Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Untangling the jumbled path towards the ultimate connected city

Here is my latest article for Mobility Lab. It's part one of a two-part series that is helping me contextualize in my head the panel I'm moderating in two weeks at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas called "How to Uber-ize Public Transit to Save It."

Smartphone owners feel connected much of the time, for better or worse. But shouldn’t that be the goal for physical movement as well, to be literally that connected – with a transportation system that could take one anywhere at any time?
That’s a big ask. But what’s exciting is how realistic the vision is for cities that dramatically alter outdated transportation planning. And this is not just about the New Yorks and San Franciscos; auto-oriented towns and cities can develop completely new blueprints for how people get around.
Many people and organizations have taken cracks at defining the connected city. Often these delve into the realm of Internet of Things-type technology. And beacons, smart traffic lights, and sensors are a big part of cities in the future.
But from Mobility Lab’s standpoint, we look at the connected city as more about access, and making sure people can get to jobs, shopping, family and friends, and healthcare as easy as possible. And that they can do this without owning a car if necessary. Affordable, efficient, easy access from anywhere, anytime is the heart of a “connected city.”

Finding new funding

Of course, the major elephant in the room is always funding, most of which still goes to highways and roads, which have both divided and connected our cities over the past century. The good news is that autonomous vehicles and an increasing focus on making places bikeable and walkable could offer avenues for bringing mass-transit funding up above its typical level of 20 percent of the overall transportation budget. The bad news is that it’s still unclear whether the growth of services like Uber and Lyft will compromise transit funding sources or expand their pool of possible riders.
“Fortunately, communities are increasingly willing to tax themselves” to fund transit expansions, says Darnell Grisby, director of policy development and research at the American Public Transportation Association, who spoke at an “Ultimate Connected City” panel I moderated at TransportationCamp DC in January. “There will be a whole new way that agencies are structured with new connectivity coming online.”

Public agencies must dramatically adjust their planning

The National League of Cities 2016 “Cities of the Future” report [PDF] made even clearer how cities are woefully prepared for new transportation technologies. Of the 68 metropolitan areas analyzed, only 3 percent considered the effects of app-based, on-demand companies like Uber and Lyft in their city plans. Only 6 percent considered the effects of driverless technology. Meanwhile, 50 percent have explicit plans for new highway construction.
The federal government has taken some recent steps in the right direction, with an Obama administration report [PDF: pages 34-35] recommending pilots, workforce training, company and city partnerships, and research into future transportation engineering for autonomous vehicles.
Some places are already making headway on these guidelines. In San Francisco, if new mobility providers meet the necessary requirements, the S.F. Office of Innovation’s new City Transportation Platform grants them access to public rights of way. On a smaller, short-term scale, Washington, D.C’s Metrorail has been aggressively asking customers how it can improve, notes that “competitors” are really partners in connecting the region, and has been implementing some customer suggestions. These are the kinds of elements that need to go into comprehensive, nimble, flexible local transportation plans.
New adhesives clarify for riders
New adhesives clarify for Metrorail riders where the end of six-car trains stop at the platform.
APTA’s Grisby adds, “We would need to re-invent government. How do we maintain social equity? How can we show we’re going to be responsible with taxpayer money while making these changes? All of these changes need capital, cash, and this requires trust. We need trust.”

Public agencies must see advantages to competing confidently

Despite some remaining hesitancy, city leaders are beginning to dabble in this space. Joshua Schank, LA Metro’s first chief innovation officer, says, “As long as we continue to run mass transit systems that are treated like social services, instead of treating them as if they’re trying to attract customers and they’re trying to compete, then you’re going to have real problems in terms of trying to get our capacity to be used more effectively.”
The vision statements in many of the U.S. DOT Smart City Challenge applications show the beginnings of lights turning on. But other local officials still have a long way to go to research and understand carsharing, ridesharing, new technologies, and the needs of their constituents. Getting all of this mobility right will be a significant competitive advantage for cities, according to a recent report from McKinsey and Bloomberg.
To make one or multiple connected cities happen, local governments – and perhaps the feds as well – will simply have to start jumping in the water more than they have so far. In Finland, a government bureau called Liikennelabra (Traffic Lab) works to bring inexpensive transit providers to cities. Part of the answer may be that simple – a more fluid array of public options.
“What an agency looks like today may look different 20 years from now. A transit agency might be a contract manager, partnering with all sorts of entities. The question is: can we encourage folks to try? To not be afraid of failure?” Grisby asks.
Many transit agencies are already on the right track, but often fail to communicate the true benefits of key transit service. Transit planner Jarrett Walker recently wrote:
“The most urgent thing transit agencies need to do, right now, is start talking more confidently about what their fixed-route, high-ridership transit service is achieving, so that they negotiate with the new players from a position of strength and confidence.”
One example: Seattle has consistently supported its bus and rail transit in recent years, drawing higher rates of transit ridership to its booming downtown in a time when bus ridership is dropping in most cities.
seattle bus - BeyondDC
Seattle buses, which are given dedicated space in parts of the city’s downtown.

Educating and informing connective habits

It’s a bit surprising how successful transit projects are across the country. We’re still largely a drive-alone culture in which carpool rates have fallen consistently since the 1980s. To truly have a connected city, where people can move around seamlessly, people must be willing to share rides, and they must be aware of the availability of these options.
There is indeed hope that people are increasingly understanding that they have non-driving transportation options available. More than 30 percent of households do not own a car in six of the 30 largest U.S. cities. And people want these options, as seems apparent by the 77 cities that applied for the Smart City Challenge and the influx of younger residents to places with transit and walking options.
Connected cities must be woven into the fabric of people’s lives. There’s little doubt that Los Angeles is successfully experimenting with this concept. LA Metro is seeing a surge of new light rail riders to Rams football games because the Expo line offers a much-better deal than expensive parking at the stadium. Coordination around big events is a great way to help change people’s habits, and LA’s Olympic committee wants to further embed non-car culture into the city through its planning for the 2024 Games.
Consumer-oriented technology certainly has a big role to play in educating people, too. Apps, such as Metropia, which incentivizes people to drive or travel during off-peak hours, or like Mobidot, which helps people monitor and improve their travel behavior, offer new options. Education efforts like these might be key puzzle pieces for creating connected cities.
Next, a look into how cities are finding creative ways to enhance the connectivity of their transportation systems.
Photos, from top: D.C.’s Eastern Market, where Metro riders can connect to the DC Circulator or Capital Bikeshare (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com). A six-car Metrorail sticker (WMATA). Buses in Seattle (BeyondDC, Flickr, Creative Commons).

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Pop Week: Parquet Courts leads off a rock 'n' roll week

The definite highlight of my week was seeing Parquet Courts at the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C. It was such a rocking show that I think it actually made me sick for much of the latter half of the week.

That's the power of rock 'n' roll, and also presents the sad facts that I must be getting older and it's been way too long since I've been to a concert.

Regardless of how long it's been since I've seen a show, there was no denying how awesome this one was. Also, despite the fact that the Courts didn't play my very favorite song, "Stoned and Starving," it was far from any kind of let down. Here's their set list, and definite highlights were "Human Performance," "Dear Ramona," "Berlin Got Blurry," and "One Man No City," to somehow name a few.

Parquet Courts is my favorite contemporary rock band these days, alongside long-time titleholder Wilco and Foxygen, which I'm seeing next month. Stay tuned on that one. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

And if rock 'n' roll was the theme of the week, then this Archie Andrews thing is fitting right in. I can't get enough of Riverdale on the CW. So I took to the new era of Archie graphic novels as well, reading the final issue of Life with Archie, where he dies in highly dramatic fashion. The first half of the double commemorative issue leads up to Archie being shot at Jughead's restaurant during a fundraiser for political upstart and acclaimed gay Senator Kevin Keller. the storyline also makes us wonder who Archie has been married to for the past several years. Is it Betty or Veronica?. The second half, which I'm still reading, takes place a year later. Also stay tuned. Five out of five star

Despite all his problems in recent years, I still consider Woody Allen pretty rock 'n' roll. Although not among my favorite of his prime-era classics, 1982's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, received a rewatch this week, and it holds up relatively well as a Shakespearean take-off. It didn't make my top 21 Woody Allen films, and it's a little slow by today's movie standards, but it's somehow still 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Another classic I rewatched this week, since my son is now old enough to start watching some key film milestones, was Raiders of the Lost Ark. Little needs to be said about this 5-star flick that came in 17th on my list of all-time favorite movies.

The Age of Innocence, lastly, offered some rock 'n' roll via the classic novel. I still love the 1993 film version with Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder, but really, how could those actors mess up with a script this juicy? Newland Archer battles his whole life over cousins May and Ellen, in true Betty and Veronica love-triangle fashion. However, the "innocence" of the era's social structure makes it impossible for him to ever end up with his true love. This may sounds rom-com, but oh no, everyone should read this page turner before they die. 5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Pop Week: How a big event like the Super Bowl is so rare these days

This is a new column I've promised myself each week, to tie all the random TV, movies, magazine articles, books, and more that I've ingested each week into a loosely-tied-together glimpse on what the world might mean at that very moment. Call it an experiment. Here goes ...

The Super Bowl set up a pretty phenomenal pop-culture week, with its satisfying ending for anyone who loves high drama but its very unsatisfying ending for those who still retained a glimpse of hope that the Steelers would remain the greatest football franchise of all time instead of the Patriots.

It was the rare event that brings the nation together in a common conversation, like All in the Family and, to a lesser extent, Seinfeld, used to do.

My favorite magazine read of the week was "The Social Medium is the Message" in WIRED's special section of the 49 trends that will shape the very near future. It looked at how we need to seriously re-examine our Facebook and Twitter use. In a country still tragically lacking in media literacy (how we use and can understand media), Marshall McLuhan would have recognized Donald Trump's Twitter propaganda as eerily similar to how fascist leaders of the 1940s spoke to their citizens. Further, he would have recognized how our avalanche of information and misinformation (heavy thanks to social media) could foster fear and anger about the world.

Another example of how our society has gone from major to meta is Archie Andrews. Long ago, every kids read the comic-book in the newspaper or watched him on TV, but nowadays, he's just another of the many dozens of shows that premier each week. But man is Riverdale a good one, and it is my favorite TV show of the week. It takes Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, and all the other players to deep, dark places in ways the comic books never did. It's like a new remake of 90210, but only much better than that recent semi-fiasco and much more suspenseful.

Ryan Reynolds continues to underwhelm me, after a promising early career. I know he's sort of like the Tom Brady of actors to many people and Deadpool is like the Superhero Super Bowl to some, and I appreciated it's yearning to be a different, more adult version of a superhero movie. But it's just too winking-nudge-nudge-hipster for my tastes. There are some fun scenes, but Deadpool is the most boring movie of the week. Cool-looking Spider Man-looking knock off though. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

For what very well may be the most boring (but important) article I wrote for the week, see
"New services are moving fast, and cities are looking to update procurement processes to keep up." It could definitely make the ears of government groupies pop up.

And finally, now that football is over, the world of college basketball is starting to seriously heat up. It continued to be a rough year using my season tickets to Georgetown games. In what often seems like a talented team with Coach John Thompson III not necessarily all there, the Hoyas at least had a little fight in losing at home in overtime to Seton Hall and then on the road to #2 Villanova. My teams completed the win-challenged week with North Carolina barely losing at Duke.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

I suppose La La Land leads the pack of recent movies I've seen

It's been a long time since I really wanted to go to movie theaters. Uncomfortable seats, sticky floors, crinkling wrappers, ridiculous prices, traffic, and heart-attack food selections.

But then I discovered the Wheaton AMC just up the road. Movies before noon are $5, seats are massive leather recliners, there's a bar (haven't hit that up yet), and there's a sweet Vietnamese bahn mi sandwich joint across the street.

A summary of some of the movies I've seen recently, some at Wheaton and some elsewhere:
  • La La Land: I don't like a ton of movie musicals, so this was a tough one to take in some ways. There are a lot of things I liked about this multi-award winner. But Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are fantastic as the romantic leads. The plot is a little light and some of the songs aren't very good, but I like how the movie moralizes that life is usually not much like Hollywood. I don't think it is the best movie of the year, but it will probably win the Oscar in a few weeks. 4 out of 5 stars.
  • As a footnote, the movie musicals I like most are, in no particular order: The Wizard of Oz, West Side Story, anything with Travolta, This is Spinal Tap, South Park, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, what I know of Hamilton, Willy Wonka, Annie, I suppose the Julie Andrews stuff, and Sing Street.
  • Sing Street: This is the best musical I've seen in a while. It's sort of the Irish version of School of Rock and features beautiful rock songs. 5 out of 5 stars.
  • Hidden Figures: What a story. I may be secretly cheering for this on Oscar night. The unheralded (until now) African-American women who played such a crucial role in NASA's golden era of space travel is truly inspiring, especially in today's entirely uninspiring political climate. 4 out of 5 stars.
  • Sing: This is like an actually good version of American Idol, with lovable, huggable animated animals playing the roles of stars of stage. Totally enjoyable for kids and adults. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
  • Night of the Hunter: My new cable setup has some good old movies, so it was nice to finally see this Robert Mitchum classic. He plays a traveling preacher who specializes in serial killings and terrorizing young kids. Kind of ahead of its time and very creepy. 4 out of 5 stars.
  • True Grit: I love a good Jeff Bridges flick, and this one has him playing bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn. I had completely forgotten that I'd seen it, but it's really really good. The cornpone Western dialogue is completely mesmerizing. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
  • TV Bonus - Search Party: I also just finished watching season one of this TBS ... dramedy? It's a hard-to-classify weirdo hipster thing that is apparently the creation of Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development). It's not as great as TV's #1 comedy Baskets, but I'm hooked. 4 out of 5 stars.