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Weeels Talks About Networking, Excess Capacity, and Repair at Urban Omnibus

The online magazine Urban Omnibus places a wonderful emphasis on design, but it’s also a street-side enthusiast of a related subject: smartly distributing resources in a way that can improve our cities, from private cars to office space to regional rail.

So Dave and I were delighted to talk to the editor, Cassim Shepard, about some of the thinking behind Weeels and how we got started. Here’s a longish excerpt (and read the whole thing here):

UO: The excess capacity in existing infrastructure is something we think about a lot. Say a little more about how this line of thought influenced you as you came up with Weeels? David: I started thinking seriously about using existing infrastructure as a design strategy after reading Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building. He dedicates a chapter to repair that makes the case for re-use (“Every act of building…is an act of repair”), not from an ecological perspective, but from a truly environmental perspective.

Christopher Alexander is particularly interested in the positive potential of concerted human attention — if we are all repairers/builders, then our environment can be exponentially denser, richer, etc. I see that ethic in projects that deal with excess capacity as well – information and information technology are used as tools to activate or accentuate human agency and attention. Weeels poses this question explicitly by providing an opportunity for a large community of users to improve their environment by acting together.

I love trains, but the train infrastructure in the United States is impoverished. If you’re going to think about mobility in the context of the United States, you have to address the automobile directly. So I started to ask, What if the car is not a private transit vehicle, but a public transit vehicle?

Something about the idea seemed inevitable to me, perhaps the correspondence between our digital information systems and physical road/car systems. I built some computer models to approximate the behaviors of these socialized cars. Then the iPhone came out and all of a sudden many of my ideas seemed less like science fiction. So I started mocking up a smart-phone interface — and a few years later, here we are…

Alex: The advent of social networking, largely with the rise of Facebook, held out the promise of an interesting technological solution to excess capacity: more responsive shared knowledge, and the many efficiency benefits that could come with it. Imagine a smart version of Craigslist. Now, for instance, we could perhaps know if someone in our friend group was getting rid of a book that we wanted to read — or had extra room in their car or in their cab….

Weeels appeals to me because it makes use of our networks to tackle a very straightforward problem that we intuitively know can and should be solved through sharing. Potentially, its solution is a very elegant one: Weeels unites our need for mobility, our desire to save money and our responsibility to be more efficient in our use of natural resources, all underwritten by our willingness to share.

UO: Given the trouble the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) has had setting up cab sharing stations that are actually used in Manhattan, how do you see Weeels as a successful tool?

Alex: Rather than asking people to wait at a few locations for a cab, imagine that taxi stands can be anywhere…

It’s a really nice interview (and they gave our posters a shout-out too!). Thanks Cassim and the rest of the Urban Omnibus gang!

Remember to try Weeels this weekend (and let us know how it goes at feedback at weeels dot org).

Weeels on the Huffington Post

Our own Alex P. has written a great piece at the Huffington post called “Can We Build Transit Systems With Our Phones? Weeels Says Yes" and it really gets to the heart of what Weeels is all about:

The problem is an obvious one: think of all those cabs that are already going where you’re going. Think about all those taxis, trolling the streets, looking for passengers, wasting energy and taking up space, when they could be taking us where we need to go. And think of all those other people on the airport line, at your office, or outside the bar who are going your way too. Imagine social networks as transportation networks. We already use our phones to check in with our friends, to read reviews of shows or restaurants, to find out what to do. Our phones already help us decide where to go. Why shouldn’t they also help us get there?

Give the whole thing a read, and if you’ve got an iPhone give the app a download as well. Alex’s post helps put what we’re doing with that bit of software in perspective:

The impulse to share, so often seen as counter to a market economy, is actually deeply tied to our progress as a civilization. When we pool our information and our resources, we don’t just feel better about ourselves: we know more and we go farther.

To work, Weeels needs patient and dedicated users who are also enthusiastic about making social transit a reality—Weeels needs you, and all your friends.