Thursday, August 11, 2016

Improving safe routes to school through champions for open data

The following post is based on my presentation to a Safe Routes to School National Partnership webinar, “Harnessing the Power of Data to Support Kids Walking and Biking.” My slides and a recording of the webinar 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 Schoolreport. 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, Middle, a presenter at August 2015’s Walk Hack Night (MV Jantzen, Flickr).
This article originally appeared on Mobility Lab.

Portland’s new Biketown bikeshare proving popular and easy to use

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.
Ryan 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.
This article originally appeared on Mobility Lab.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Do you see yourself as a Patagonia or Prada person?

A brand is really only an idea. Strictly speaking, a brand doesn't even exist.  That said, a brand is much more than just a logo or TV ads.  If your airplanes fall out of the air all the time, that's what defines you, not your social media or those other things.

Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits is a book featuring conversations with marketing and communications leaders, and what it mostly boils down to is that brands exist in each person's mind whoninteracts with them.

The word brand originates from long, long ago. Ancient Egyptians branded their livestock with fire. But the phrase is much older than that even. The kind of mass-market branding we think of today really originated with the UK's trademark registration act in 1874 and now, a little more than a century later, there are more than 100 brands of bottle water alone.

Debbie Millman
While people like Naomi Klein in her legendary No Logo book may consider this a good or bad thing, Brand Thinking's interviewer/author Debbie Millman is most interested in asking why we behave this way, why we split into tribes who choose one water over another, and why we proclaim our various allegiances.

Conversations in the book include:

  • Design research and the inadequacies of branding consultancies
  • Procter & Gamble's move to purpose-driven brands
  • Why wit is crucial in branding
  • Smart Design's emphasis on creating cooking tools that work for all people, from experts to novices
  • The balance between enlightenment and commodity
  • How top brands embody archetypes
Whether we see ourselves as a Patagonia person or a Prada one is entwined in all sorts of cultural, economic, spiritual, and even mysterious processes. Stay tuned as I dig through this book and dig into some of the most interesting ideas.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Janis Joplin's emotional intelligence shines through in documentary format

Don Adams of Get Smart interviewing Janis Joplin in the middle of the documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue is hilarious and a fascinating glimpse at a very different time in American pop history.

I have never been a huge Joplin fan on album. But this documentary, with Chan Marshall of Cat Power narrating Joplin's letters and words and Alex Gibney who has directed great docs on Enron and Scientology, is the perfect way to enjoy her brand of "emotionally honest" blues rock.

She's mesmerizing to watch, smart, and a good-hearted person who brought the clearly inferior Big Brother and the Holding Company along for a wild ride.

Although she was perfect for her time, it would have been very interesting to see how her popularity could have unfolded in any era, like the 80s or 90s, other than the hippie late 60s.

The main reason I've never put her among the greatest is because too often she would be so drugged out of her mind that her performances were just awful, like at Woodstock, when she was spaced out with her "enabling" girlfriend on too much heroin. As she got nearer to her death at age 27, she became more and more of a caricature of herself.

None of her friends thought Joplin was going to die, but she did one last little heroin blowout and died October 4, 1970, 12 days before I was born. "Me and Bobby McGee," her biggest hit, was released months after her death.

This film biography makes a strong case for how much of a powerful preacher of love she was.
4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The good old days in Virginia apparently weren't so good (according to Mislaid)

Nell Zink's Mislaid begins as a promising examination of what life might have been like in 1960s to 1980s Virginia, but when the main character and her daughter suddenly decide to become blonde black people, it tailspins into a mess of a second half.

It peters out with no satisfying conclusion, which is a shame, because many vignettes within the thankfully pretty short novel are page turning, intriguing, and laced with smart literary references.

The story starts off in the 1960s at Stillwater College in Centerville, Virginia, where student Meg meets poet teacher Lee. They have a baby and get married and separated several years later. She runs off with their daughter and leaves him with their son. She then changes her daughter's identity from white to black, with not a lot of really clear explanation as to why. Years later they finally meet again through a chance encounter that involves their son's drug bust at the University of Virginia.

Zink gives us very little reason to care about any of the unlikeable characters and there's really nothing profound within the tricks she tries to pull regarding race, sex, and class.

The first chapter of Mislaid appeared in The New Yorker and certainly played a role in getting many people to want to read this one. But really, besides the editors at that magazine, Zink's fanbase mostly consists of Jonathan Franzen, who "discovered" her. I should have known not to read this book based on that information because I really don't want to like (even if I frequently have) Franzen's intellectually stuffed writing either.

My favorite thing about the book, actually, is the excellent mid-century, Archie Andrews/Mad Men-like artwork.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 11, 2016

Communicating transportation options, on “Talking Headways” podcast

My colleague Adam Russell wrote this up originally on Mobility Lab, about this 40-minute interview with me on the Talking Headways podcast that aired last week.

How can cities and transit agencies better reach out to commuters and guide them towards modes that aren't driving alone? How is the transportation landscape changing to include a greater breadth of transportation options?
Mobility Lab's communications director Paul Mackie recently discussed these questions and more with host Jeff Wood on the transportation and urbanism podcast Talking Headways. Referencing a communications struggle raised by previous guest Peter Norton, in which automakers dominate the culture of transportation by making cars the default "cool" mode, Mackie said the transit and active transportation industry has its communications battle cut out for itself:
“Maybe public transportation can’t afford to have 20 Super Bowls [like the car companies], but it feels like we’re so defensive. [The industry] reinforces the idea that biking, walking, and taking transit are unsafe activities, maybe even unfriendly activities. Why don’t we tell more positive stories about public transportation?”
Catch this discussion on the below episode of Talking Headways:
Photo by Sam Kittner, for Mobility Lab (

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Brian Wilson finds "Love & Mercy" in the 1960s and 1980s

Somehow I've never actually listed my 100 favorite musical acts (could have sworn I had, but a search of this blog turns up zilch). If I had, The Beach Boys would definitely be in my top 10, if not bordering on top 5.

So of course the recent movie Love & Mercy can't do much wrong in my eyes - there's always room for telling more parts of the story of leader Brian Wilson's life.

This one focuses on the eras when Brian was beginning to hear voices in his head, putting together the masterpieces that would be Pet Sounds and Smile and the end of the 80s and early 90s when he was under the prescriptive spell of Dr. Eugene Landy (played as needed, with no trace of likability, by Paul Giamatti).

The movie starts slowly, perhaps overstepping its dramatic aims, literally journeying into Wilson's ear before he buys a Cadillac from Elizabeth Banks's character, Melinda Ledbetter, who goes on to marry Wilson.

But the many scenes with Paul Dano (as a dead ringer for the young Brian) pay amazing attention to detail and are surprisingly excellent considering it's all been told before. John Cusack's scenes playing the older version of Brian are not as plentiful and don't work as well (partly because Cusack's casting is such a stretch); however, that part of the story has been less documented, so it's interesting material.

Some of the best scenes are when Dano directs a magical symphony that would turn into "God Only Knows" and other late-60s classics. Likewise, Cusack falling in love with Banks's character at Griffith Observatory above L.A. is touching, especially seeing how Wilson could still love a little under Giamatti's spell of prescriptions for supposed schizophrenia, under which he stayed in bed for most of three years letting himself deteriorate.

One of my favorite scenes is when the actual Brian Wilson plays my favorite of his solo songs, the titular "Love & Mercy." Beautiful, and heart-wrenching (see the video below), especially knowing the circumstances in which he wrote it.

4 of 5 stars