to make a multi-stage argument, here, first about the optimal economic design of public transit systems, and later about how the emergent networked technologies I’m most familiar with personally might best support the measures and policies I believe to be most sound. Most of what you’re about to read is bog-standard public-policy stuff; only toward the end does it veer toward the kind of Everyware-ish material regular readers of this blog will be comfortable with, and everyone else may find a little odd. Politically, its assumptions ought to be palatable to a reasonably wide swath of people, from social democrats on the center-left to pro-business Republicans on the right; with suitable modifications, anarchosyndicalists shouldn’t find too much that would give them heartburn.
- Let’s start with the unchallenged basics. Access to reliable transportation allows people to physically get to jobs, education and vital services (e.g. childcare) they might not otherwise.
- Jobs obviously have a direct effect on household wealth; post-secondary education tends to open up higher-paying employment opportunities, and generates other beneficial second-order effects; and services like reliable childcare allow people to accept (formal and informal) employment with time obligations they would not otherwise be able to accommodate.
- A regional transportation grid sufficiently supple to connect the majority of available jobs with workers rapidly and efficiently is never going to be cheap.
- The return on such an investment is, however, considerable — when savings due to reduced road and highway depreciation, etc., are considered as well as direct benefits, on the order of 2.5:1. This isn’t even remotely in the same galaxy as the kind of multiples that get VCs hot & bothered, but it’s not at all bad for a public-sector expenditure. (Note, too, that the proportion of systemic costs generally retired due to user fees is comparatively small.)
- Being able to spread the fixed costs of a transit system over a significantly expanded ridership would increase the economic efficiency of that system, and thus represent a different kind of savings. Given two types of riders — dependent, people for whom public transit is their only real option, and discretionary, folks who choose public transit over other modes only if it’s markedly cleaner, safer, more convenient, cheaper, etc. — how to maximize both?
- Increasing dependent ridership is relatively easy. I’m going to propose that a greater expansion in the number of transit riders would be achieved by reducing the cost of ridership from relatively-low to zero than by a comparable reduction from relatively-high to relatively- or even absolutely low. Another way of putting it is to say that a significant number of potential riders are dissuaded by the presence of any fare at all. (Strictly speaking, a reduction of fees to zero would be a Pareto-optimal outcome, though this is true only if we agree to consider genuine concerns like increased crowding and greater systemic wear-and-tear from higher loads as externalities. Which, of course, they are not.)
- Maxing out the number of discretionary riders is a little tougher. What both dependent and discretionary riders have in common, though, is the requirement that network apertures be located in as close proximity as is practically achievable to origins and foreseeable destinations. And here’s where the argument arcs back toward the things we we’ve been talking about over the last week, because the transmobility system described accommodates just this desire, by forging discrete modal components into coherent journeys. Trip segments dependent on more finely-grained modes like walking, shared bikes or shared cars, primary at origins and destinations, are designed to dovetail smoothly with the systems responsible for trunk segments, like buses, BRT, light rail, subways, metros and ferries.
∴ That transit system is of most social and economic value to a region which fuses the greatest number of separate transportation modes and styles into a coherent network; which minimizes friction at interline and intermodal junctures; and which does this all while presenting a cost to the rider no greater than zero.
Fully subsidizing any such system would be expensive…inarguably so, immoderately so. But if my conjecture is right — and oh, how I would love to see data addressing the question, one way or the other — a total subsidy produces disproportionate benefits even as compared to a generous subsidy. Success on this count would be the ultimate refutation of the zero-sum governance philosophy that took hold in the outsourcin’, rightsizin’ States during the 1990s, and has more recently and unaccountably migrated elsewhere. (I say “unaccountably” because you’d think people would have learned from America’s experience with what happens when you leave things in the hands of a “CEO President.” And also because, well, there hasn’t turned out to be much in the way of accountability for all of that, has there?) Municipalities ought to be conceiving of transit fees not as a potential revenue stream, but as a brake on a much bigger and more productive system.
To me, this isn’t a fantasy, but rather a matter of attending to the demands of basic social justice. For all too many, bad transport provisioning means getting fired because they couldn’t get to work on time, despite leaving the house at zero-dark-thirty. Or not getting hired in the first place, because they showed up late to the interview. Or not being able to take a job once offered, because the added expense of an extra bus trip to put the baby in daycare would burn every last cent one might otherwise eke out of a minimum-wage gig. Anyone who’s ever been trapped by circumstances like these intimately understands cascading failure in the for-want-of-a-nail mode. (Not buying it? See if you can’t dig up a copy of Barbara Ehrenreich’s seminal Nickel and Dimed.)
I’ve recently and persuasively seen privilege defined — and thanks, Mike, for digging up the link — as when one’s “social and economic networks tend to facilitate goals, rather than block them.” As I sit here right now, my mobility options are as infinitely finely grained as present-day practices and technologies can get them: which is to say that my transportation network, too, facilitates the accomplishment of whatever goal I devise for it, whether that means getting to the emergency room, my job, the SUNN O))) gig, the park or the airport. What I’ve here called “transmobility” is an opportunity to use our best available tools and insights to extend that privilege until it becomes nothing of the sort.
Finally: How do I expect my friends at Snapper to make any money, if everything I imagine above comes to pass? Even stipulating that cost to user is zero, there are multiple foreseeable transmobility models where a farecard is necessary to secure access and to string experiences together, before even considering the wide variety of non-fare-based business use cases. And anyway, my job is to help people anticipate and prepare for emerging opportunity spaces, not to artificially preserve the problem to which they are currently the best solution.
OK, I’ve gone all SUPERTRAIN on you for umpty-two-hundred words now; I need a break, and I’m sure you do too. I fully expect, though, that two or maybe even three of you will have plowed all the way to the bottom of this, and are even now preparing to launch the salvos of your corrective discipline, in an attempt to redress faulty assumptions, inflated claims & other such lacunae in my argumentation as you may stumble over. Trust me when I say that all such salvos will be welcome.
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.
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.
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.
This is a quickish post on a big and important topic, so I’d caution you against taking any of the following too terribly seriously. Blogging is generally how I best think things through, though, so I’d be grateful if you’d bear with me as I work out just what it is I mean to say.
In the Elements talk I’ve been giving for the past year or so, I make a series of concatenated assertions about the near-future evolution of urban mobility in the presence of networked informatics. What I see happening is that as the prominence in our lives of vehicles as objects is for most of us eclipsed by an understanding of them as networked services, as the necessity of vehicular ownership as a way to guarantee access yields to on-demand use, our whole conception of modal transportation will tend to soften into a more general field condition I think of as transmobility.
As I imagine it, transmobility would offer us a quality of lightness and effortlessness that’s manifestly missing from most contemporary urban journeys, without sacrificing opportunities for serendipity, unpressured exploration or the simple enjoyment of journey-as-destination. You’d be freer to focus on the things you actually wanted to spend your time, energy and attention on, in other words, while concerns about the constraints of particular modes of travel would tend to drop away.
When I think of how best to evoke these qualities in less abstract terms, two memories come to mind: a simple coincidence in timing I noticed here in Helsinki not two weeks ago, and a more richly braided interaction I watched unfold over a slightly longer interval during a trip to Barcelona last year.
The first was something that happened as I was saying goodbye to a friend after meeting up for an afterwork beer the other day. It was really just a nicely giftwrapped version of something I’m sure happens ten thousand times a day, in cities across the planet: we shook hands and went our separate ways at the precise moment a tram glided to a stop in front of the bar, and I had to laugh as he stepped onto it without missing a beat and was borne smoothly away.
A whole lot of factors in space and time needed to come into momentary alignment for this to happen, from the dwell time and low step-up height of the tram itself to the rudimentary physical denotation of the tram stop and the precise angle at which the bar’s doorway confronted the street. Admittedly, service and interaction designers will generally only be able to speak to some of these issues. But what if we could design mobility systems, and our interfaces to them, to afford more sequences like this, more of the time?
The second image I keep in mind speaks more to the opportunities presented by travel through a densely-textured urban fabric, and how we might imagine a transmobility that allowed us to grasp more of them.
This time, I was lucky enough to capture the moment in a snapshot: the woman on the bicycle casually rode up to the doorway, casually engaged a friend in conversation, casually kissed her on the cheek and casually pedaled away. The entire interaction, from start to end, may have taken two minutes, and the whole encounter was wrapped with an ineffable quality of grace, as if we’d stumbled across some Gibsonian team of stealth imagineers framing a high-gloss advertisement for the Mediterranean lifestyle.
Again, the quality I so admired was enabled by the subtle synchromesh of many specific and otherwise unrelated design decisions: decisions about the width of the street and its edge condition, about the placement of the doorway and the size of the bike wheels. But it also had a great deal to do with the inherent strengths of the individual bicycle as a mode of conveyance, strengths shared with skateboards, scooters and one’s own feet — among them that the rider has an relatively fine degree of control over micro-positioning and -routing, and that she alone decides when to punctuate a trip with stops and starts.
Watching what happened spontaneously when people were afforded this degree of flexibility made it clear to me that this, too, was a quality you’d want to capture in any prospective urban mobility system. And that to whatever extent we possibly could, we ought to be conceiving of such systems so they would afford their users just such moments of grace.
So on the one hand, we have just-in-time provisioning of mobility, via whatever mode happens to be closest at hand (or is otherwise most congenial, given the demands of the moment). On the other, a sense that any given journey can be unfolded fractally, unlocking an infinitude of potential experiences strung along its length like pearls. It’s not hard to see that these desires produce, at the very least, a strong tension between them, and that we’ll have to be particularly artful in providing for both simultaneously.
How might we balance all of these contradictory demands, in designing networked mobility systems that represent urban space and the challenge of getting through it in terms human beings can relate to? This question brings us to something we’ve discussed here before — the classically Weiserian notion of “beautiful seams” — and it’s a topic we’ll take up in Part II of our series on transmobility.