nyc transit

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).

Networked Traffic Signals – a Step Towards Better Surface Transportation

As well as building efficient cars, Audi and BMW are taking steps to improve efficiency of driving.  Audi’s travolution project and BMW’s Traffic Technology and Traffic Management group are attempting to reduce unnecessary fuel consumption and congestion by working on “smart traffic lights”.

Audi’s “phase assistant” traffic lights are equipped with a Multi-Media Interface (MMI) screens, which use wireless networks to allow vehicles to communicate directly with the traffic-lights. Audi has recently tested their newest Travolution innovation in Ingolstadt, Germany.  The traffic light communicates a signal to the car, and displayed on the car’s information screen near the dashboard, is the ideal speed at which the driver should proceed. If the light is about to change from yellow to green, the driver will be informed to simply slow down, and to what speed; if the driver must stop at a red light, he will know how long he will be stopped.  By reducing the time at a standstill and cutting fuel consumption of acceleration, apparently, “exhaust emissions could be lowered by about two million tons of carbon dioxide [in Germany] annually, equivalent to a reduction of approximately 15 percent in carbon dioxide from motor vehicles in urban traffic”.

BMW is working on a system that adjusts traffic light signals depending on traffic volume.

“Simply by changing the timing of traffic lights on a test stretch of roadway in Munich, the engineers were able to nearly double the fuel efficiency of a BMW 530d test vehicle—from 22 mpg to 42 mpg. That being an idealized situation, the company expects an overall 10 to 15 percent decrease in urban fuel consumption due to smart traffic signaling.

BMW has been testing this system in Munich, Germany, and they have been recently collaborating with US DOT officials about bring these networked traffic signals to the US.

Hopefully, New York City adopts some of these programs.  But for now, the NYC DOT is in the midst of implementing a federally-funded “Smart Light” project to install traffic signals in 33 high-traffic arteries throughout Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx that are better timed according to traffic fluctuations, to reduce congestion and decrease fuel consumption.

Car Sharing in Hoboken: Why Couldn't it Work in New York?

Why can’t New Yorkers share cars? A car-sharing program across the river in Hoboken, New Jersey piques the curiosity of the City Critic, in the New York Times:

Corner Cars, the brainchild of Ian Sacs, Hoboken’s enthusiastic director of parking and transportation, is only a few weeks old, with just a couple of hundred users so far. It’s too soon to measure any impact. But in other communities, studies have shown that for every car that can be rented by the hour, 6 to 20 drivers have liked the experience so much, they’ve given up the car they owned. Across the country there is even a growing market in peer-to-peer car sharing — informal networks of car owners and car needers with no corporation to mediate.

“I think the part that’s really fascinating,” says Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, “is the behavioral response of users.”

“What is it about car sharing that causes people to sell their cars or forfeit a car?” she said.

The expense of car ownership is part of it, but she also sees a connection to larger social forces — “a growing culture of sharing,” of “social networks and the creation of communities through instant information.”

[“Traffic” author Tom] Vanderbilt likened it to the difference between paying to acquire and “park” a huge collection of CDs and simply streaming the music you want, when you want it, from the Internet.

There are a number of obstacles to making a car-sharing program work in New York City however, including alternate side of the street parking and the cost of a parking space (which would have to be borne by users or the sharing organizer, or both). Hertz pays Hoboken $100 per spot per month.

How much more would a rental company be willing to pay? Or would someone else with an interest in seeing fewer cars on the street — like real estate developers, who might like to build smaller garages in their buildings — agree to kick in the difference?

Then there’s the biggest challenge of all: the determination of some New Yorkers, no matter the logical argument against it, to own a car. Is there any dollars-and-cents argument that could persuade New York’s discretionary drivers to give up their cars?

“I asked that question back when I was in city government in the ’70s and ’80s,” said Sam Schwartz, the transportation engineer who was once New York’s deputy commissioner of transportation. “In the ’80s we did several focus groups and we tried to find out what made them drive. And a very common theme is that they felt they were smarter than the people down in the tube. They’re the Brahmins. They deserve it.” He added, “I never heard of it anywhere else.”

Could more and better options change that?

Transit Gets Social in New Taxi Concepts

New York City has been running a “Taxi of Tomorrow” contest, soliciting designs for a new vehicle. According to the Times’ City Room blog yesterday, one feature suggested by multiple entrants has been conversation-style seating—three seats facing forward and one facing back in one example.

It’s a change that acknowledges the significance of human interaction in the process of getting from one place to another. People aren’t just cargo to be shuttled about. That’s a central point about Weeels too. We believe that users are up for being proactive in the process of their own transportation. That participation is what makes ride sharing possible.

Conversation-style seating focuses on the social aspects of transit in a different, but consistent way. As exciting as that trend is, the aesthetics of the conversation-style submission City Room looked at might not suit everyone…

"Limited Unlimited" Metro Cards, Starting 2011

The MTA is doing away with unlimited ride options, but keeping the name. As The Times put it yesterday:

And the authority intends to strain the English language, along with riders’ pocketbooks: limits could be placed on the so-called unlimited MetroCards, which offer monthly and weekly passes for the bus and subway system. The monthly pass, in turn, could cost about $100 a month, up from $89 today.[…] The “limited unlimited” plan, first reported by The New York Post, would cap the number of rides that can be taken on a monthly pass to about three a day, requiring heavier users of the system to pay more if they exceed the limit.

The change is certain to upset more than a few riders, but the MTA is trying to close a massive budget shortfall and has already been cutting services. “We are already providing less, there’s nothing left to do but charge you more” probably isn’t going to sit well as an explanation though.

This makes a big difference for how Weeels might be useful. Our homepage mentions finding a middle ground between a subway fare and the cost on an unshared cab ride, but for a lot of New Yorkers subway rides are free—or rather, an additional subway ride doesn’t cost any more per month. But now that there’s a cost to taking the train—either using up part of one’s monthly allotment or paying the additional fee for going over—the calculation changes a bit. A lot of people aren’t going to be pleased with that fact, but the important thing from our perspective is to ask: “given the alternatives available, how can we make them most efficient?”

Sharing rides seems like a good place to start. Download the app and give it a try!

NYC mayor suggests commuters share vans

The mayor is proposing a new way for commuters to get to work after their bus routes are canceled.

Mayor Bloomberg announced Tuesday that van sharing will be tested in areas throughout the city where buses are being eliminated. The transit agency will cut 23 bus routes citywide this weekend.

Commuters can pay $2 to be picked up and dropped off at designated locations.

Drivers and vans will be licensed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Commuter vans are currently prohibited from driving along bus routes.

Officials said three to six routes will be tested. Van locations and additional details will be figured out in the next few weeks.

Read more at The New York Post