Mobility Lab http://mobilitylab.org Moving People... Instead of Just Cars Fri, 26 Aug 2016 17:29:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Watch and learn: What transit agencies can pick up from other industries http://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/25/messaging-lessons-transit-other-industries/ http://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/25/messaging-lessons-transit-other-industries/#respond Thu, 25 Aug 2016 18:30:41 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=18862 Public transportation could learn key messaging lessons from unlikely places The public transportation industry needs a “brand rehabilitation,” and educating people about transportation options is a huge part of that recovery. With so many positive elements in transit and non-driving transportation options – community-building, productivity, healthiness, cost savings, stress reduction – it should be a... Read more »

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Public transportation could learn key messaging lessons from unlikely places

The public transportation industry needs a “brand rehabilitation,” and educating people about transportation options is a huge part of that recovery.

With so many positive elements in transit and non-driving transportation options – community-building, productivity, healthiness, cost savings, stress reduction – it should be a slam dunk.

But we have hurdles to overcome, some of them self-induced, like the ways the industry almost seems to gravitate towards scaring people away from its product.

And let’s face it, cars are broadly seen as “cool.” To many, they are like phones – people can’t imagine life without them. Auto sales in the U.S. were better than ever last year, thanks in part to low gas prices. That said, while people love their cars, they hate driving, so there’s an opportunity for us to step in with better answers.

Along those lines, several surveys show that a majority of Americans aren’t yet ready for autonomous vehicles, but many more are interested in connected cars that have link wirelessly to their smartphones and other devices. And while young people may not be getting licenses until later in life, they’re still drawn by the latest features on car dashboards.

Unlike cars, public transportation has lacked a compelling story ever since World War II. Or rather, transit advocates haven’t been as good at telling their story as were the auto companies who convinced the public of the greatness of their products.

To win a bigger share of American hearts and minds, public transportation has to break its status quo. Here are five keys for public transit to apply from other industries if it wants to go from marginalized to mainstream:

Target audiences, like Netflix and the TV industry

In 2013, a survey of Netflix users found that 73 percent  like to “binge-watch,” and the company also discovered that many people abandon network shows after watching only the pilot of a new program. Putting those findings together, Netflix doubled down on releasing their original series all at once. Understanding how people use your product is a powerful component of reaching out to them.

Also relevant to public transportation, when Netflix has a new series coming out, it releases seven trailers, each targeted at different kinds of people based on what programming they’ve watched in the past. Public transit needs to better understand what draws its riders if it wants them to keep riding regularly.

Pick strategic battles, like marriage equality advocates

Just a few years ago, national and state laws that banned same-sex marriage were broadly accepted. But by the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision making marriage equality the law of the land, it had already become legal in 37 states.

This result was largely because, years earlier, marriage equality advocates campaigned to get states to challenge state laws through legal battles. Sure, transit advocates must still hound Congress – more money is needed for transit infrastructure – but detailed strategic work is needed to get laws and funding at the local and state levels. This means starting in the places where public transit is needed most, creating local partnerships, and finding the decision-makers who are willing to get things accomplished rather than forming committees to offer weak recommendations.

Also, the Human Rights Campaign’s national scorecards are very useful: ranking the credentials of politicians and businesses on their support for transportation issues is long overdue.

Address the disconnect, like McDonald’s and the fast food industry

Sales at McDonald’s have for years suffered due to fast food’s link to obesity. Now it’s trying to offer more healthy options – but the public has been trained for decades on how and why to eat McDonald’s. People go there when they intentionally and often eagerly choose food that is immediately satisfying but bad for them in the long-term.

It’s difficult and counterintuitive to walk into a McDonald’s and pick something from the healthy menu. It’s the same with travel: people want to get places quickly, but instead of finding messages about efficiency, transit communicators talk endlessly about safety. That’s a disconnect that we have to learn to change. When people are about go somewhere, safety is overwhelmingly a secondary concern behind efficiency. Messaging and outreach need to reflect that, and we need to influence people right as they are making the decision to go.

Change quickly, like Dixie and the marijuana industry

As state-level legalization spreads, pot is rapidly moving from a hippie-stoner-outlaw culture to a health-conscious, kale chip-eating crowd. Since its 2009 founding, Dixie has updated its image from a “pot soda” company to a gourmet THC-edibles manufacturer whose carbonated drinks and snacks, containing ingredients like pepita and sea salt, look like they could be found on a shelf at Whole Foods.

If public transportation were in the pot business, it would still be selling Bob Marley tie-dye t-shirts instead of pot bumper stickers for the vans of soccer moms. But the moral is that there is still time for the industry to adapt amidst changing technology and behavior contexts.

Be creative, like the Dollar Shave Club (and any number of modern startups)

It’s not new technology, but even razors can be inventive. Dollar Shave Club was founded with the idea of selling inexpensive razors through a subscription-based model. Sounds pretty mundane, right? Well, Unilever, a global consumer-products company, recently bought Dollar Shave Club for $1 billion – in part because it wants to leverage its close connections to its male audience, but also because people have brand loyalty to the product, largely from its wildly entertaining YouTube videos.

Any company or industry can have this kind of success with a creative mindset.

Public transportation agencies can learn a lot from the leading lights in marketing. Automakers, Silicon Valley, and health and pharmaceutical companies are some of the best. Let’s keep a close eye on them and put more of their ideas to work to “brand rehab” our own industry.

This is article is based on a presentation made to the fifth annual Innovate Raleigh summit.

Photo: A Netflix advertisement on the D.C. Metro offers an in-joke to House of Cards viewers (Elvert Barnes, Flickr, Creative Commons).

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Finding traffic and car ownership solutions through ride- and car-sharing http://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/24/techies-traffic-solutions-sharing/ http://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/24/techies-traffic-solutions-sharing/#respond Wed, 24 Aug 2016 14:46:25 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=18854 While the D.C. region benefits from a diverse set of transportation options, there are unique situations where cars become necessary for those who don’t normally need them. With the rise of the sharing economy, there are now ways for residents to find more efficient ways to take the occasional trip by car. At the August... Read more »

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While the D.C. region benefits from a diverse set of transportation options, there are unique situations where cars become necessary for those who don’t normally need them. With the rise of the sharing economy, there are now ways for residents to find more efficient ways to take the occasional trip by car.

At the August edition of the Mobility Lab-sponsored Transportation Techies: Playing with Traffic II, in WeWork Crystal City, a group of programmers presented some of the ways people are sharing rides and cars in the D.C. region.

Sharing services: more people with fewer cars

Split’s Anna Petrone explained the D.C.-based service’s process that determines how users are grouped together in order to provide “smarter shared rides.” The algorithm handles the multiple factors at play, from the number of ride requests, how big the service area is, and how far people are traveling. Almost like an on-demand bus, the service connects riders’ requests along a common route and collects them at established points.

Throughout the day, Split adjusts these variables in order to optimize the number of vehicles on the road. They balance that efficiency with the variables they can influence, such as the number of people in the same car and how far people will have to walk to their collection points. Petrone explained that if each user makes a “small to moderate sacrifice” – walking a block to their pickup point – that creates a larger benefit by moving everyone using the service more efficiently.

Andriy Klymchuk’s app, Same Ride, just went live last week, and seeks to build a carpooling community along certain driving routes. Same Ride is starting with one of the same variables Split uses: limiting its operations area. By focusing outreach on one route at a time, Klymchuk hopes to make it easier for users headed in the same direction to match with each other. The first route for carpooling is between Woodbridge and Tysons Corner, Va., and more are scheduled in the future.

Jay Subramaniam presented the San Francisco-based Getaround, or an “AirBNB for cars,” as he explained it. The service connects people who only need cars occasionally with those who own them and only use them occasionally. This way, the cost of owning a car spreads to multiple users, and more people can make use of fewer vehicles. Subramaniam estimates that for every car Getaround has in its network, about 10 are never bought. There are currently about 90 vehicles registered with the service inside D.C., suggesting 900 were taken off the street. As it grows, Getaround hopes to make it easier for more residents to avoid buying a car, while giving them an affordable renting option when they need one.

Building blocks

Ride Leads is a digital platform that currently powers the DC Taxi app, but Matt Cunningham hopes it will ultimately integrate multimodality into commuters’ trips. The platform provides a “plug and play” development ability, allowing cities to bring all of their transportation resources into one app. Through that app, users can find the cheapest and most efficient connections to their destinations, such as taking a taxi to the Metro, and they can pay for the entire commute through the platform.

Ride Lead hopes to be part of the move toward creating “smart cities,” with a service that integrates data reporting and analysis. Cunningham expects integrated transit platforms to make it easier for cities to manage their many modes, and in turn lead to more cars off the road.

Prathi Vakharia and Ely Yousoufzai presented Ride Amigos, a platform that incentivizes non-driving transportation modes within large organizations. Following the psychological principle that major events create a lasting emotional impact, the platform encourages users during disruptions to try other ways to work. Once users have been exposed to these new modes, there is a chance that they will adopt them in the long-term. Yousoufazai even noted that adoption of new modes continues to happen after people win awards, because others will see the incentives and become curious.

Using the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, Canada, as a backdrop, the pair explained changes in commuter habits that lasted after the event had ended. By promoting and gamifying ridesharing and active transportation with challenges and financial rewards, Ride Amigos’ platform logged just under 200,000 alternative trips during the games. Overall, 35 percent of commuters changed their habits during the event and, importantly, 15 percent maintained their new transportation habit.

Antonio Zugaldia presented Mapbox and its Drive platform, which underlies a number of apps, including Split. With its software development kits for app creators, Mapbox provides a major building block for services that rely heavily on geography, namely ride-hailing and -sharing.

The foundation of the platform is real-time sensor data from connected devices. This helps Mapbox compute traffic patterns, fill in missing roads, provide accurate lane or street shapes, and correctly align vehicles with their surroundings. Mapbox uses Open Street Map – the Wikipedia of maps, as Zugaldia explains it – which is continually updated by volunteer users.

Filling in the network

By connecting commuter to shared rides, it is possible to expand transportation options and accessibility while cutting the number of vehicles on the road. Moving people efficiently on-demand and providing options to forego car ownership can add a greater degree of flexibility in a city’s transportation network.

Photo: Anna Petrone explains how Split’s algorithm creates its matches (M.V. Jantzen, Flickr).

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Car-centric data encourages car-centric transportation planning http://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/22/car-centric-data-begets-car-centric-planning/ http://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/22/car-centric-data-begets-car-centric-planning/#respond Mon, 22 Aug 2016 18:28:42 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=18842 We often discuss the role of data in the transportation industry, especially how advocates are using it and new technologies to improve non-drive-alone transportation options. But Joe Cortwright, over at City Observatory, recently made a key point about data: the vast majority of new technology-driven transportation data is focused on making it easier to drive. The movement towards the development... Read more »

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We often discuss the role of data in the transportation industry, especially how advocates are using it and new technologies to improve non-drive-alone transportation options. But Joe Cortwright, over at City Observatory, recently made a key point about data: the vast majority of new technology-driven transportation data is focused on making it easier to drive.

The movement towards the development of “smart cities” largely emphasizes connected solutions for traffic flow and signal prioritization, but fails to capture the kinds of solutions that would improve conditions for biking and walking. As Cortwright notes:

As the old adage goes: If you don’t count it, it doesn’t count. That premise becomes vastly more important the more we define problems in big-data terms. New technology promises to provide a firehose of data about cars, car travel, car delay, and roadways—but not nearly as much about people. This is a serious omission, and should give us pause about the application of “smart” principles to cities and transportation planning.

A prominent example is also visible in this widely-shared video from MIT, which envisions a connected transportation system in which autonomous cars can communicate turns with each other, negating the need for stoplights. Connected vehicles offers a lot in terms of minimizing congestion, but the demonstration – based on a Boston intersection with two bike lanes – notably excludes people walking, biking, or taking transit.

The issue, too, is two-fold, since much of the data that informs walking and biking behaviors is qualitative, and thus more difficult to record, analyze, and communicate. Cortwright again:

Large parts of most American cities, and especially their suburbs, constitute vast swaths of hostile territory to people traveling on foot. Either destinations are too spread out, or there just aren’t sidewalks or crosswalks to support safely walking from point to point. Moreover, walking is so uncommon that drivers have become conditioned to behave as if pedestrians don’t exist, making streets even more foreboding.

From the standpoint of the data-reliant transportation engineer, the problems encountered by Dorantes, Yearsley, and Tektel are invisible – and therefore “nonexistent.” Because we lack the conventional metrics to define and measure, for example, the hardships of walking, we don’t design and enforce solutions or adopt targeted public policies.

There’s still much to be learned about how people drive from sensors and connected vehicles. The key challenge, though, is to find ways to include and prioritize multimodal considerations as new technologies improve our ability to gather transportation data.

Read the full article on City Observatory here.

Photo: Traffic in Arlington County, Va. (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com).

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Last chance to comment: Proposed USDOT rules would likely harm communities http://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/19/comment-usdot-rules/ http://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/19/comment-usdot-rules/#respond Fri, 19 Aug 2016 14:55:58 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=18836 If you value communities that are enhanced by transit, bikeability, walkability, and ridesharing, you should know that the proposed rules on Performance Measures for the National Highway System, the Interstate Highway System, and the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program will undercut policy and funding that support these modes of travel and programs that support... Read more »

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If you value communities that are enhanced by transit, bikeability, walkability, and ridesharing, you should know that the proposed rules on Performance Measures for the National Highway System, the Interstate Highway System, and the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program will undercut policy and funding that support these modes of travel and programs that support them (such as TDM).

The proposed performance measures completely ignore these modes and their users and place value instead on the speed and delay of vehicles. What gets measured is what will ultimately get funding and policy support. If you are an individual or organization who cares about these, you may want to consider commenting. Your voice will count.

The end of the comment period is this Saturday, August 20 at 11:59 p.m.

Submit your comment to the comment page here. Below are easy links to resources to paste in and letters to sign.

Many organizations are voicing concerns and recommendations such as these:

  • Measures should be included that focus on the movement of people, not vehicles alone.
  • It is unfair and ineffective policy to ignore transit, carpooling, biking and walking.
  • Accessibility measures for disadvantaged populations must be included.
  • Reduction of vehicle trips and greenhouse gases are not measured and should be.
  • The thrust of the CMAQ program will be radically altered and will affect funding for TDM agencies.
  • In all, these measures will encourage the building of roads and deemphasize more cost-effective, people-oriented alternatives.

Below are easy ways to sign comment letters provided by the Association for Commuter Transportation and Transportation of America, or to draw talking points from them for your own letter to submit into the USDOT page above.

Association of Commuter Transportation

ACT letter [.docx download] – to submit to the comment page (as an individual or organization)

Transportation for America

T4America letter – sign as an organization or submit the talking points to the comments page

In recent years the USDOT has been a champion of tremendous progress in developing livable, people-oriented communities and providing many modes of transportation that offer accessibility and mobility for all populations. Tragically, these new measures will shift the focus away from multi-modal approaches and lock in vehicle-only metrics for the next 20 years. This Performance Measurement rule is too important to get wrong.  If you agree, add your voice today, and pass this on to your friends.

Photo: A highway in Seattle (Pierce Hanley, Flickr, Creative Commons).

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Experiencing the national parks all too often means taking a car http://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/18/experiencing-national-parks-means-taking-car/ http://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/18/experiencing-national-parks-means-taking-car/#comments Thu, 18 Aug 2016 19:25:27 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=18824 Editor’s note: This is part five of our summer Transpo(nation) series, as Andrew Carpenter bicycles across the U.S. to report on transportation options. A road trip across the United States – using any mode – does not feel complete without a visit to one of the national parks. Naturally, I over-committed in my planning, telling... Read more »

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Editor’s note: This is part five of our summer Transpo(nation) series, as Andrew Carpenter bicycles across the U.S. to report on transportation options.

A road trip across the United States – using any mode – does not feel complete without a visit to one of the national parks.

Naturally, I over-committed in my planning, telling myself I would visit as many of the large, wild reserves as possible. But when I began to research the best ways to reach them, it turned out my only practical option was by car, considering I would have been biking along mountainous highways without much protection, food, or shelter.

Through the font of persistence and ingenuity that builds with biking over mountains and into rainstorms, I did manage a side trip to Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon national parks. After conceding to riding in a car, reaching these parks confirmed my impression that – while the remoteness of many national parks is part of their allure – the lacking transportation options makes them inaccessible to those without cars, money, or a lot of time.

A system that is so favorable to cars places a burden on itself and visitors for that very reason. With growing numbers of visitors, surpassing 300 million in 2015, the National Park Service is struggling to maintain its infrastructure as millions of cars wear down the roads. In addition, despite diversity initiatives – about 78 percent of visitors are white – indicating national parks remain inaccessible to many underprivileged and minority Americans. As the Park Service explores its options, the existing driving standard forms a barrier to many of these goals.

Getting around

The Park Service appears to be aware of the need for alternative transportation modes, both to attract more visitors and to minimize the impacts of cars. There does seem to be some funding plans to implement intra-park shuttle services and to encourage visitors to seek car alternatives.

As a result, non-driving mobility is fairly easy inside certain parks, such as Grand Canyon and Acadia national parks, both of which have extensive shuttle networks that accommodate significant numbers of people. Acadia’s free Island Explorer buses (above) have proven especially successful, moving more than 530,000 people around the park each year, and is supported by a grant from L.L. Bean. However, these two appear to be exceptions.

Most parks have warnings about traffic congestion and suggest alternatives, promoting shuttles where they are available. Yet congestion still persists, leading to items like Yosemite’s traffic graphs (below) that inform car-bound visitors what times they are likely to deal with congested roads. Without a robust system that allows people to leave their cars outside the park, it will be tough for NPS to shift many visitors to transit.

trafficforecast-2016

Getting in

Though the Park Service is working on several programs that get people out of their cars in the parks, reaching them is still a significant challenge. Of the 10 most popular parks in 2015, Smoky Mountain and Zion have no alternatives to driving access, while six others have confusing and indirect connections to nearby population centers. In the Southwest, there is the Grand Canyon Railway, which connects to Amtrak’s Southwest Chief route in Arizona, and there are private coach companies with confusing websites from airports to towns bordering Olympic and Yellowstone’s park entrances. However, they are often too expensive and time-consuming to encourage many people to consider them over their own or rental vehicles.

On top of money and time investments at parks that do have alternative connections, entrance fees benefit those using cars rather than forgoing them. The cost per person on foot, bike or even a park shuttle is generally $15, while a four-person car is $30 (a 4-person car, then, would only pay $7.50 per person). Unless traveling alone, it is more cost and time effective to use a private motor vehicle than not.

YARTS system map

Map of Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System.

That said, two large parks show promising connections. Glacier National Park provides direct access to Amtrak’s Empire Builder route and the cities that it serves in the upper Mid- and Northwest, while the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System offers an inter-city bus service whose fare includes park entry fees and connects riders directly to multiple cities and long-distance commuter options. YARTS, in particular, can serve as a good example of where to start, as it’s operated by the Merced County Association of Governments in cooperation with NPS and moves about 100,000 people – 2 percent of visitors – per year. Such progress is an important starting point and possible model for other parks.

Crucially, the Park Service would also need to promote and incentivize these services – Yosemite’s and Glacier’s information pages portray YARTS and Amtrak as secondary options to driving – to make them viable and popular options.

Finding our parks

The extra complexities of reaching into these wild areas through multiple jurisdictions, while maintaining the natural landscape, adds to the challenge of establishing a transit system. It makes sense that the large, remote parks tend to incentivize personal cars just from a logistical perspective. But in order to better preserve the natural wonders and existing infrastructure in the long-term, as well as improve the visitor experience and accessibility, it is in the national interest to establish systems that reduce the numbers of cars going into and around national parks.

With the uncertainties of transportation into and within the national parks, it is difficult to convince people to get out of their cars. Working with local and state governments is tough. Yet, as the Park Service knows, it is important to provide reliable alternatives in order to keep the wild parks wild while making them more accessible. Certain parks show what is possible, and creating more and better ways of getting around will truly help more visitors experience the outdoors.

Photo: A rider boards Acadia National Park’s Island Explorer shuttle at Jordan Pond (photo by Adam Russell).

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Recording biking comfort: Portland stress data, Biketown, and more http://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/15/capturing-comfort-biking-stress-data-portland/ http://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/15/capturing-comfort-biking-stress-data-portland/#respond Mon, 15 Aug 2016 17:32:52 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=18811 This is part two of our coverage of Transportation Techies: Portland edition. Read part one here. Portland, Ore., is known nationally as one of the country’s biking capitals, with more than 188 miles of bike lanes and one of the highest rates of bike commuting in the country. But even given its bikeway networks, “crossbikes,” and other... Read more »

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This is part two of our coverage of Transportation Techies: Portland edition. Read part one here.

Portland, Ore., is known nationally as one of the country’s biking capitals, with more than 188 miles of bike lanes and one of the highest rates of bike commuting in the country. But even given its bikeway networks, “crossbikes,” and other infrastructure, bicyclists in the City of Roses, like those in many cities, are concerned with stressful street conditions and the barriers they pose to others.

At the latest Transportation Techies: Portland edition, part of the Association for Commuter Transportation annual conference, several presenters spoke about their efforts to document those conditions, and the importance and utility of capturing that data.

William Henderson, whose Ride Report app was previously featured on Mobility Lab, explained how the ride-tracking app works behind the scenes on users’ phones. The Ride Report team used machine learning to “train” the app, taking it on rides around Portland in order to teach it to recognize the kinds of gyroscopic movements indicative of biking. This allows the app to run in the background without it devouring battery by accessing a phone’s GPS coordinates (as Pokemon Go does, for example).

By making a trip-logger that involves minimal forethought, Henderson said, it becomes easier for casual cyclists to use it. The ease-of-use led to thousands of logged rides over Portland, many of them rated for their stress level. These are combined into a back-end tool for planners, in which stress ratings are broken down on a block-by-block basis. Henderson and his team have already found a variety of observations in Portland’s stress ratings. While peak commute-time trips, for example, are consistently rated more stressful overall, some streets are rated less stressful at all hours. Those areas might hold keys to easing dangerous biking on other Portland streets.

Some of those more stressful streets, noted presenter Bryan Blanc, even had bike lanes. Bryan’s project, ride-tracking app ORcycle, which he developed for the Oregon Department of Transportation in 2014, also tracks comfort levels for bicyclists. His analysis found no statistical difference between comfort on busy arterial roads with painted lanes, and on arterials without lanes – painted lanes did not offer people on bikes much relief or perceived protection in the face of speeding traffic. This relation explains the importance of Portland’s decision this past February to establish protected bike lanes as the standard for new biking facilities. The city was the first in the country to codify the emerging consensus around protected lanes. The ORcycle app also allows users to make notes about specific streets, all of which are directed to ODOT planners.

It’s not always factored into biking conditions, but bicyclists are uniquely vulnerable to harmful air quality conditions on the streets. Presenter Alex Bigazzi first attempted to monitor local air quality through a system of bike-mounted sensors, but the high price tag led him to think about ways to cut costs and equipment. Ultimately, he created the prototype SPEC sensor, a handheld Bluetooth device that relies on the user’s phone for computing power, a move that cuts the cost of components considerably. Bigazzi hopes that the data his sensor eventually collects will help determine hotspots of poor air quality and inform efforts to improve conditions for everyone on Portland’s streets.

And on Portland’s latest and most anticipated bicycling development, Ryan Rzpecki, founder and CEO of Social Bicycles, previewed data from the company’s latest bikeshare system: Portland’s Biketown. In the system’s first two weeks, riders took 28,351 trips, with an average length of 2.18 miles and an average trip duration of 29.38 minutes. Notably, single-trip rides, which made up most of the bike rentals, are capped at 30 minutes of riding time before additional charges kick in.

Rzpecki noted that his observations indicate casual riders often don’t want to commit to membership periods – they just want one ride that will get them to their destination immediately. Having the single-trip option allows people a quick, no-obligation solution to their transportation quandary. That the single-ride type narrowly edges out annual-pass rides suggests Biketown may not be losing out on potential revenue from day passes.

For more on Portland’s history with open data and the local developers who are using it today, read our earlier coverage.

Photo, top: A Portlander on a decidedly comfortable ride along the Eastbank Esplanade on the Willamette River (M.V. Jantzen, Flickr).

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Mobility Lab Express #92 – Tour de Bike Infrastructure http://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/15/mobility-lab-express-92/ http://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/15/mobility-lab-express-92/#respond Mon, 15 Aug 2016 14:16:49 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=18809 We’ve returned from the Association for Commuter Transportation annual conference, fresh with inspiring stories of agencies and employers working across the U.S. to encourage more people to take transit, bike, walk, and carpool to work. Catch our first two write-ups below, and see Arlington Transportation Partners program director’s Wendy Duren’s blog post here for a... Read more »

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We’ve returned from the Association for Commuter Transportation annual conference, fresh with inspiring stories of agencies and employers working across the U.S. to encourage more people to take transit, bike, walk, and carpool to work. Catch our first two write-ups below, and see Arlington Transportation Partners program director’s Wendy Duren’s blog post here for a look at the conference as a whole.

Also in this edition of the Express: BikeArlington takes transportation engineers on a tour of bike lanes, Portland’s history with open transit data, and more.

Mobility Lab Express #92

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Portland’s open data leadership pays off with better transit information http://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/12/portland-open-data-techies/ http://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/12/portland-open-data-techies/#comments Fri, 12 Aug 2016 17:07:22 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=18799 Portland, known for its array of public transportation options, also has a special history with open transit data. The region’s TriMet agency, which runs Portland’s buses and MAX light rail, played an instrumental role in working with Google to develop and spread the General Transit Specification Feed transit data format 10 years ago. As Matthew Roth wrote on... Read more »

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Portland, known for its array of public transportation options, also has a special history with open transit data.

The region’s TriMet agency, which runs Portland’s buses and MAX light rail, played an instrumental role in working with Google to develop and spread the General Transit Specification Feed transit data format 10 years ago. As Matthew Roth wrote on StreetsblogSF, before GTFS, many developers had to submit FIOAs or scrape the data from an agency’s website in order to obtain often-outdated transit information. Now, open GTFS data is the standard for transit agencies and an essential foundation of innumerable transportation apps and services.

TriMet’s Bibiana McHugh – who first worked with Google in getting the agency’s data converted to an open format – presented on the importance of open transit data during the Mobility Lab-sponsored Transportation Techies Portland edition earlier this month, part of the Association for Commuter Transportation conference.

TriMet is continuing to improve how riders can plan their trips using TriMet’s data. Open Trip Planner, which uses crowdsourced Open Street Maps, allows for multi-modal trips, an improvement over Google Maps’ trip planner. Accounting for the use of many modes over the course of one trip places a greater importance on finding the appropriate addresses for each segment of the trip. In order to overcome gaps in the correct addresses needed in charting those trips, McHugh announced that TriMet will be working with mapping platform Mapzen to more accurately catch missing address points, better connecting users to where they’re headed.

Even more important than the data, McHugh said, are the developers who make use of it. Mario Guzman, for example, presented his Portland transit app, PDXtransit, which he said seeks to use every possible detail of data that TriMet provides. He’s also integrated a number of iOS features, so that users can see information such as bus-arrival times on their Apple Watches.

Keith Billings and Nathan Upperman took the bus-arrival time information to a new level with a project designed to publicly display when buses will arrive, but at a fraction of the typical $10,000 arrival-time display cost. Their result, a clear sign (above) with route names and lights, uses different light colors to indicate how close or far away a bus is (for example, green for 2 minutes away and blue for 5 to 10 minutes). The entire system, which could be attached to any bus stop pole, would likely run off a combination of solar panel and a battery, negating need for expensive power hookups other bus stops use.

Chris Smith, MVJ

Chris Smith holds up one of his Transit Appliance attachments.

From an indoor approach, Portland Transport’s Chris Smith demonstrated his own display technology, Transit Appliance, which transforms normal TV sets into localized transportation displays. The device itself is really only a phone-sized attachment that straps to the TV’s back. From there, it displays not only nearby TriMet arrival information, but also other transportation options like available carshare. Each attachment is customized with the modes to show, where it will be installed, and in what format to show them.

Ultimately, Guzman, Billings, Upperman, and Smith all hope their apps and displays will help Portlanders move around the city more efficiently and make informed choices about their options. Each application highlights the importance, and end goal, of TriMet’s original open data dream: to foster a system in which knowledge of a city’s many transportation options is easily and quickly accessible.

This post is part one of the coverage of the Transportation Techies: Portland edition meetup. Check back on Monday for the bike-focused part two.

Photo: top, Billings and Upperman demonstrate their bus stop arrival display; bottom, Chris Smith and a demo attachment (M.V. Janzten, Flickr).

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Improving safe routes to school through champions for open data http://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/10/safe-routes-champions-open-data/ http://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/10/safe-routes-champions-open-data/#respond Wed, 10 Aug 2016 14:57:26 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=18784 The following post is based on a presentation to a Safe Routes to School National Partnership webinar, “Harnessing the Power of Data to Support Kids Walking and Biking.” The accompanying slides and the webinar recording can be found here. In the United States, cities build all kinds of new infrastructure when it’s time to host... Read more »

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The following post is based on a presentation to a Safe Routes to School National Partnership webinar, “Harnessing the Power of Data to Support Kids Walking and Biking.” The accompanying slides and the webinar recording can be found here.

In the United States, cities build all kinds of new infrastructure when it’s time to host a Super Bowl or the Olympics. But at most schools, where missing sidewalks and bike lanes are routine, they continue to look away – often with very little planning or thought – and force kids, year after year, to enter and exit strictly by either bus or car.

These schools still don’t have the buy-in from:

  • Traffic engineers, who often create roads that prioritize the movement of cars over people moving about who aren’t in cars,
  • Planners, who are often more concerned about the buildings themselves than how those buildings connect with the surrounding landscape,
  • Teachers and staff, who often say they need to carry too much material to bike, walk, or take transit (which is usually not that accessible anyway), meaning the issue isn’t particularly a priority, or
  • Parents, who have plenty else to do and usually don’t have children at any one particular school for more than a few years, meaning the time investment may not be worth the effort.

So how do we make it easier to walk and bike to schools, gaining all the societal positives such behavior would bring?

One answer could be data collection and analysis, and the ways we can become so much smarter when we build our neighborhoods around what we learn from it.

Five years ago, we didn’t have this much smartphone data, Waze, or Google’s Sidewalk Labs – which is working to track how people move about walkable places. Governments and businesses now have access to much of that information. There should never be another “Bridge to Nowhere”-like debacle. Decisions about which projects to fund have to be made on the facts, and nowadays spending $400 million on a pork-barrel bridge that carries fewer than 100 people a day would not – or at least absolutely should not – happen.

In an article this spring, I quoted Tyler Duvall of McKinsey & Company on the use of transportation data, in which he said it’s “a big departure from where we were for many, many years, when it was largely an engineering decision, people were drawing maps, and it was unrelated to demand or to planning or economics or technology.”

Of course, leaving decisions strictly to the policymakers may not exactly be the answer either. If it were, safe routes to school would be the norm. You need champions, and some of the most promising champions are citizens, hackers, writers, artists, and others who know how to take data and turn it into compelling stories that inspire actionable pilot projects, advocacy, and even funding and policies.

Parfenov walk hack, MVJ

Stanislav Parfenov explains the pedestrian-recording Placemeter tool during a meetup.

Champions are civic hackers

Our own Transportation Techie group was founded by Michael Schade (a true champion) nearly three years ago. It has held about 30 monthly show-and-tell events in which hackers (and many with minimal computer skills) present data visualizations and discuss trends in transportation they’ve discovered by digging into data sources such as open transit data feeds. In one meetup last year, presenters shared projects related to capturing and analyzing walking data, such as measuring the state and usability of sidewalks.

The Techies group has grown to 1,700 members, a testament to the widespread interest in transportation data. There could be similar meetups just about anywhere, which could mean more data turned into stories, in turn creating action from that data.

Champions are friends and family

Most people don’t really know how long biking or walking to school will take or what kinds of variables go into navigating landscapes outside of the confines of the personal car. But there’s something any towns, individual schools, or groups can organize to generate their own data – Radius Rides.

As Mobility Lab contributor Randy Cole wrote, Radius Rides are:

“…organized events in which a group of cyclists starting from the same location, like a high-school parking lot, library, or shopping center take routes away from there. This actual ride data is then valuable for showing the local public how far one can get on a bike in five, 10, or 15-minute intervals from the selected starting point. The rides are relaxed-speed group rides – not races – for the purpose of recording data to plot on maps.”

Schade, of our Techies group, took the data compiled from one such Radius Ride in Alexandria, Va., and turned it into a full-motion graphic, which could then be communicated understandably to stakeholders. This effort had the added benefit of showing that bicycling for everyday trips and errands is often the best transportation option by many measures. Along with cool graphics, this kind of fact-finding is invaluable for messaging, marketing, and advocacy purposes.

Champions are information bearers

TransitScreen was born as part of Mobility Lab’s tech fellowship program in 2011. Since then, it’s come a long way in the marketplace, expecting to have screens and displays in 5,000 locations in 40 cities across 10 countries, and in 10 languages, by the end of the year. Even in a world where so many people have transportation information on their smartphones, real-time information on a billboard-like display is crucial in training people to think about their many options.

That kind of brain training will get school kids practicing active transportation. And wouldn’t a TransitScreen in every school be great for helping kids hop on the subway or the city bus on their way home?

Champions are partners

All that said, it is ideal when real champions eventually wind up including the top decision-makers. In Arlington County, Va., the public schools are working with county employees and the county’s commuter bureau on a transportation demand management plan, a first-of-its-kind program for schools. A report fully outlining the TDM plan will be released later this year, and will feature extensive survey information showing biking, walking, and driving rates along with data on the number of active-transportation programs at all Arlington public schools. The report also will include relatively aggressive targets for improvement by 2021.

Data for these initiatives needs to be comprehensible, as noted in a recent Safe Routes to School report. And the report highlights several excellent projects around the country, but these too often remain the exceptions. As generations younger and older alike begin to understand the possibilities by having the facts in hand and the tools to make them clear and actionable, better decisions will begin to happen in many communities.

Schools won’t be built at the end of highways, strong infrastructure like protected bike lanes will connect neighborhoods to their schools, and parents will understand that driving their kids to school every day isn’t necessarily the best decision.

Open, accessible data, and the communication tools and wide-ranging partnerships they will help create, will ultimately make students’ routes to school more safe – and even fun.

Photos: Top, students walk to school in Arlington County, Va. (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com). Middle, a presenter at August 2015’s Walk Hack Night (MV Jantzen, Flickr).

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Three weeks in, Portland’s Biketown bikeshare proving popular and easy to use http://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/08/weeks-in-portland-biketown-easy-popular/ http://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/08/weeks-in-portland-biketown-easy-popular/#comments Mon, 08 Aug 2016 15:11:58 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=18758 The brand-new Biketown system in Portland, Ore., is already taking off, and a tour of its offerings shows a unique system that improves the transportation options of locals and visitors alike. It’s great for transportation geeks because it automatically provides detailed data about one’s rides. It’s great for those who want to sightsee because stations are... Read more »

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The brand-new Biketown system in Portland, Ore., is already taking off, and a tour of its offerings shows a unique system that improves the transportation options of locals and visitors alike.

It’s great for transportation geeks because it automatically provides detailed data about one’s rides. It’s great for those who want to sightsee because stations are already plentiful. And it’s great for those new to bicycling because it’s designed to be safe and simple.

Sure, there are still a few hiccups in the 1,000-bike system, which opened two weeks ago. But several rides I took recently throughout the downtown and across the bridges of the Willamette River while visiting for the Association of Commuter Transportation annual conference proved to reinforce Portland’s status as a top bicycling city in the U.S.

Generally speaking, Portland’s drivers proved less aggressive than back home in Washington, D.C. (not that they’re especially bad in the District’s urban core, where many have learned to share the road as bicycles became a more regular sight in recent years).

Of course, with Biketown’s blaring orange paint job, it would be pretty impossible for a motorist to not see one. Another benefit of the color is that it’s easy to find a neon orange station as riders look to park their bikes.

What differentiates Portland’s system from bikeshare in similarly-sized cities is that it follows a “smart-bike” model, rather than a “smart-dock” one, meaning the technology to check out bikes, log rides, and display information is all attached to the bike’s rear fender. Previously, smaller cities and campuses (see: College Park, Md.) have opted for smart-bikes, while larger urban areas (Seattle, Boston, New York, D.C.) have installed smart-dock systems.

Signing up is easy, but requires a tiny bit of forethought: I filled out a form online in about two minutes and reserved a bike down the street. To unlock it, I just punched in my membership number and PIN in the on-bike electronic system and was off on my way.

A rare hiccup: a rider forgot to take their U-lock with them.

A rare hiccup: a rider forgot to take their U-lock while biking.

On the hiccup side was that a fair number of bikes were in repair mode and unavailable for use, although the easy digital readout on the back of the bike made it clear that this was the case. I also used a bike in which the seat kept falling down and a few I used had glitch-y gears, which could be the result of the bikes having eight speeds, unlike Capital Bikeshare’s three. As a first-time user, I didn’t initially realize that I could self-report repairs at the end of my rides, and clearly many other users are also not yet aware of this feature.

The price is certainly right and is competitive with other forms of transit. The $2.50, 30-minute single ride or $12 day pass options (which can, important to know, only be used for a total of three hours over a 24-hour period) gives tourists some nice options, while locals can buy annual passes for $12 a month. Annual passes provide users with 90 minutes of ride time across unlimited trips, each day.

Biketown opened July 19, and “ridership so far is stronger than expected,” according to Dani Simons, director of communications & external affairs for Motivate, the system’s operator.

IMG_4962Ryan Rzepecki – founder of Social Bicycles, who provided the technology and design behind the system’s smart-bikes – noted during the Mobility Lab-sponsored Transportation Techies special Portland edition that there have been 28,351 total trips in Biketown’s first two weeks, an average of about 2,000 trips per day.

After my personal test runs (left) of the Biketown system, I reached out to Simons with a few lingering questions:

Mobility Lab: Looking beyond these first couple of weeks, what will be considered success for Biketown?

Simons: Success will be continued strong ridership and also getting folks who have never tried biking, or have never tried it beyond recreational biking, to give it a whirl.

What do you think was the secret to getting the city and Nike to embrace just doing it, meaning putting the system in?

The City of Portland has wanted a bikeshare system for some time now. But they wanted to get it right. Patience means they get a system where the taxpayers bear no ongoing risk for operations and one with a proven operator in Motivate, and a world-class partner in Nike.

What are the top keys to getting people to use the system?

First, good station planning (making sure stations are in locations where people want and/or need to go). Second, a few different membership types that meet a variety of needs (including a single-ride pass that encourages new people to try bikeshare on the spur-of-the-moment), and lastly, providing great service.

Is there anything exciting or unique about Biketown’s marketing and communications strategy to get people to try riding?

Right now we’re focused on building a brand that is fun, easy, accessible, and authentically Portland. I think the Biketown Instagram feed is a great example of that. Also, across all Motivate-operated systems, we’re focused on building strong member communications that welcome, educate, and engage members, to encourage folks to make the most of their memberships, and we hope, over time, renew.

With GPS on each bike, it shouldn’t be long before we see some detailed looks at exactly how Biketown is taking off in Portland. While some questions remain to be seen (will monetary rebalancing incentives ease the cost of moving bikes around?), it seems poised to become a key element of Portland’s already-famous bike infrastructure.

Photos: Top, a Biketown hub in the Pearl District (Adam Russell). Middle, an abandoned U-lock at a hub in downtown Portland (Adam Russell). Bottom, the author at Willamette riverside.

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