Transit Tech – Mobility Lab https://mobilitylab.org Moving People... Instead of Just Cars Thu, 23 Mar 2017 18:29:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Bikeshare operators addressing rebalancing and other fixes to maximize reliability https://mobilitylab.org/2017/03/21/bikeshare-techies-rebalancing-maximize-reliability/ https://mobilitylab.org/2017/03/21/bikeshare-techies-rebalancing-maximize-reliability/#respond Tue, 21 Mar 2017 15:51:50 +0000 https://mobilitylab.org/?p=21621 Other programmers at CaBi Hack Night sought to better understand riding connections between stations and data accessibility issues Bike rebalancing is one of the most costly and inefficient issues that bikeshare systems face. The constant need for rebalancing manifests most frustratingly in “dockblocking,” those times when riders reach a station to find all of its docks filled... Read more »

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Other programmers at CaBi Hack Night sought to better understand riding connections between stations and data accessibility issues

Bike rebalancing is one of the most costly and inefficient issues that bikeshare systems face.

The constant need for rebalancing manifests most frustratingly in “dockblocking,” those times when riders reach a station to find all of its docks filled and must keep riding on to the next one. It’s telling that many past Transportation Techies presentations have focused on how best to avoid being dockblocked, and that bikeshare operators are now focusing their efforts on addressing this and other demand problems.

Motivate, which operates Capital Bikeshare, is looking to riders to help address the problem in a pilot with New York City’s Citi Bike, which it also operates. The program, called Bike Angels, encourages participating customers to rebalance bikes as they ride. Those who ride a bike from a full station to one lacking bikes receive points that can be redeemed for raffle tickets and membership extensions. Motivate considers the program a success, with “angels” now providing more than 10 percent of the system’s rebalancing on busy days.

Alex Tedeschi, a GIS developer at bikeshare company Social Bicycles, dug into trip data for the Citi Bike fleet and mapped it to visualize how widespread rebalancing trips – rides taken against the commuting flow that return bikes to emptier stations – are for the system. While he found that rebalancing trips dropped 5 percent from 2013 to 2015, it is still a prevalent behavior.

citibike station type

Citi Bike station usage types, in three different colors.

According to Tedeschi, there are consistent patterns for availability and ridership for every station in the system. His breakdown of bike availability shows three distinct groups of station behavior, largely depending on their location in New York. Orange stations in the above map, for example, are places where riders will leave bikes in the morning, but not take them in the afternoon. While he calculated riders stand a 3.4 percent chance of being dockblocked overall, in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, the likelihood of striking out is closer to 8 percent.

Social Bicycles, whose systems are “dockless” bikeshare, claims to have found an alternative to rebalancing vans by offering financial incentives to return bikes to areas that are considered “hubs. Colin K. Hughes, Social Bicycle’s director of strategic development, explained how the computer “brain” on a bikeshare bike’s fender collects an array of GPS data and allows customers to park and find SoBi’s bikes anywhere within its service area.

But to ensure the bikes spread themselves evenly and that people without smartphones can find them, Social Bicycles systems have established hubs, small geographic areas rather than limited-capacity stations. Some systems incentivize users to return bikes to reliable areas and charge a convenience fee for parking elsewhere. Because of this structure, Social Bicycles found the vast majority of bikes make it back to a hub within three trips, reducing the worry that bikes will become stranded in far-away areas.

Know your network

Riding conditions also play a major role in how customers use bikeshare systems. The availability of comfortable routes contributes to how or if people bike, and Capital Bikeshare data creates a useful starting point to understand a jurisdiction’s overall network.

Tracy Hadden Loh presented an analysis of how Capital Bikeshare stations in Arlington County connect with each other along comfortable routes. While the average station connected to 19 others via low-stress streets, there were 21 with no such comfortable connections at all. These areas remain inaccessible to many potential cyclists, but Loh also showed how relatively small, stress-reducing changes would better connect Capital Bikeshare stations, and therefore the bike network overall.

James Graham of the District Department of Transportation shared the agency’s efforts to make Capital Bikeshare’s live data as accessible to as many people as possible. Since not everybody is a developer, Graham explained, changes to the data feed can be confusing, especially during disruptive events like January’s inauguration, when several bikeshare stations were closed. Now, by combining the system information with GIS-compatible code, Capital Bikshare’s data is more useful to more people and agencies.

Michael Schade added the latest Capital Bikeshare ridership data to his visualization tool that examines system-wide and neighborhood-specific bikeshare usage. The new 2016 data includes the first few months of bikeshare activity in Fairfax County. The map’s “heat map” function displays high ridership areas and, not surprisingly, shows high activity at downtown D.C. Metro stations, but the view can be toggled by jurisdiction to closely examine other areas. Schade also added a boundary tool that helps focus on specific areas by capturing stations in a neighborhood or a transit corridor like 16th Street.

And at last, someone has answered a question that only the most ambitious bikeshare riders have considered: how long would it take to bike to every Capital Bikeshare station in the system? Jonathan Street determined the most efficient route and found that, in order to reach all 441 locations, the shortest route is 264.6 miles. Supposedly the ride should take 32 hours and 10 minutes. Just imagine the time overage charge on that ride.

Photo: Colin Hughes of Social Bicycles presenting at CaBi Hack Night (M.V. Jantzen, Flickr, Creative Commons).

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Fully autonomous vehicles may make us safer, but could add to traffic https://mobilitylab.org/2017/03/20/autonomous-vehicles-safety-add-traffic/ https://mobilitylab.org/2017/03/20/autonomous-vehicles-safety-add-traffic/#comments Mon, 20 Mar 2017 16:18:32 +0000 https://mobilitylab.org/?p=21604 Split of benefits and costs could spark much-needed national transportation discussion Just what a future transportation system with autonomous vehicles looks like isn’t completely clear-cut. However, Kara Kockelman, a University of Texas-based leading academic on the subject, has predictions for their economic impacts. In a South by Southwest presentation last week, she put forth a... Read more »

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Split of benefits and costs could spark much-needed national transportation discussion

Just what a future transportation system with autonomous vehicles looks like isn’t completely clear-cut.

However, Kara Kockelman, a University of Texas-based leading academic on the subject, has predictions for their economic impacts. In a South by Southwest presentation last week, she put forth a rapid-fire, yet nuanced, synopsis of the numerous studies she’s completed with UT students on an approaching autonomous future.

“I don’t think these cars are going to help us with congestion. I think they’re going to make it worse,” Kockelman said, adding this this will be an area that will require crucial legislation. “But I think they will save us on safety.”

Safety is certainly a top selling point upon which auto and tech experts will rely as they push autonomous vehicles as a future transportation solution.

The nearly 33,000 U.S. traffic deaths and 6 million crashes in 2014, according to Kockelman, created a cost of more than $500 billion. Driver error caused more than 90 percent of those crashes, and she said AVs would dramatically reduce that number, since at least 40 percent of those deaths resulted from alcohol, drugs, fatigue, and/or distraction.

With 100 percent adoption of AVs, the country would gain $488 billion annually in “pain and suffering” avoided from car crashes. That equates to $1,530 each year per person in the United States.

The congestion side may be a much trickier message for auto and tech experts to pitch to the public. Kockelman calculated that, in 2014, traffic created 7 billion hours of delay and caused $160 billion in economic loss.

On top of that, the bonus of “productivity en route” would be a $645 billion gain to the economy each year.

Add together the two economic gains – pain and suffering plus productivity – and the country would save a whopping $1.4 trillion in costs. On the per capita side, that comes to $4,419 per person in the country.

However, Kockelman balances the positives with the many consequences that would likely domino throughout society, including:

  • Longer travel distances, including people more likely to take induced driverless trips to destinations they currently wouldn’t drive to due to stress or other factors
  • More driving trips by people who are presently unlicensed or have barriers to driving
  • Less air travel by passengers
  • Less rail travel by freight
  • Possibly larger, less-efficient vehicles for longer trips, and
  • More sprawling land use
SXSW AV

Kockelman and Loftus-Otway presenting at SXSW. Photo by author.

Kockelman continued, saying these side effects could, in turn, increase congestion and infrastructure damage in many places. This would create a need for “systems to be operated more efficiently, equitably, and sustainably, including incentives for ride-sharing and non-motorized travel, route guidance, credit-based congestion pricing, and micro-tolling.”

“We’re going to see a lot more travel, but hopefully we’ll travel together, so that will avoid congestion,” she said. Kockelman added that improved technology should make tolling more efficient and that better public transportation and true ridesharing (as opposed to Uber- and Lyft-like ride-hailing) will be keys along the autonomous path.

Perhaps most importantly, she and her co-presenter Lisa Loftus-Otway, also from UT-Austin, said AVs offer a momentary chance to have a national conversation about transportation in the U.S. – something that has never truly happened on this scale.

“We’ve never really had an honest discussion on what transportation costs us,” Loftus-Otway said. “Terminology matters and [for example, we] shouldn’t call it a gas tax. It’s really a usage fee. Growing up, I never really knew how we paid for transportation. I guess I used to think the road fairy paid for it.”

Hopefully the AVs that appear in the near-term will help people better understand how transportation works. And then again, it may take some deliberate, and creative, outreach to help people understand the issue.

“Hopefully you all have been inside [an autonomous vehicle],” Kockelman told the audience, before laughing, “I have … and it’s pretty boring.”

Photo: Busy freeway (Rafael Castillo, Flickr, Creative Commons).

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Will people ever share rides in small and mid-size cities? https://mobilitylab.org/2017/03/16/shared-rides-small-mid-size-cities/ https://mobilitylab.org/2017/03/16/shared-rides-small-mid-size-cities/#comments Thu, 16 Mar 2017 15:46:37 +0000 https://mobilitylab.org/?p=21579 Cities and providers face challenge of promoting shared options against the ease of drive-alone trips This week our communications director Paul Mackie is reporting from South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Why would there be much urgency in creating shared-mobility options in a place like Austin? RideAustin, Fasten, and others easily slipped in to take the... Read more »

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Cities and providers face challenge of promoting shared options against the ease of drive-alone trips

This week our communications director Paul Mackie is reporting from South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

Why would there be much urgency in creating shared-mobility options in a place like Austin?

RideAustin, Fasten, and others easily slipped in to take the place of Uber and Lyft when the industry leaders wouldn’t agree to the city’s driver-fingerprinting requirements. Ride-hailing is still doing well in Austin. But while ride-hailing may be helping some get around, the chances that it’s reducing traffic is likely slim at this point.

One of my RideAustin drivers made an excellent observation this week: there is no problem parking anywhere in town, so driving is simply what Austinites do. It is a place with some options, like bikeshare and light rail, that make it easy to be a multimodal citizen in the core, but they are often lost against the ease of driving for people who live more than a few miles out. For them, especially with very limited nearby transit, the personal car is king.

Where there may be hope in Austin: as ride-hailing continues apace, more of those rides could become shared. In fact, a large number of rides are made by tourists and late-night locals, and many of those are obviously shared rides. Where progress really needs to be made is during Austin’s rush hour. If commuters could start sharing those hailed rides, perhaps because of TDM outreach to employers, a major dent could be made in drive-time backups.

As the local transportation management association Movability Austin notes at its website: “The transportation system is at capacity into downtown during rush hours. And more growth is coming much faster than new transportation facilities can be built.” It’s an organization that helps Austin businesses, individuals, and others find better ways to travel that help individuals and the whole community.

In San Francisco, more than half of Uber’s and Lyft’s rides are taken through their carpooling services. A new study by Steve Strogatz and Carlo Ratti of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab found that between 60 percent and 95 percent of trips in big cities could be made into shared rides, with no more than a five-minute inconvenience for riders. There is no doubt that many trips could be shared, under the authors’ model, in many smaller metro areas.

Rasheq Zarif, the head of business innovation at Mercedes-Benz R&D North America, had an interesting take on this, from the perspective of a major car company. At a South By Southwest panel, he discussed a pilot in which his company partnered with Via in South Orange County, Calif. It’s an area with very little public transportation and miles of low-density housing.

“Surprisingly, we were able to change behavior. People liked to be picked up in an on-demand shuttle in 10 to 15 minutes. And they started interacting better and opened a bigger sense of community in that area. It got people to stop looking [down at their phones all the time] and start talking to each other,” Zarif said.

Mercedes-Benz plans to continue developing better routing methods for shared rides, but for now, that Via pilot has run its course in Orange County.

Zarif added, “We’re all so focused on getting from one thing to another and another. What’s kind of lost now in that everyone’s eating on the go, and we could get back to the idea of the family dinner.” Many people in the Orange County experiment responded positively to the idea of hopping in Via’s vans with neighbors or other community members.

While these are some of the positives, Zarif said one of the challenges is that “it’s very tough to pilot with transit agencies because there is a lot of bureaucracy.” Other broader ridesharing barriers include: the increased possibility that drivers and passengers become unhappy with the time and revenue costs of shared rides, lack of awareness that shared options even exist, low gas prices, insurance and liability concerns, free and heavily subsidized parking, and many other reasons.

According to Zarif, Mercedes-Benz is focusing on modifying the design of their cars in order to facilitate shared rides. That could include ways to reduce the need for added trips such as, for example, the ability for mail packages, dry cleaning, and even groceries to be dropped off in the trunk of the car while you’re downtown doing other errands. It could also extend to easier ways vehicles get cleaned and maintained.

But Zarif said the company plans to keep down the path of mobility rather than just automobile manufacturing. Perhaps demographics are on the company’s side, as the trend may be more generational. According to company research, a majority of people said they would be willing to let other people use their cars, with the highest numbers coming from Millennials and Generation Y respondents.

Then the next question might be: with only about 15 percent of Americans having used Uber or Lyft (almost entirely in major cities), how long will it take to reach beyond and build a critical mass of small-city Millennials who will share their rides?

Photo: Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com

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How often is that bike lane blocked? A crowdsourced tool takes a look. https://mobilitylab.org/2017/03/13/bike-lane-blocked-crowdsourced-tool/ https://mobilitylab.org/2017/03/13/bike-lane-blocked-crowdsourced-tool/#comments Mon, 13 Mar 2017 15:46:24 +0000 https://mobilitylab.org/?p=21490 It’s a common conversation topic among bike commuters: drivers block bike lanes all too often, and cities rarely seem responsive about it. This has been anecdotal for some time, but advocates in the Washington, D.C., region have been collecting some useful data and in order to develop a stronger case for better enforcement and safer... Read more »

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It’s a common conversation topic among bike commuters: drivers block bike lanes all too often, and cities rarely seem responsive about it. This has been anecdotal for some time, but advocates in the Washington, D.C., region have been collecting some useful data and in order to develop a stronger case for better enforcement and safer streets.

For example, an analysis of D.C. enforcement from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association found that “bike lane parking enforcement is perfunctory at best,” a situation that creates real safety issues for bicyclists and lessens the usefulness of biking infrastructure.

Across the Potomac in Arlington County, where this information is similarly difficult to find and quantify, biking advocate Chris Slatt built his own crowdsourcing site, “Parking Dirty.com,” to generate data where there was none. Slatt’s site asks users to check provided traffic cameras screenshots for infractions, with the goal of determining just how safe the lanes are for bicyclists and how often they are blocked.

Addressing a system problem

For drivers, momentarily blocking a bike lane may seem like a non-issue. But in practice, bicyclists encountering a parked car face the dangerous proposition of suddenly merging left into fast-moving traffic. Frequently blocked lanes create a stressful biking environment, which ultimately deters riders.

clarendon blvd evening

A sample screenshot from the site, pulled from a traffic camera. Note the car and FedEx truck blocking the lane.

Slatt, a member of Arlington’s Bicycle Advisory Committee and chair of WABA’s Action Committee for Arlington County, understood the challenge of documenting blocked lanes, and reached out to the area’s bicycling community tackle the task.

BAC members provided feedback on the most troublesome areas, from which Slatt chose the most-mentioned blocks, eventually looking into Arlington’s public traffic camera feeds to determine which ones have a reasonable view of the bike lanes in question. Relying on two cameras, one on Clarendon Boulevard at Wayne Street and one mid-block on Crystal Drive, the Parking Dirty site pulled one screenshot per minute for three 24-hour periods in September and October of last year.

The system then relied on participants to evaluate the screenshots, using majority rule to determine a photo’s status – at least two users must on whether or not a lane is blocked. Since he began promoting it, about 160 people have helped to build the tool’s dataset, which has revealed regularly blocked bike lanes. One block of Clarendon Boulevard was blocked from 25 to 47 percent of the time, depending on the day in question, and Crystal Drive’s bike lane was consistently above 60 percent.

Quantifying these obstructions does support bicyclists’ sense that this is a chronic issue. But there can still be a disconnect between concerns among cyclists and the police’s understanding of the issue. For example, one BAC member has brought up bike lane obstruction in the past with their police liaison, which the officer challenged by responding: if nobody is biking in a blocked lane, is it really blocked?

In practice, this means that the enforcement policy requires concerned citizens to report a blocked lane, at which point an officer is sent to fix it.

“That works if it’s an uncommon problem,” Slatt says. “But a systematic problem needs proactive enforcement. When the chances are greater than 50 percent that a lane is blocked … if it’s more likely than not the bike lane is obstructed,” then the call-to-report system doesn’t make sense, and proactive ticketing does.

parkingdirty-cc drive

Results from a September day on Crystal Drive. Source: ParkingDirty.com.

Informational barriers

Parking Dirty addresses part of a multifaceted campaign to improve bike safety in Arlington, part of which involves solving technological barriers to data collection.

For example, while it’s relatively simple for one to obtain D.C. traffic citation records, Slatt found barriers to doing so in Arlington. Slatt filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the county to view tickets police have written for blocking bike lanes. Unfortunately, only summary data is digitized, and anything related to drivers endangering cyclists is filed as “other.” Getting numbers on these citations would require digging through paper records.

While the numbers from Parking Dirty go a long way in articulating a common issue cyclists face, more complete information on how the police enforce road safety would provide a fuller picture that could better focus the conversation.

Towards safer lanes

Despite the barriers, Slatt believes Parking Dirty’s dataset is enough to kickstart a discussion toward more proactive enforcement of street safety, especially for people on bikes. He also explains that it’s important to remember that “this data is just for one or two blocks. But if one is blocked 30 percent of the time, and so are the two blocks before and after, it adds up quickly.”

Parking Dirty drives this point home by providing a data-based window into how biking feels for cyclists. At the very least, the information that Parking Dirty has collected creates a starting point to better examine and work with community members in a deeper push to create a bike-friendly, multimodal community.

Photo: Top, a sign at the beginning of the protected bike lane on South Hayes Street, in Crystal City, Arlington (Elvert Barnes, Flickr, Creative Commons).

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Visualizing a 10-minute walk’s worth of transportation connections https://mobilitylab.org/2017/03/10/walkshed-transportation-arlington/ https://mobilitylab.org/2017/03/10/walkshed-transportation-arlington/#respond Fri, 10 Mar 2017 18:06:56 +0000 https://mobilitylab.org/?p=21534 How far will 10 minutes of walking take you in Arlington? And which transportation options will you find? Mobility Lab’s tech advisor Michael Schade, inspired by a Twitter inquiry about walkshed visualisations, recently set out to create a localized walkshed tool that links walking to any number of transportation options. Speaking at last month’s walking-centric Transportation... Read more »

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How far will 10 minutes of walking take you in Arlington? And which transportation options will you find? Mobility Lab’s tech advisor Michael Schade, inspired by a Twitter inquiry about walkshed visualisations, recently set out to create a localized walkshed tool that links walking to any number of transportation options.

Speaking at last month’s walking-centric Transportation Techies meetup, Schade explained how he began working with the API – the application programming interface – of walkability-rating website Walk Score. Walk Score’s existing mapping tool generates a walking radius “bubble” over a given area, using Google Maps as the base map, and allows programmers to tweak a few small preferences.

transit walkshed

A transit-centric view from Ballston, Arlington.

To localize it to Arlington County, the tool incorporates data from the county’s Open Data Portal, bringing in additional options missing from Google Maps and the Walk Score API. Launched last year, the portal makes publicly available a wide array of data about Arlington, from maps of its streams to data on filled potholes. The locations of dedicated Zipcar and Enterprise carsharing spaces and ART bus stops all came from data hosted within the portal.

Lastly, a layer of the Arlington Bike Comfort map came from Arlington’s GIS Open Data site. Users looking for bike connections can toggle the colored biking routes onto the Google Maps base layer. By checking the relevant options, a map user at Court House (see screenshot at top) could determine that the Capital Bikeshare station at Key Boulevard and N. Vietch, a mere five-minute walk away, is a good option for them because of its location on a comfortable biking street.

Like any good open data project, the walkshed visualizer is a work in progress. Other layers of data for additional modes, street conditions, or destinations could be added in the future. What other features might it include to best represent walking connections and conditions in the area? Feel free to chime in below.

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Breaking the mold in the quest for the ultimate connected city https://mobilitylab.org/2017/03/09/breaking-mold-connected-city/ https://mobilitylab.org/2017/03/09/breaking-mold-connected-city/#respond Thu, 09 Mar 2017 22:17:17 +0000 https://mobilitylab.org/?p=21529 This is part 2 of a two-part series on how advocates can create connected cities. Part 1 examined public agencies reshaping their transportation priorities. Pinellas County, Fla., just west of Tampa Bay, is one of several local governments in the nation to essentially embed Uber and Lyft into the local transit system. Transit riders can... Read more »

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This is part 2 of a two-part series on how advocates can create connected cities. Part 1 examined public agencies reshaping their transportation priorities.

Pinellas County, Fla., just west of Tampa Bay, is one of several local governments in the nation to essentially embed Uber and Lyft into the local transit system. Transit riders can get $5 back if they use those ride-hailing companies to connect to a bus stop.

Such a program from the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority encourages a healthy public-private relationship and, more importantly, should make it easier for more people to not rely on private car ownership or be left in isolation because of their distance from transit.

Transportation should be viewed like a smartphone. It should allow everyone to be connected to opportunities throughout the rest of society, at reasonable and low cost. And this ride-hailing partnership with transit is a crucial example of how local governments can catch up and be responsive in a fast-moving world of technology-driven transportation options.

No longer should agencies partition buses and rail from all the newer private solutions. Simply put, shared services can be complements to transit. But this is just one way that cities can look beyond traditional thinking in their mission to better connect their transportation systems.

Public agencies must engage with private service providers

Like the auto companies that have begun aggressively investing in ride-hailing efforts, many transit agencies are ramping up efforts to form partnerships with providers like Uber and Lyft. Paratransit is one area ripe for cost savings and real-time service (rather than having to book rides days in advance) through transit agency use of private services like Lyft.

The major caveat here to work out is whether ride-hailing vehicles – with drivers who can spend lots of time driving in between fares – are actually making traffic in cities worse. The only place this has been measured, New York City – which has a unique, data-sharing contract with providers – shows that Uber and Lyft are worsening congestion. The research from the American Public Transportation Association, the University of California-Berkeley, and others have said the jury may still be out on the traffic impacts, but this is an area for local governments to concern themselves. Uber at least has taken steps to help the greater cause, having entered an agreement with Washington, D.C., and several other cities to share data with transportation planners in an effort to better manage traffic flows.

Once ride-hailing arrangements are smoothed out, the next great frontier is autonomous vehicles. In 2016, the U.S. government announced a $4 billion program for self-driving cars, and Pittsburgh took steps so Uber could use the city as an AV testing ground. How can other local governments feel comfortable and confident when considering to do what Pittsburgh has done? Or what Local Motors with its mini-bus Olli – formerly operating outside Washington, D.C. – is doing? For starters, cities need to map out all the pluses and minuses (especially financially) that AVs will bring. From there, they can implement regulations, policies, and plans to safely integrate in this mode of the future.

Don’t forget about transit

“The first thing we need to do is talk with our public institutions to try and make more partnerships, more connectivity, between the different modes, new and old,” said Paul Lewis, vice president of policy and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation, at a panel I moderated at this year’s TransportationCamp DC. “It’s not an easy task. Transit is one of the biggest areas we can do this.”

Indeed, the cities that create connections best will do so basing it off the existing core infrastructure of roads and mass transit. But we also can’t forget that to truly make this ultimate city work, people need to buy in to the concept of multimodalism. To help get there, companies like Ford  are leading the way toward one interactive pass or app that allows people to book, pay, and communicate with all travel options from anywhere. This seamlessness is key for the commute of the future.

Broadening the possibilities of the transit ride is also key. Where partnerships for transit might make the most sense is to have private companies “get people to transit from in-demand areas during off-peak hours,” according to Mobility Lab Director Howard Jennings, quoted in APTA’s Passenger Transport. This can reduce costs to transit agencies for pricey, low-ridership routes and bring in a wider customer base – a prospect that should be a more aggressive part of the mission for transit agencies. So-called “first-mile, last-mile” options are an area ripe for transit agencies to get involved, and some places are even going so far as to subsidize rides to and from transit. Orlando suburb Altamonte Springs, Fla., became the first city, about a year ago, to subsidize Uber rides to transit.

Another APTA report finds convincing evidence that on-demand modes, in many cases, complement – not replace – public transit. Transit consultant Jarrett Walker notes, “Many people who work inside of big companies [like Uber and Lyft] understand perfectly well how the profit motive conflicts with what you’d do if you were just trying to foster a better city, and many welcome regulation precisely to plug that gap.” As evidence appears that Uber may not be the answer to traffic dilemmas, the necessity for companies like it to work within a congestion-reducing framework grows even stronger.

And pricing itself will need to be worked out between all travel modes, which means car travel and parking prices need to reflect their true costs. When it’s cheaper to drive and park downtown than it is to take the bus or train or Uber, the multimodal, connected city goal will remain a fantasy. But there are signs of creativity to balance incentives: some European cities are paying residents to bike to work rather than drive.

Ideas for breaking molds

There are many directions cities could go to become “connected.” And while it could take larger cities with more staffing power to be able to do everything well, smaller cities could at least focus on a handful of these ideas, and do them well.

And as ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft get even more attractive as alternatives to transit, with dynamic in-ride app entertainment and cheaper casual-carpooling options, more and more transit agencies are examining how to use software like TransLoc that can make it easier to take services like Uber and Lyft to and from transit stations. Journalist Esther Dyson, who also spoke on my recent TransportationCamp panel, thinks this general idea can succeed far beyond city centers. “[Uber and Lyft] would have a real opportunity in small, less dense communities where there are people without jobs but with cars. They can dynamically schedule themselves,” she said, adding that hubs like hospitals and campuses could be ride-hailing hubs.

Parking is a ripe place for innovation, as it is generally overbuilt and underpriced. Santander, Spain, has become “the most connected city in Europe” because it’s focused on installing “smart” infrastructure such as sensors that monitor parking spaces. Sensor infrastructure can improve information about parking, and help people choose whether to drive or take other options.

Autonomous vehicles seem to be the elephant in the room. Cities want to prepare for them, but they don’t know how. Federal regulations and standards would certainly be a help in order to even the playing field, but there will likely be large shifts – more people might drive, parking and signage will need major reconfigurations, housing patterns will need to change – involved for the least-prepared places. A draft manifesto from several Cal Poly professors examines how AVs interact with pedestrians and people on bikes, but what about how AVs work with and complement mass transit? I’ve asked before: When cars can be summoned with a button and don’t require attention from humans, will it become even more difficult for transit to compete with the experience of autonomous vehicles? Grush Niles Associates have noted that planners should start mapping out various scenarios in which AVs could be linked into the existing transit foundations, including loops, small areas, large areas, cities, megaregions and routes where buses negate the need for AVs.

Biking, bikeshare (which increasingly see slight increases in travel share thanks to better bike parking and street infrastructure) and walking may soon have some company from electric additions: battery-powered people movers. Electric skateboards and hoverboards and electric bicycles could all soon close a lot of gaps in connecting people to transit options. It helps that 67 percent of those surveyed say they need a shower after a conventional bike trip, while 74 percent say they don’t after an e-bike trip, according to Portland State University’s Transportation Research and Education Center.

And last but far from least, transportation demand management – which includes clear information about options – presents an inexpensive, effective path for forging and solidifying those connections. Arlington Transportation Partners in Virginia works with 221 local organizations in its Champions program to make sure residents and employees know about the many transportation options throughout the county. Places are also learning that their front-line transit information – maps – simply need to be clearer, because most of us don’t understand them. And, finally, to catch up with the allure of the personal car, TDM and marketers can promote these options to connect in more exciting ways that portray transit as the norm.

Having the freedom to walk from home to take bikeshare to the subway to get to work, then maybe take a Zipcar on the way home, should present an exciting opportunity for cities. Racing towards the ultimate connected city could allow for places to provide innumerable benefits like improved traffic, health, safety, environmental conditions, and overall quality of life for many more people.

Photo by Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com

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Untangling the jumbled path towards the ultimate connected city https://mobilitylab.org/2017/02/28/untangling-path-towards-connected-city/ https://mobilitylab.org/2017/02/28/untangling-path-towards-connected-city/#respond Tue, 28 Feb 2017 16:19:17 +0000 https://mobilitylab.org/?p=21366 This is part 1 of a two-part series on how advocates can create connected cities, examining how public agencies can reshape their priorities. Part 2 will detail how they can then move beyond conventional projects. Smartphone owners feel connected much of the time, for better or worse. But shouldn’t that be the goal for physical... Read more »

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This is part 1 of a two-part series on how advocates can create connected cities, examining how public agencies can reshape their priorities. Part 2 will detail how they can then move beyond conventional projects.

Smartphone owners feel connected much of the time, for better or worse. But shouldn’t that be the goal for physical movement as well, to be literally that connected – with a transportation system that could take one anywhere at any time?

That’s a big ask. But what’s exciting is how realistic the vision is for cities that dramatically alter outdated transportation planning. And this is not just about the New Yorks and San Franciscos; auto-oriented towns and cities can develop completely new blueprints for how people get around.

Many people and organizations have taken cracks at defining the connected city. Often these delve into the realm of Internet of Things-type technology. And beacons, smart traffic lights, and sensors will be a big part of cities in the future.

But from Mobility Lab’s standpoint, we look at the connected city as more about access, and making sure people can get to jobs, shopping, family and friends, and healthcare as easy as possible. And that they can do this without owning a car if necessary. Affordable, efficient, easy access from anywhere, anytime is the heart of a “connected city.”

Finding new funding

Of course, the major elephant in the room is always funding, most of which still goes to highways and roads, which have both divided and connected our cities over the past century. The good news is that autonomous vehicles and an increasing focus on making places bikeable and walkable could offer avenues for bringing mass-transit funding up above its typical level of 20 percent of the overall transportation budget. The bad news is that it’s still unclear whether the growth of services like Uber and Lyft will compromise transit funding sources or expand their pool of possible riders.

“Fortunately, communities are increasingly willing to tax themselves” to fund transit expansions, says Darnell Grisby, director of policy development and research at the American Public Transportation Association, who spoke at an “Ultimate Connected City” panel I moderated at TransportationCamp DC in January. “There will be a whole new way that agencies are structured with new connectivity coming online.”

Public agencies must dramatically adjust their planning

The National League of Cities 2016 “Cities of the Future” report [PDF] made even clearer how cities are woefully prepared for new transportation technologies. Of the 68 metropolitan areas analyzed, only 3 percent considered the effects of app-based, on-demand companies like Uber and Lyft in their city plans. Only 6 percent considered the effects of driverless technology. Meanwhile, 50 percent have explicit plans for new highway construction.

The federal government has taken some recent steps in the right direction, with an Obama administration report [PDF: pages 34-35] recommending pilots, workforce training, company and city partnerships, and research into future transportation engineering for autonomous vehicles.

Some places are already making headway on these guidelines. In San Francisco, if new mobility providers meet the necessary requirements, the S.F. Office of Innovation’s new City Transportation Platform grants them access to public rights of way. On a smaller, short-term scale, Washington, D.C’s Metrorail has been aggressively asking customers how it can improve, notes that “competitors” are really partners in connecting the region, and has been implementing some customer suggestions. These are the kinds of elements that need to go into comprehensive, nimble, flexible local transportation plans.

New adhesives clarify for riders

New adhesives clarify for Metrorail riders where the end of six-car trains stop at the platform.

APTA’s Grisby adds, “We would need to re-invent government. How do we maintain social equity? How can we show we’re going to be responsible with taxpayer money while making these changes? All of these changes need capital, cash, and this requires trust. We need trust.”

Public agencies must see advantages to competing confidently

Despite some remaining hesitancy, city leaders are beginning to dabble in this space. Joshua Schank, LA Metro’s first chief innovation officer, says, “As long as we continue to run mass transit systems that are treated like social services, instead of treating them as if they’re trying to attract customers and they’re trying to compete, then you’re going to have real problems in terms of trying to get our capacity to be used more effectively.”

The vision statements in many of the U.S. DOT Smart City Challenge applications show the beginnings of lights turning on. But other local officials still have a long way to go to research and understand carsharing, ridesharing, new technologies, and the needs of their constituents. Getting all of this mobility right will be a significant competitive advantage for cities, according to a recent report from McKinsey and Bloomberg.

To make one or multiple connected cities happen, local governments – and perhaps the feds as well – will simply have to start jumping in the water more than they have so far. In Finland, a government bureau called Liikennelabra (Traffic Lab) works to bring inexpensive transit providers to cities. Part of the answer may be that simple – a more fluid array of public options.

“What an agency looks like today may look different 20 years from now. A transit agency might be a contract manager, partnering with all sorts of entities. The question is: can we encourage folks to try? To not be afraid of failure?” Grisby asks.

Many transit agencies are already on the right track, but often fail to communicate the true benefits of key transit service. Transit planner Jarrett Walker recently wrote:

“The most urgent thing transit agencies need to do, right now, is start talking more confidently about what their fixed-route, high-ridership transit service is achieving, so that they negotiate with the new players from a position of strength and confidence.”

One example: Seattle has consistently supported its bus and rail transit in recent years, drawing higher rates of transit ridership to its booming downtown in a time when bus ridership is dropping in most cities.

seattle bus - BeyondDC

Seattle buses, which are given dedicated space in parts of the city’s downtown.

Educating and informing connective habits

It’s a bit surprising how successful transit projects are across the country. We’re still largely a drive-alone culture in which carpool rates have fallen consistently since the 1980s. To truly have a connected city, where people can move around seamlessly, people must be willing to share rides, and they must be aware of the availability of these options.

There is indeed hope that people are increasingly understanding that they have non-driving transportation options available. More than 30 percent of households do not own a car in six of the 30 largest U.S. cities. And people want these options, as seems apparent by the 77 cities that applied for the Smart City Challenge and the influx of younger residents to places with transit and walking options.

Connected cities must be woven into the fabric of people’s lives. There’s little doubt that Los Angeles is successfully experimenting with this concept. LA Metro is seeing a surge of new light rail riders to Rams football games because the Expo line offers a much-better deal than expensive parking at the stadium. Coordination around big events is a great way to help change people’s habits, and LA’s Olympic committee wants to further embed non-car culture into the city through its planning for the 2024 Games.

Consumer-oriented technology certainly has a big role to play in educating people, too. Apps such as Metropia, which incentivizes people to drive or travel during off-peak hours, or like Mobidot, which helps people monitor and improve their travel behavior, offer new options. Education efforts like these might be key puzzle pieces for creating connected cities.

Next, a look into how cities are finding creative ways to enhance the connectivity of their transportation systems.

Photos, from top: D.C.’s Eastern Market, where Metro riders can connect to the DC Circulator or Capital Bikeshare (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com). A six-car Metrorail sticker (WMATA). Buses in Seattle (BeyondDC, Flickr, Creative Commons).

Mobility Lab technology reporter Andrew Carpenter contributed to this article.

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University of Maryland project looks to crowdsource an accessibility map of DC’s sidewalks https://mobilitylab.org/2017/02/15/umd-project-crowdsources-dc-sidewalks-accessibility/ https://mobilitylab.org/2017/02/15/umd-project-crowdsources-dc-sidewalks-accessibility/#respond Wed, 15 Feb 2017 18:31:07 +0000 https://mobilitylab.org/?p=21234 Other programmers at the recent Walk Hack Night presented data visualizations that explore walkability and walking connections in the Washington, D.C., region. Across the United States, 30.6 million Americans older than 15 live with mobility impairments, a significant portion of whom require an assistive aid like a walker or wheelchair. Despite progress since the Americans... Read more »

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Other programmers at the recent Walk Hack Night presented data visualizations that explore walkability and walking connections in the Washington, D.C., region.

Across the United States, 30.6 million Americans older than 15 live with mobility impairments, a significant portion of whom require an assistive aid like a walker or wheelchair. Despite progress since the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, it is still difficult for many of them to navigate cities.

Manaswi Saha presenting Project Sidewalk's progress.

Manaswi Saha presenting Project Sidewalk’s progress.

To identify the conditions creating these barriers, a team at the University of Maryland is crowdsourcing a map of sidewalk impediments within the District of Columbia. Presenting at the latest Transportation Techies’s Walk Hack Night, Manaswi Saha showed attendees the mapping progress of the project, now called Project Sidewalk, since it was last demoed for the group in 2015.

Inspired by Walk Score, which rates the walkability of neighborhoods nationally, Project Sidewalk seeks to provide a better understanding of the District’s walking accessibility, especially for people who depend on assistive aids. Instead of creating ratings based on proximity to amenities, Project Sidewalk catalogs the quality and accessibility of sidewalks and curb ramps.

The web tool, deployed publicly last fall, currently depends on public participation to evaluate D.C. sidewalks. Users mark problem spots with one of four tags: missing curb ramp, obstacles like fire hydrants, surface problems like crumbling pavement, and overall missing sidewalks (as shown above). Using Google Maps’ Street View, the tool drops participants into random locations throughout the city and prompts them to audit up to 1000 feet of that neighborhood. So far, the 475-person Project Sidewalk community has covered 463 miles of D.C. roads with 64,000 labels. This data is will be available for specific routing instructions, and also informs a WalkScore-esque neighborhood rating system.

Saha hopes the project will eventually cover 100 percent of the District, but its dependence on crowdsourced information is time-consuming, labor-intensive, and makes it difficult to expand to other locations. Ultimately, Saha and her team plan to automate the process, teaching the program to identify problem spots on its own, and to communicate the information to relevant government entities tasked with fixing them. In addition, they aim to build accessibility-aware navigation, providing users directions based on their dependence on assistive aids.

walkshed capture

These tools were made for walking

The other presenters at Walk Hack Night followed similar paths, demonstrating tools to better understand the distribution and quality of pedestrian infrastructure.

  • Aaron Ogle shared the history of Walkshed.js (above), a visualization of what people can reach on foot from any given point. When it first began years ago, Ogle approached the project by thinking of walkability as a surface, rather than a network – similar to how water in a given area returns to the ocean. From this lens, a walkshed map can better address how a person can reach a certain point or amenity from any location. Using a color gradient that accounts for obstacles like rivers or highways, walkshed.js creates a strong visual sense of where walking is most convenient.
  • Similarly, Transportation Techies organizer Michael Schade has been developing an Arlington Walkshed tool to help employers in the county educate their workers about the myriad commute options within the radius of a short walk. Schade’s tool highlights areas that users can reach within a chosen timeframe from 10 to 60 minutes, using walking and other modes.
  • University of Virginia’s Andrew Mondschien describes Tysons Corner – a historically car-centric area in the midst of an urban transformation – as having only a “nascent” level of walkability. Mondschein and students have been mapping the current quality of walking around Tysons with wearable sensors, collecting a range of ambient information, from air quality and noise levels to types of land use. Over time, Mondschein hopes to use these datasets to measure walkability for people at a certain time within a complex area, and to understand how this changes over time. This data, he said, should be “as community-based as decision-making is,” leading residents to be more invested in their environment and providing the information to ensure planning is making their city more livable.
  • District Ninja’s Matt Triner and Amir Farhangi shared District of Pedestrians, a 2015 analysis of the safety issues facing pedestrians, built from D.C.’s Vision Zero website. Drivers failing to stop for pedestrians was the number one infraction, and the VZ data showed that neighborhoods close to each other tended to share similar problems, creating pockets of geographically-linked safety issues.
  • Finally, many companies are working to understand indoor walking habits (mostly to encourage visitors to buy stuff). Chris Fricke of Geometri explained how Bluetooth sensors placed in lighting fixtures track customer movements within buildings. Using this data, programmers can determine the position of people within three feet, analyzing how they move around stores and where they spend the most time.

Images, from top: A screen capture of the Project Sidewalk crowdsourcing tool. Manaswi Saha presenting at Walk Hack Night (MV Jantzen, Flickr, Creative Commons). A capture of Walkshed.js in Philadelphia.

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New services are moving fast, and cities are looking to update procurement processes to keep up https://mobilitylab.org/2017/02/10/cities-adapt-procurement-flexible-services/ https://mobilitylab.org/2017/02/10/cities-adapt-procurement-flexible-services/#comments Fri, 10 Feb 2017 17:18:04 +0000 https://mobilitylab.org/?p=21157 Notoriously lumbering municipal procurement processes can be an especially bad fit with the way newer transportation options need to be implemented. How are local agencies supposed to form “first-mile, last-mile” partnerships with flexible technology services like Lyft, Via, and Bridj when the official steps to solidify those partnerships impede the process? “A transit agency can... Read more »

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Notoriously lumbering municipal procurement processes can be an especially bad fit with the way newer transportation options need to be implemented.

How are local agencies supposed to form “first-mile, last-mile” partnerships with flexible technology services like Lyft, Via, and Bridj when the official steps to solidify those partnerships impede the process?

“A transit agency can really facilitate partnerships for the city,” said Jameson Auten, chief of the Regional Service Delivery and Innovation Division at the ‎Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. “We can’t take 10 months while Uber or another [vendor] is waiting. That just doesn’t work in this environment. We always include someone from procurement and finance when we’re telling companies our pilot program businesses are open. But we’re cutting some of the layers out for our experimental service.”

KCATA’s updated mindset has allowed it to move more quickly than many other transit agencies. Auten spoke at a panel called “Innovative Partnerships: Enhancing Service While Addressing Procurement Obstacles” at the 2017 Capital Convergence conference hosted by the Eno Center for Transportation.

A wealth of data suggests the process by which governments contract with technology services are too complex and outdated, often discouraging smaller companies who lack the time and resources to invest in bids. Further, the growth of transportation sharing and hailing services – which typically move at a rapid clip – is only now serving to magnify the problem.

“I used to work for DDOT, and it took 20 months to get Car2Go [up and running, and DDOT has] some progressive thinkers,” said Josh Moskowitz, now Car2Go’s eastern regional director, at a separate-but-related MobilityTalks International session. “But they’re trained to focus most of their attention on these legacy systems like WMATA.”

In the same session, Justin Holmes, Zipcar’s director of corporate communications and public policy, added, “I was a chief innovation officer of Boston. We would begin the procurement process for social-media properties and six months later it would be moot.”

And the struggle flows in both directions. At MobilityTalks, Greenberg Traurig consultant David Catania said, “It’s my experience that tech companies don’t really know how to approach cities.” He added they often show up lacking of focus or an understanding about what their potential partners need.

While smaller companies and startups may have a hard time procuring contracts with cities, the current industry leaders have apparently had it easier. Paige Tsai, who focuses on policy and research at Uber, said the company hasn’t necessarily had to develop a set strategy for how it works with governments “because they’re all so different. Now we’re encouraging people to reach out to us.”

Out of both a need to look forward and actually move people, agencies all over the U.S. are seeking to work at the same speed as technology companies.

For KCATA, Auten said, “We have an agreement in which Bridj handles the marketing, but have to have a handle on what that means. They did [media relations] but when you take it down to the service level, you have to make sure people know what’s going on. They say ‘is that vehicle for me or for someone else?’ We have to understand our market. The two approaches weren’t fully aligned. Bridj’s focus was national and ours was the Kansas City region.”

Zipcar’s Holmes said a far more exciting paradigm than procurement is the idea of “cities seeing themselves as digital platforms. Cities have access as brokers of mobility information and catalysts of data to promote a more sustainable transportation system, beyond the procurement situation.”

And in the end, cities need to dig into these issues quickly because newer transportation options, not to mention the approach of autonomous vehicles, could challenge long-held assumptions about their transportation networks.

“There will be a rendezvous with revenue,” Catania said. “In D.C., nine figures come from traffic tickets ever year, the DMV, parking … think of taking all that revenue out. Understanding and engaging cities about what will happen with AVs. … A lot of things could change that will undermine the revenue of the cities.”

By re-addressing those assumptions and putting the proper procurement practices in place, cities can better prepare themselves for flexible, new additions to their transportation networks and adapt to potential impacts.

Photo: A Zipcar parking spot in Arlington County, Va. (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com).

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Building a transit army: How MARTA Army is working to improve Atlanta’s bus stops https://mobilitylab.org/2017/02/08/building-transit-army-marta-army-community/ https://mobilitylab.org/2017/02/08/building-transit-army-marta-army-community/#comments Wed, 08 Feb 2017 17:26:49 +0000 https://mobilitylab.org/?p=20290 Transit advocacy doesn’t have to move slowly through layers of bureaucracy: in Atlanta, advocates have been mobilizing to improve bus stops in their own neighborhoods. At TransportationCamp DC last month, representatives from the grassroots advocacy group MARTA Army shared their organizing model, which has been successful in creating tangible improvements for riders in the Atlanta... Read more »

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Transit advocacy doesn’t have to move slowly through layers of bureaucracy: in Atlanta, advocates have been mobilizing to improve bus stops in their own neighborhoods.

At TransportationCamp DC last month, representatives from the grassroots advocacy group MARTA Army shared their organizing model, which has been successful in creating tangible improvements for riders in the Atlanta region.

Getting started

A self-funded, community-driven advocacy organization and the product of Atlanta-based TransportationCamp South 2014, MARTA Army operates from an activism model centered in acts of “tactical urbanism,” or quick, low-cost improvement projects. Simon Berrebi, the group’s executive director, described it as a common enough practice for walking, biking, or placemaking projects, but the group made it their mission to scale up the approach to a large transit system.

As Berrebi described it, the community-driven projects function to enhance the ridership experience. By giving the community a sense of ownership over their transit system, MARTA Army encourages members to participate in improving their transit system.

An example of a schedule to be attached to a bus stop. Credit: MARTA ARMY.

Operation TimelyTrip, MARTA Army’s original campaign, highlighted the power behind this type of organizing. Of the Atlanta region’s roughly 10,000 bus stops, Berrebi said that hardly any had route information signage on site. MARTA Army members adopted 350 of these stops, printed laminated signs with route and schedule information and zip-tied them to the stops’ signposts.

The operation improved passenger access to accurate bus information, and made the system easier to navigate. Due to the initial success, MARTA Army is looking to deploy QR codes at stops to provide riders with real-time information on buses. The state of Georgia has even taken notice and granted $3.8 million to further improve bus stops throughout the region.

Another campaign, Operation Clean Stop, sought to address the fact that only one in 20 bus stops had a trash can, meaning many suffered from litter issues. The operation ultimately crowdfunded enough money for bins at 80 stops, which the city of Atlanta installed itself.

Growing success

Despite the model’s success in scaling up the organization, Berrebi did admit that this quick growth is not necessarily sustainable over the long term. Like many advocacy organizations, there isn’t a problem with raising excitement, but there can be disagreements over what to do with it. As a result, Berrebi said MARTA Army would likely need to become a more formal body to effectively address those problems in the future.

Nonetheless, MARTA Army’s foundation can be an informative origin story to help other transit advocacy groups gain footing in their own regions. The group grew from hyper-local efforts that then moved to influence the entire Atlanta region. They also made a conscious decision not to focus on broader policy, but on what people most care about: their neighborhoods.

Another crucial factor for a successful transit army has been maintaining a broad, regional awareness of efforts and campaigns. MARTA Army needed MARTA’s support to initially get started, and continues to depend on media coverage both to expand its membership and maintain pressure on the transit agency.

This type of public awareness integrates the role of mass transit into the local identity by portraying transit as a positive and necessary part of every neighborhood’s fabric, convincing the public that they can and should invest in their transportation system. Showing residents that they can actively take part in transit issues – and by extension their neighborhood – highlights the benefits of transit and, ideally, increases support or involvement in expanding it.

As they continue to grow their efforts, MARTA Army is looking to use their resources to help similar efforts to get off the ground elsewhere. Its advocacy strategy is not tied to any particular location: any group can adopt the “open source” model and adapt it to their own transit system and city.

Photo, top: A MARTA bus stop sign (Jeff Muceus, Flickr, Creative Commons).

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