Thursday, December 14, 2017

Auto shows are dead, bring on the personal mobility device conventions

This article by me originally appeared at MobilityLab.org.

Auto shows are so 1999.
We’ve come a long way since then. Although most of the U.S. public is still heavily wed to personal autos, various industries – including the auto industry – are positive that the future will look different.
Such a future was on display last month at LA CoMotion, held in the Arts District of Downtown Los Angeles (Mobility Lab was a media sponsor). In many ways, it was just like one of those old auto shows, but instead, it was all about the variety of transportation choices now offered by “personal mobility devices.”
Attendees and exhibitors were convinced that, sooner or later, everyone will want a specialized device that will be perfect for their specific needs of getting around town, going to work, running errands, and reducing the time they need to be stuck behind the wheel.
One major hurdle for now: “Streets aren’t really designed for all these little devices we have out here,” said Katherine Perez-Estolano of the planning firm Arup, motioning towards the test tracks and exhibits outside the conference’s main speaking area.
She even (only half-jokingly) suggested that autonomous kayaks would be a great addition to the nearby L.A. River.
“That little ball that’s rolling around outside is real. This is all happening now,” suggested Stephen F. Smith from Carnegie Mellon University, in reference to the event’s omnipresent Gita, which acts as a kind of robotic luggage.
Sasha Hoffman, chief operating officer of Piaggio Fast Forward, which created the Gita (pronounced jee-tah), said the little round robot uses camera technology to recognize a person’s leg and then follows the person everywhere, carrying whatever – as long as it’s 45 pounds or less – that person needs for the day.
She pictures it being a feature of, say, a conceirge desk at a hotel or in high-rise or retirement communities, where people can unlock it with their smartphones, cart their stuff around as needed, and then return it for the next users.
The Gita was really the one product at LA CoMotion that most embraced good old walking. Most everything else seemed to recognize the one recurring, ultimate trait of humans: laziness.
Don’t want to walk to transit? Take this. Don’t want to use up your daily allotment of brainpower navigating to work through traffic in your own car? Take this.
Perhaps the personal mobility device that seems the furthest along in having a shot at altering the way many of us move around is the electric bike – which almost seems a little old-fashioned by now compared to many of the other products at LA CoMotion.
Bosch, along with making auto parts and dish washers, is now churning out perhaps the world’s best e-bike motors, which basically repurpose car tech for bike tech. Bosch-powered e-bikes rolled out in Europe about eight years ago and did the same in the U.S. about three years ago.
Demand for mid-drive, pedal-assist e-bikes is increasing at around 30 percent growth each of the past several years, according to Jonathan Weinert, sales and marketing manager for Bosch eBike Systems. 
“The really nice thing about pedal assist is that people love to bicycle but they hate the hills and the sweat. You still have to do some work with pedal assist, but it’s more like a moped. The barrier to cycling goes down because it flattens hills and shrinks cities.”
Weiner said e-bike companies originally saw older adults as the prime market, but now Millennials are showing more interest, families are buying cargo e-bikes, and younger people are using them for commuting and mountain biking. He said he thinks e-bikes will increase ridership for transit as well.
“The toughest thing is to get someone to throw a leg over an electric bike. Once they do, they’re sold on it,” he said. And by the thrilled looks on the faces of riders on the LA CoMotion test tracks, he’s correct.
The same could be said for those testing e-scooters. While not as fast as e-bikes, these devices have advantages such as taking up less space on streets and in storage. One of several that were featured at LA CoMotion was the folding urb-e, and it actually is pretty zippy. You may recall Silicon Valley TV star Thomas Middleditch riding (and struggling) around the office on one in a recent Verizon Wireless commercial.
Simon Caballero, an urb-e sales manager, said the Pasadena-based company sold 3,000 in its first year of operation five years ago and hasn’t looked back since.
“We partner with Metro and Metrolink in Southern California as the only electric vehicle allowed on their systems,” Caballero said about the scooters, which range in price from $900 to $2,000.
For those a little less comfortable enjoying the wind in their hair, the future will probably offer a world filled with driverless shuttles to take you from home to the subway, from one end of town to another, or along a sightseeing path.
The one available for test rides at LA CoMotion was courtesy of Transdev, an Illinois-based company that mostly has its eyes set on becominga solution for people whose walk to transit is a little further away than ideal.
But the vehicles could also be used at airports, business campuses, universities, amusement parks, and other places, according to Neal Hemenover, North America chief information officer for Transdev.
The company is currently working on some test pilots in Europe as well as San Ramon, Calif., which he said are similar to the Las Vegas pilot underway in that city’s busy tourist corridor.
Watch Hemenover explain further as he took me for a ride, and how the vehicle senses its environment:
Similarly, SAE International was on hand to give people test rides in a driverless car. Here’s what it felt like to ride in the passenger seat:
There was certainly a lot more on display at LA CoMotion (how could I forget drones? see below) – and it will be fascinating to watch which of these products catch on and which are relegated to the junk heaps of history.
But for now, another exhibitor was not offering a product but rather information, with a new website called Have A Go that helps people decide which personal mobility devices are right for them.
Photos and videos by Paul Mackie for Mobility Lab.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Los Angeles looks for the recipe to someday make itself a great transit city

This article originally appeared at Mobility Lab.


People often say it’s difficult to make a blueprint for how to plan transportation because every place across the world is different.
Katherine Perez-Estolano speaks at LA CoMotion
That may be somewhat true, but certain principles can apply everywhere and, at last week’s LACoMotion conference, there were promising signs that Los Angeles can usher in a more nuanced era than its historical image as the nation’s car capital.
When asked during a panel discuss what L.A.’s mobility revolution looks like, Katherine Perez-Estolano of the planning firm Arup said basic connections still need to be made throughout the region to make it easier to get across town.
“You get out of this area [the Downtown Arts District] just a few blocks and there are no paved sidewalks and [many sidewalks end mid-block]. It is the most interesting laboratory in the world. Everybody’s wondering what L.A. will do,” she said. “I’m kind of past urban transport and mobility, and I’m into a whole different place about how we access space and place.”
Just having that positive and creative-minded attitude alone – which is similar to the one L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti relentlessly has, including in his keynote address to the conference attendees – are steps in the right direction.
And all the happy talk is backed by reality. Bike lanes are popping up everywhere in the city. The powder-blue Expo Metro subway/light-rail line takes people from downtown to the ocean in Santa Monica in under an hour. Measure M is ushering in a massive transportation plan for the county and funding to support it.
“The number of places served by mass transit is going to more than double in the next 10 to 15 years. We’ll start having transit-oriented communities and people will start walking in those neighborhoods,” said Joshua Schank, chief innovation officer for Los Angeles County Metro.
But L.A. still has a Herculean task on mobility
There are so many good things happening in the City of Angels that it feels a little harsh to constructively criticize.
But one of those criticisms: Despite all the bike lanes in downtown and elsewhere – not to mention the increasingly excellent bikeshare system that ideally will continue expanding outwards from downtown – L.A. still feels very different than, say, Washington D.C. In the District, most drivers have come to expect other types of road users. In L.A., from my recent experience of biking and walking over the course of six days, the cars mostly rage past at significantly uncomfortable speeds. People on bikes are supported by stripes and sometimes green paint on the roads, but little else to prevent the creeping feeling of imminent doom.
Some of the ever-expanding LA Metro lines
Two, take the above-mentioned powder-blue Expo Line, most of which is above ground and offers good views of the passing neighborhoods. There is almost no transit-oriented development all the way to the coast. That will become necessary to get people out of their cars, and right now it looks like a major uphill battle since it’s almost all single-family households immediately adjacent to the line. I’m not convinced that the route was very thoughtfully or creatively planned. But then again, L.A. is pretty jam-packed with sprawling households everywhere, and there may not have been much else of a choice.
Three, there’s the Metro Red Line, which opened in 1993 and carries impressive amounts of passengers between Union Station downtown out to North Hollywood. Buses lines expand the transit system from all the stations, but those buses take an often-prohibitive long time. I disembarked at several Metro Red stations, but they are really spread far apart and are no doubt unattractive to the many people who have jobs near the halfway points between stations.
There’s another real concern that truly does speak more specifically to L.A. – and California cities in general – and that’s the shocking and sad degree of homelessness. Governor Jerry Brown was recently quoted saying that his state had succeeded at getting about 74,000 of the 75,000 people with mental-health problems released from prison. He noted that the new problem is that about 1,000 still remain behind bars and the rest are living on the streets because there is nowhere else for them to go.
This affects public transportation greatly. It’s no stretch to imagine a lot of people simply won’t ride transit because they’ve had uncomfortable or even unpleasant run ins with mentally-ill people. They were sleeping in every station I visited and riding every train I took, and sometimes this can add to the appearance of dirty or unsafe trains and buses. And compared to many systems around the world, L.A.’s transit is indeed dirty.
Some of L.A.’s expansion of transit will need to address these issues to truly make a dent in car culture. As it stands, according to the L.A. DOT’s general manager Seleta Reynolds, “You can get to 12 times as many jobs in L.A. by car as you can by transit. Not having a car can be tough in L.A.”
How to make a mobility future happen in L.A.?
Perez-Estolano again made a great point: that people will need to almost be tricked into using “transportation options” without knowing they are having to do so.
“There’s power in allowing people to be engaged and participating in things when they don’t even know they’re being engaged,” she said, citing the CicLAvia events that close iconic and busy Wilshire Boulevard for hundreds of thousands of people only on bikes and foot.
And don’t forget about marketing. If there’s one thing we can count on L.A. doing well besides miserable traffic, it’s entertainment. The city is the best transit advertiser in the U.S. – albeit with a ridiculously low bar, but still notable.
Riders enjoying the Metro
“It’s really a lot about marketing,” agreed Gabe Klein, the former leader of both D.C. and Chicago’s DOTs. “In Copenhagen, you get off the plane and there’s a giant picture of a bike and how to use your transit card.”
All transit agencies could be better at making the case for whatever positive claims-to-fame they might have. Klein noted that it’s faster to use Divvy bikeshare for most trips in downtown Chicago than to use the train. Jay Walder of Motivate said the same is true for Citi Bike over yellow cabs in Manhattan. Those notable claims, along with many others, should be better publicized.
No matter where you live, one thing does remain the same. “People are lazy,” said Sean Rhodes of the design firm frog. “People bike in Copenhagen not because gas is $10 a gallon or for health. They bike because it’s the fastest way to get around. As that becomes the situation, you’ve still got to be safe and comfortable, and it’s got to be super easy. We’re energy conserving and lazy and that’s just the way it is. We’re not going to change that.”
Rhodes added another funny sidenote: “People in Denmark say they don’t exercise. But they ride eight miles to work. We need to make the healthy sustainable options the default.”
A train arrives at the movie-themed Hollywood/Vine station
L.A. is no great transit city yet. The percent of people who take transit in L.A. is equivalent to the percent of people who do so in Buffalo, N.Y., said Gina Trombley from Bombardier Transportation.
But again, the city’s leaders may truly end up setting the agenda for the rest of the country on how to reimagine a world of transportation options that will align with the needs of young and future generations. Many of the speakers at LACoMotion expressed the right mindset – pretty simple stuff, really – as they get started.
“I hope there are mobility hubs where people congregate and create happy neighborhoods,” Reynolds said.
Photos by Paul Mackie/Mobility Lab.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Sightseeing around L.A. on public transportation

My Sunday in Los Angeles (see my Saturday on the Sunset Strip here) started with a nice little bike ride down to Chinatown from my hotel to get bánh mì sandwiches for breakfast. This is something I could probably do just about every breakfast, especially if it were as good as this restaurant in a back alley with a really friendly mom-and-pop working called Buu Dien at 642 N. Broadway. The owner said they make everything fresh and he took great pride in the two coffees he made for me.



To walk off my full stomach, I strolled the 20-minute walk back to my hotel to catch a little football before going out for more adventures on the day. With the California sun shining brightly, I enjoyed looking at all the municipal buildings, some of which were made extra famous by the O.J. Simpson shenanigans of the 90s.





There were lots of other beautiful buildings in my hotel's district, on a high hill in downtown, such as the beautiful modern L.A. Philharmonic structure.




After watching some NFL action, I was off to explore the LA Metro subway, which is a pretty good option to at least some locations around the city. And it often beats staring at traffic or riding in the Uber and Lyft cars whose drivers here all seem to have not gotten the memo to lay off the man cologne.


I took the Red Line two stops up from MacArthur’s Pershing Square to get out and walk at Wilshire/MacArthur Park. I didn’t know anything about MacArthur Park except for the Donna Summer song. But now I know that it’s a filthy place bathed in pigeons everywhere, dirty sidewalks, and at least one dude peeing very much in the wide open. That said, it’s well worth the walk, with the L.A. skyline in the background and the palm trees dotting the park and its large body of water.








One reason why the Metro clearly becomes less of an option for people is that the stops are pretty darn far apart, even for someone in relatively good shape. My walk from the Westlake/MacArthur Park station to Wiltshire/Vermont took a solid 20 minutes, and the latter station itself is tucked back in a corner off the street and down a long elevator.




I recently read that this is one of the most walkable stretches in L.A., which is true, since there are wide sidewalks and good crosswalks. But I also sense the bar here for "walkable" is set rather low.




But the trains themselves, once they arrive and get going, other than the serious homeless problem everywhere, including at transit hubs, are really fast and pleasant.


I decided I wasn’t going to miss the sun set and what better place to go than Sunset Boulevard? As I exited the Vermont/Sunset station, I noticed a sign for a 50-cent DASH bus to the Griffith Observatory and Hollywood sign, so I jumped on it (they run frequently).








The lines to and from the observatory are outrageous, but the public-transportation combo of train and bus was actually probably the best way to go. I was in and out in an hour or so. And then it was off to take the train back to my hotel to pack it in for the night on another action-packed day in L.A.



Thursday, November 23, 2017

My rock-n-roll night walking down the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles

With most of the LACoMotion conference I was attending in the books, I started my Saturday night walk down the length of the Sunset Strip by getting dropped off in my Lyft at the Roxy, starting on pretty much the far west end of West Hollywood. The place is famous for many things (including the wacky Will Ferrell comedy Night at the Roxy), but mostly for giving Pee Wee Herman his start, serving as the home base of John Lennon's "lost weekend" of the early 1970s, and being madam Heidi Fleiss's hangout in the 1980s.


I had planned to take public transportation but it was just going to be too long on the bus, so I endured the infamous Los Angeles traffic, exemplified most by this kind of excess (fast cars and Hustler mega-shop).



Next up, right down the street from the Roxy is the Whiskey a Go Go. Quiet Riot was on the bill this night, although such a show would be no match for previous ones, like when The Doors got fired as the house band after playing "The End." The Whiskey recently started a channel on Roku with lots of their best concerts available to view.



And then the old Tower Records, which, even though is sadly long closed, remains in place as an historical landmark.



And right across the street, there’s Book Soup, billed as "the bookseller to the great and infamous." Fittingly, it has a pretty killer selection of music books and albums.



Up next, I walk through Sunset Plaza, which is a strip of upscale shops, with every other person looking like someone who might be famous. I have less interest in this than I do the area continuing on eastward that gets back to being a little grungier. It also starts to look pretty cool with houses pocked all over the hills above.

Oh, and by the way, this is how all those huge movie and entertainment signs get posted around town. These guys were pasting this one to the entire side of this building.



The Fred Segal is supposedly a hot place to spot the stars, but I had little action to report. Perhaps 7 pm on a Saturday night is not quite the ideal time to be walking past.




Then the highlight of the walk might just be an overlook nestled back behind some buildings just to the east of La Cienega Boulevard, which runs straight south for as far as the eye can see. Off to the west you can see the skyscrapers of West L.A. and the UCLA area. Continuing scanning onward towards the east, it’s amazing to see just how far downtown is. I think of how it will be an epic trip back there, as the plan is to continue walking on Sunset another two miles until Il get to the Metro Red line.





Continuing along, I get to some famous landmarks for lodging, with this ungodly hotel and then the famed Chateau Marmont, where John Belushi died of an overdose and which was featured in Oliver Stone's movie The Doors.








There’s a long stretch for a while with not a lot except for a nice cool breeze in my hair and palm trees. Then I came upon a stretch of music stores that I bit my tongue to keep from going in, worried I would get lost and never want to leave.




Coming towards the end portion of my walk, I bypass In-N-Out Burger next to Hollywood High School. I’m getting so hungry, but I keep walking.






I know I should go to the hotel Roosevelt, with its rooftop bar, but I can’t stomach paying $18 for a not-very-good drink that everybody online says I would be in for.


Going from the Sunset Strip over to Hollywood Boulevard, I enter a whole different world. I wasn't expecting such a mass of people at the intersection of Hollywood and Highland. And of course, the stars on the Walk of Fame cover nearly all the sidewalks. The historical society apparently gets about $30,000 a pop (pay to play) so they will take you if you apply. I was perhaps most impressed by Stephanie Powers, right in front of a McDonald’s. Jonathan Hart would be proud.






Risking all, I ate next to the homeless kids at the Hollywood and Vine Metro station at a place called Wood & Vine. Not a great choice, but it got my stomach filled for what is a pretty quick Metro ride back to downtown.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Charles Manson dies, as the 1960s continue their long march into history

So weird, I was walking past the Church of Scientology tonight at the same time Charles Manson died. And had also been considering going to the Spahn Ranch before I came back to my senses.

This blog has made reference to Charles Manson no less than six times, now seven, since it began in 2009.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Devote 10 minutes to Margaret Atwood's meta-fiction

I haven’t read the Canadian great Margaret Atwood since I was in college. And I’ve been meaning to get back to her writing for a long time.

The Handmaid’s Tale from 1982 is first and foremost on my list of Atwood reading priorities - both the TV version and the book. But for now, I took a look at one of my old college English literature textbooks and found a short story titled "Happy Endings" by Atwood. I sat down and read it and thought it was so brilliant that I re-read most of it a couple of different times to family members visiting in town.

The story starts off: “John and Mary meet. What happens next? If you want a happy ending, try A.”

From there, Atwood gives different scenarios A through F. John and Mary have a picture perfect - or at least what many of us imagine to be the picture perfect life. But things start to deviate starting with scenario B. Mary is in love with John but John isn't in love with Mary. John only sees Mary at her house when she makes dinner for him. Her friends say that John is a creep and has been seeing eating out with someone named Madge. Mary ends up killing herself and John marries Madge, and they’re happy.

In C, John is an older married man who is in love with Mary but Mary is just having an affair with him and is in love with her boyfriend, who is her own age and who has a great record collection and likes motorcycles. John finds Mary with her boyfriend and shoot them both and then himself. His wife, Madge, eventually finds someone named Fred who she lives happily ever after with.

In D, Fred and Madge are in love but a tidal wave wipes out their neighborhood and a lot of people die, but they escape to live happily. In E, Fred dies of a heart attack and Madge carries out lots of charity work afterwards. In F and the end of the short story, Atwood seems to be saying that all stories have the same ending and that the important thing is how the stories get to those endings.

5 out of 5 stars. Everyone should spend 10 minutes of their lives reading this. And if you want to go deeper in analyzes the scenarios, check this out.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Best Magazine Reads: Beetle Bailey and Connecticut's "Cartoon County"


I've visited Fairfield, Connecticut before because some of my wife’s cousins live there. What I didn’t know about the outer New York City suburb is that it had been home to an inordinate number of famous daily-newspaper cartoonists.

Mort Walker (pictured to the right) is perhaps the most famous of the crew detailed in a fantastic article in the September issue of Vanity Fair. I rank his Beetle Bailey as one of my favorite dailies, up there with Archie, Garfield, Peanuts, and, actually, several other strips emanating from Cartoon County, including Hagar the Horrible, Blondie, Popeye, The Family Circus, and Hi and Lois. The place also has ties to Superman, Tarzan, Prince Valiant, and many others. It’s really pretty phenomenal.

The cartoonists lived different lives than the working men (and the cartoonists seem to have been all men) who headed into the city each day. They sat at home in their offices that smelled of sharpened pencils, tobacco, and whiskey, were pretty domesticated by their families, and only went into the city on Wednesdays to show off their latest works to various publishers and editors. Then sometimes they would go to gatherings with the other cartoonists to drink lots of Manhattans. And they played quite a bit of golf and took lots of naps. Pretty nice work if you can get it. Maybe that’s why “cartoonist” was always on my short list of potential professions!

The author, son of the Prince Valiant cartoon, notes that Cartoon County was a quirk in time. Cartoonists were rock stars, creating the most-read portions of the newspapers, up until the early 60s, when Hearst killed what the group considered its Mount Olympus, the New York Journal-American. Then later Wall Street further killed Fairfield County as an affordable place where cartoonists could live comfortably.

Even I remember a time when the newspaper would clunk down near the front door. I would run out to get it and grab the funny pages, and maybe sometimes the sports section, and throw the rest of it down wherever. At that point, I was a remnant of an earlier age, when just about every kid (and adult) couldn’t miss the cartoons each and every day, with the special, fuller, mostly-color Sunday editions being the highlight of each week.