Category Archives: Urban interface

Electric Vehicle in Kyoto

Green cities are more pleasant

In the early twentieth century, people fled over-crowded cities for suburbs, or at least lower-density areas of the city, in part because of the poor environmental quality. While water quality in cities has significantly improved, and sewers are sanitary, and horses no longer befoul our streets, today still, air quality in cities is usually worse than in lower density areas.

Street Araber, c. 1976, Baltimore Maryland
Street Araber, c. 1976, Baltimore Maryland

Recent research by University of Minnesota colleagues reports:

Results: The proportion of physically active individuals was higher in high- versus low-walkability neighborhoods (24.9% vs. 12.5%); however, only a small proportion of the population was physically active, and between-neighborhood variability in estimated IHD mortality attributable to physical inactivity was modest (7 fewer IHD deaths/100,000/year in high- vs. low-walkability neighborhoods). Between-neighborhood differences in estimated IHD mortality from air pollution were comparable in magnitude (9 more IHD deaths/100,000/year for PM2.5 and 3 fewer IHD deaths for O3 in high- vs. low-walkability neighborhoods), suggesting that population health benefits from increased physical activity in high-walkability neighborhoods may be offset by adverse effects of air pollution exposure.

Over the coming decades however, hybrid-electric and electric vehicles are likely to be more common, if not the only vehicles allowed on city streets. The smell of the city will change. EV cities will be less polluted and much nicer, and thus more attractive than earlier polluted cities, or cities without such vehicle-type regulation. It will come a time that not only will cities be better for the global environment, resulting in less overall carbon emissions than lower density areas with greater distances and fewer shared walls, but they will be as good (if not better) for the individuals residing in them, with less overall pollution per capita and perhaps lower pollution intake than suburban areas.

View from the Train

St Pancras from wikimedia commons

Arnhem-2013 09 20 at 09 26 01

Copenhagen backside

Train stations are marketed as important to the “Image of the City“, and that we need a grand gateway to attract or welcome visitors. Yet think about this. If you are already on a train arriving in the city, you don’t need to be attracted. And your welcome is not the building’s front edifice, but instead its unseemly backside. As you approach the station you are inevitably passing through the lower rent industrial areas of of the city (what else would be near the nuisance of train tracks without the benefits of accessibility), areas which are often strewn with litter and festooned with graffiti on concrete walls.

If you really want to welcome visitors, you would not restore the head house, but instead the arrival path. The head house may send visitors on a magnificent farewell, but is no place for a grand arrival, all arrivers want to leave the train station as fast as possible after arriving.

Feels like the first time: Transit interfaces and the first time user | streets.mn

Cross-posted at streets.mn: Feels like the first time: Transit interfaces and the first time user:

Feels like the first time: Transit interfaces and the first time user

 

When arriving in a city for the first time, the visitor often seeks to move from the port of entry (the airport) to where they are staying (e.g. a hotel). Most airports have taxi services of some kind, but the urban Transportationist wants to take public transit.

I recently had the opportunity to reclaim my transit virginity on my trip to Copenhagen. I arrived at the airport on Saturday afternoon, collected luggage, exited customs and found my way to the rail platform. I picked the rail (S-train) platform instead of the Metro platform more or less by mistake (in retrospect, I should have taken the Metro). Fortunately I could buy tickets with my international credit card. There was a proof of payment system, but I was not checked.

 

Copenhagen Movia Bus

As the train approached the Central Station, there was an announcement that the train did not go to Norreport station, and to use a bus instead. I missed the bus number which I heard as mumble A, which in retrospect was 1A, and so I got on the 5A. (Most of the bus numbers end in A, I don’t know why). (In retrospect, I should have just walked to my destination). The bus driver accepted the rail ticket on the bus system. Unfortunately the bus went in a direction orthogonal to my destination. The good news is I got to see some interesting working class areas of Copenhagen (all of which did have side bike paths, which were widely used, some evidence for the Field of Dreams hypothesis – If you build it, they will come.). I did figure out this was the incorrect bus quickly enough, and exited, and found a bus stop. The bus stop had a system map. Hallelujah.

I figured out which buses I should take (4A to 5A or 150S), and after a third bus trip, wound up outside Nørreport station (which is actually the country’s busiest). Now to figure our where is my hotel. Fortunately I had a local area map. Unfortunately not all the streets were marked. Fortunately there are local maps at kiosks on the streets. Unfortunately, streets change names every block. Even more unfortunately, many different streets (some parallel, some perpendicular) are called “Shopping Street” “Strøget” I must have walked the entire system before I found my destination.

Local street map kiosk in Copenhagen

I did not use transit the next day.

On Monday, we were advised by conference organizers to use the bus to get to DTU, where the conference was. We were advised to catch a particular bus from outside Nørreport. There are many, many buses converging here, the station is under reconstruction, finding the right bus is tricky, much less the right one in the right direction. The bus stops were mobbed, the sidewalks were filled with Danish people waiting to board the very frequent public transit.

The more crucial question was how to get a ticket to use the bus. Getting a ticket at the airport was fairly straight-forward. Where were the bus tickets at the bus stop? Well, in the train station of course. We were advised to get a multi-day pass (since the conference was multi-day, and there would be return trips). Those were not being sold by the machines. I bought two tickets, one for the return. It turns out the tickets have a time limit on them (I think 3 hours from time of purchase). While I was struggling to figure out how the ticket machine worked, a Dutch researcher going to the same conference was having the same struggles, and though we had never met, asked if I was going to the same conference. Smallish world.

Crowded Bus stops at Norreport Station

We bought tickets, found the bus stop, got on board the bus. The next trick is figuring out where to get off. This we only managed by luck (most passengers were exiting at the stop nearest DTU) since the bus did not actually identify the bus stops (I think it was supposed to, it was a modern bus with lots of information systems, it just didn’t). Worse, the stop did not say something obvious like DTU (which was a block away and across the freeway), but instead the name of the local street we had never heard of and was not on the map. It is the stop after Ikea.

On Tuesday I was such a pro, I could help another conference goer who I met on the bus (who was using it for the first time) get to our common destination (still sort of a smallish world). I used the second ticket I bought the previous day (having gotten a ride home the night before), obscuring the date and time with my thumb. Yes, that makes me a transit scofflaw, a fare jumper … but I did pay for the ticket, so I felt morally justified.

Norreport Metro Station (Copenhagen) is very crowded in rush hour

I took a taxi on the airport return.

Next stop Netherlands. I landed at Schiphol (a convenient non-stop connection from Minneapolis) and needed to travel to Arnhem. There are convenient ticket machines at Schiphol airport, which take international credit or debit cards, or cash. All good. I even figured out which rail cars are 1st and 2nd class (the 1 and 2 painted on the side of the train are the class number, not the carriage number). I am sure I paid the “foreigner tax” and could have gotten cheaper tickets somehow if I were a local, but c’est la vie [dat is het leven].

When going back to Schiphol at trip’s end, I was leaving from Zaandam. The ticket machines there require a European debit card with Chip and PIN (different than the magnetic stripe based American debit or credit cards), or cash. There is a ticket agent (for certain hours), who also required the same payment mechanisms. The ATM machine at the station did not work at all. Fortunately there was an ATM near the station (down the steps). Unfortunately, the security agents at the station would not let me leave suitcase (damn terrorists), so I needed to bring it down, and back up, the steps. Then I paid the agent cash, and went down another set of steps to the platform.

Copenhagen bus stop information kiosk.

Copenhagen does not have streetcars. It has commuter trains, a Metro, and very modern buses. Of course the old-town is a beautiful pedestrian zone. There are bicycles everywhere. Aside from the interface issues, it seems to work very well for regular users.

Similarly, the transit and rail systems in the Netherlands generally work very well (aside from a 3 hour delay due to “Person under Train”).

Still, the interface issues dissuade first time users from using transit. In a transit-intense place like Copenhagen, there are few first-timers, and most of the visitors will not venture onto local transit since the learning curve is steep and its downstream value small (I at least get a blog post out of it) since time in Copenhagen is short for non-residents.

Language barriers and currency barriers dissuade international users from local transit.

In a place like Minneapolis, the interface issue is likely to be much more common for residents, much less visitors. How can someone outside the airport or downtown (maybe) figure out how to use transit for the first time. The bus drivers are helpful, and everyone in the world speaks English, but how do I know where the bus is going, what routes are served, when they run, their schedule, etc. without information? Many good systems have figured out how to display and update this information statically. We cannot wait on technology. Not everyone has a smartphone, and smartphone ownership is likely to be lower among bus transit users in particular.

Furthermore, if I am an international traveler, I don’t want to pay roaming charges for smartphone data. (My smartphone was acting primarily as a camera on my trip). Yet every place wants to attract conventioneers from out-of-town and especially out-of-country, we should figure out how to make their life easier.

We should of course have a much simplified payment system, either something likePayWave from credit cards or a standardized global Oyster Card that works on every system with a back-office clearinghouse to transfer money. But given the sorry confusion in which most transit systems reside, this is not going to happen within the decade.

Buses stop here. An Informative Minneapolis Bus Stop

The systems are not merely optimized for regular users (which is appropriate), they are very difficult to use for non-regular users. This is a huge barrier to entry. Where transit use is low, this is unfortunate, and will keep use low.

Posters and Promotion

130109 LU posters 1st

Como Zoo Poster at bus stop

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a city in possession of a good transit system must be in want of some posters. The art of the poster seems to have diminished with the emergence of so many alternative media, ranging from TV to Internet, and markets for commercial art from advertising to the Infographic. Yet we still want to communicate with transit users and encourage them to behave in certain ways (shop during the off-peak, don’t eat on the bus) or consider certain destinations.

While it would be great to have more new posters like the London ones in the upper left, we do not avail ourselves to the opportunities that are already present. I see ads for destinations at bus stops in the Twin Cities which don’t even tell you how to get there via transit. A recent one I saw was this otherwise excellent poster for the Como Zoo . How hard would it be for the Zoo ads (or all ads) to have a tag line at the bottom identifying which bus routes (the number 3) serve the Zoo? Maybe the transit agency could encourage posters for destinations to have brief transit information on the poster (by discounting the ad rate a little bit).

Sure, most customers won’t use it, half of advertising is wasted. Nevertheless, this piece of information lodges in the passerby’s mind that:

  1. It is in fact possible to get to the Como Park Zoo by transit,
  2. The number 3 bus goes near Como, if I need to go near there, I might be able to use a bus, and
  3. It might be possible to get other places by transit.

Forcing a round object into a square map

The earth is approximately a sphere, yet we try to force this round object into a square grid through the use of latitude and longitude and Ordinance Surveys. Why?
The rationale for use of grids depends on scale. We have naturally come to think of the earth rotating on an axis with a prime meridian reflecting that access on the surface, intersecting the axis at the north and south poles, complemented by an equator belting it. The equator has a natural physical meaning, but the prime meridian is arbitrary. Greenwich, England is no more the start of time than any other place. But longitude, if not latitude is arbitrary. The idea of longitude lines running north-south does have convenience in that it tends to align with the magnetic poles, and benefitting navigation.

SoccerBall

Geodesic domes, developed by Buckminster Fuller (who did not invent soccer, but whose name was given to the Fullerene) enclose spherical areas with a mesh of triangles, forming many hexagons and 12 pentagons.
We could remap the earth using geodesic principles. Fuller did this with his Dymaxion Map. The triangular cut marks do not align with latitude and longitude. However, one should be able to align the triangles with either latitude (the equator) or longitude (a prime meridian), though that might cut land masses, which dilutes the political point Fuller was trying to make.

Fullerene
DymaxionMap2
There are many ways to skin the earth, and stretch it out like a tanner stretches leather. The way we present this 3D object in 2D affects how we perceive it. We expect (in western countries) north to be up, and are disoriented when maps are presented otherwise. Yet we don’t expect our environment to clue us in very often, we don’t typically see compass marks in the pavement to show us which direction is north, to help us reorient (meaning turn to the east, oddly we never reoccident and turn to the west).
The map is the user interface to the environment, and we need to give it more consideration. We should also better embed navigation clues into our environment. Some cities post wayfinding systems around, especially near transit stops. Even (especially?) in the age of the almost ubiquitous smart phone, this still seems wise, so people can keep their eyes looking ahead, focused on the real environment, rather than face down in a phone, or staring into an imaginary distance with glasses.

Five Rules for Vital Streets | streets.mn

Now at streets.mn Five Rules for Vital Streets: “There are three seeds:

Five Rules for Vital Streets

Streets are vital when there is the feeling that there is something going on, of being where the action is. Successful places have vitality. By definition, dead places don’t. We don’t want too much vitality everywhere (I don’t want it on my street after 9 pm) and probably can’t support it. But surely we could have more active places then we do now with a better location of activities.

We drive to places we can walk around, rather than walk around our own neighborhood, unless we happen to live in a place with vitality.

Istanbul 2004 - 19

Why do we want to walk around? Because there are multiple things to do: find food, browse books, hear music, entice the intellect, watch people, stimulate the senses. This concentration of activities only happens because of the crowds around, and the crowds only gather because of the concentration. More begets more.

These are ‘economies of agglomeration’ as the economists might say or perhaps ‘network effects’. But they allow for the spontaneous walk-in business rather than the planned trip.

Many businesses are unlikely to attract spontaneous walk-ins, for instance vacuum cleaner repairs, [I don't normally walk around with a vacuum cleaner on the hope I will find a repair shop] and thus lose little by not being located in the center of action and save much on rent. There are limits to the value of agglomeration.

Some restaurants are so good, they require a reservation, and thus there is little spill-in traffic. But other businesses, by saving on rent, are foregoing additional business. Moreover, those businesses are denying potential spillover traffic to their would-be neighbors. It is a calculation that proprietors must do for themselves, but there is a coordination function that a good entrepreneur can serve, matching businesses that attract walk-ins with compatible stores, and maybe subsidizing (lowering the rent for) those that generate more spill-over traffic than they attract.

There are three seeds:

  • A concentration of people (customers, though they need not be spending money, that helps)
  • A concentration of stuff (suppliers, who need not be selling)
  • An environment that encourages people to spend time doing stuff (marketplace)

People concentrate for a variety of reasons – to exploit the material resources of the earth, to have safety in numbers, to find a pool of potential mates, or simply because it is at the intersections of routes between two other places. These intersections (nodes in transportation lingo), create opportunities.

In the streetcar era, people might change lines at a node, and those pedestrians would contribute to the street life necessary to support new businesses. In the highway era the scale changed, and nodes are the interchanges of freeways. Businesses, and especially shopping malls, take advantage of these points of high accessibility. But the shopping mall is now clearly the destination, not a side-product of a transfer point in the same way street-car corners were. Some further assertions about human nature:

  • People like pleasant climates – dry, not too hot, not too cold, clean air, not too loud.
  • People want to feel safe – they don’t want a car careening out of control disturbing their sidewalk café meal, they don’t want to think they will get run over crossing the street.
  • People are lazy – they don’t want to walk too far to get where they are going. If they are driving, they want easy convenient parking near their destination. They like to cross the street mid-block and don’t want to have to walk to intersections.
  • People are cheap – they don’t want to pay for that easy convenient parking, they prefer lower to higher prices for the same good.

The last two be summarized by the idea that “People take the path of least resistance”.

Observing cities around the world with an informed, but casual analysis leads me to assert some rules about the environment that lead to vitality or vibrancy.

  1. Buildings on the sidewalk – vibrant areas have buildings that abut sidewalks with not large gaps between the building and the walk. The density of activity is necessarily reduced by space between building and path (and thus other buildings).
  2. Sidewalks on the street – to have vitality, sidewalks must abut the street, or *be* the street in pedestrian only areas. Pedestrian only areas can work, and anyone who says otherwise has other interests at heart. This does not mean that they will work, but given the right environment, people would prefer to shop without having to look out for motorized vehicles.
  3. Streets move slowly – fast streets make pedestrians feel unsafe, and thus reduces the benefits of being on the sidewalk. Ideally streets are moving at pedestrian speed in the pedestrian area. Of course streets leading to the pedestrian area move faster, or people could not get there. One-way streets may not be inherently problematic, but one-way streets are generally that way to move more vehicle traffic faster through the area, which is the opposite goal of moving pedestrians between buildings within the area. On the other hand, one-way streets are easier to cross.
  4. Vehicle space on the street is minimal – wide streets increase the distance pedestrians must walk to reach other activities. Narrow streets give access to more stuff in less time. Hence the reason many enclosed shopping malls work better than many shopping streets is the density of stuff is fairly tight.
  5. Opportunities to explore just around the corner – hidden (pleasant) surprises are one of the things that make cities interesting to be in, if I go around this corner what will I discover. The same opportunities do not exist in an enclosed shopping mall, where everything is pre-mapped and tightly controlled, and I know each “block” ends at a parking ramp. Hidden unpleasant surprises however are one of the things that can kill a city, I don’t want to experience dread when I walk down an alley attached to my favorite shopping street.

This set of rules is by no means complete, but rules like these created street life in streetcar era places, and they create vitality in the better shopping malls.

What other rules do you have?

What are the most and least vital shopping areas in Minnesota?

Updated from a Transportationist post: July 12, 2007.

Welcome to Meteorological Spring

Today I saw one bus unable to get up a hill and one crash, both due to weather conditions (I got some video of the bus after its failure to climb the hill, but none of the crash, which was a minor fender-bender with some grill damage to the offending vehicle with apparently no injuries). Meetings are canceled left and right. My son’s school was canceled. My daughter’s school (a different school in the same building) was not. Welcome to Meteorological Spring.
More on Why we become such bad drivers when it snows at Streets.MN

QRious sidewalks

EmbeddedQR

ST sends me to Rio (via AP) which reports Bar codes on sidewalks give tourist info:

“Rio de Janeiro is mixing technology with tradition to provide tourists information about the city by embedding bar codes into the black and white mosaic sidewalks that are a symbol of the city.”

This might be a solution to improving navigability, though I think it will puzzle archeologists in 1000 years. The problem of course is it makes people look (1) at their phones rather than the city, and (2) at the sidewalk instead of what’s in front of them.