This week I was a research participant in an MIT Media Lab project with the Persuasive Urban Mobility team of the The Changing Places Group. A key goal of the research is driving adoption of environmentally friendly behaviors in cities through persuasive environmental and social factors as well as through technologies that make adopting these behaviors easier. One of the key researchers on the team, Agnis Stibe, describes the concept of persuasive cities in depth in his recent TEDx Beacon Street talk. One example of environmental and social persuasion that he uses in his talk involves posting stats about bicycle commuters crossing the Harvard bridge. If you knew that 2,500 bikers crossed the bridge today (instead of staring at the 5 bikers out your window), that might persuade more car commuters to give biking a try. Commuting by bike would then be viewed as a more normal activity and not something that a weird minority engages in.
The project I participated in was about testing a mobile app protype that hopes to turn skittish / reticent cyclists into more confident urban cyclists through a voice-based coaching app. Eager to improve my own cycling and to mix up my kickscooter routine with some bigger wheels, I signed up to test out the prototype. Project team member Matthias Wunsch greeted me outside the Media Lab and handed me a smartphone and some basic Apple headphones. At first, the coach told me to practice rapid braking. Once I had mastered this move, I was ready to start my urban ride on the busy streets of Kendall Square.
The term “transit signal priority” (TSP) doesn’t sound too exciting; It’s a rather forgettable phrase. Easier to get excited about bike lanes, car share and Hyperloop as new transportation ideas than TSP. But, after a few months of becoming familiar with the idea, I now see why TSP and dedicated transit lanes are key to improving urban mobility today. When I talk about efficiency, I am referring to people’s time, pocket books, and energy use. According to TransitWiki: “TSP are operational improvements in the public transportation infrastructure that reduce dwell time at traffic lights for transit vehicles by holding green lights longer or shortening red lights.” In other words, Buses and trains get their own lights, with their own timing.
From what I’ve gathered, TSP exists in Boston in two parts of town: along several intersections of the Silver Line Bus route and at four intersections of the Bus 57 route. But the impact of TSP on bus service in these areas is minimal as the lights only speed up bus service when they are behind schedule (according to an Urban Liberty article). This adds predictability to my commute but does not help reduce the current wide gap that exists between car and bus commutes in the city.
I finally got my hands on the eMicro from Micro Scooters a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been having a blast riding it around Boston. I also took it to Long Island, New York over Memorial Day Weekend. As I wrote about in an earlier post, It’s the lightest electric scooter on the market at 16.5 pounds. With this new vehicle in my arsenal, I can now travel much farther with less effort. The picture below of the scooter’s box cover provides its key stats:
Light does not mean flimsy. On the contrary, it is made of high quality, robust parts and it is incredibly high-tech. The scooter is motion-controlled which means that the motor engages based on the rider’s movements. To make sure the rider is ready for the motor to kick in, she/he has to be going at 3mph before the motor engages. The back of the deck is packed with sensors and when you perform a scooter kick, the scooter will continue to accelerate until it reaches a maximum speed of 15 mph. This “kick assist” technology makes riding more fun when compared to riding a standard electric scooter that is either “on” or “off”.
Peer-2-peer businesses have permeated every retail segment, from real estate to camping equipment. In the personal transportation space, individuals have been able to share bikes (see Spinlister) and cars. But, those seeking alternative wheels (think Segways, electric scooters and unicycles) haven’t had a P2P space to go to, until now. Geneva-based oWheelClub recently launched to give individuals around the world the opportunity to rent a unique set of wheels from early adopters. P2P for these unique products makes a lot of sense, both for consumers and manufacturers of these new vehicles. The platform will allow individuals to try out expensive products before they commit to a purchase. The founder of oWheelClub also sees the service meeting the needs of travelers who want to visit a city differently and providing a new type of entertainment.
If you live in Boston, my solar panel electric scooter is now available for rent (cheaper than renting a Segway for the day BTW). So, for all of you who secretly desire to try an electric scooter, no more excuses: oWheelClub makes the transaction smooth and transparent. Check it out!
We’re all hooked on navigation apps and can’t remember what life was like without‘em. For the direction challenged, apps that give you turn-by-turn instructions are saviors. Their up-to-date travel time estimates increase the predictability of commutes. Without a doubt, these apps reduce commuting stress and bring happier commutes. But, while their benefits are significant, they have also made driving easier.
The decision to drive usually makes sense when minimizing commute time is the key goal. But, if your goal is to maximize enjoyment during the trip (whatever that means for you), or minimize travel costs, the fastest option may not be the answer. Maybe you can allot 30 minutes to a trip, so getting there in 15 minutes is not necessarily ideal. Future navigation apps should be able to help commuters optimize their route based on multiple goals, not just travel time.
Here is a roundup of the latest in electric personal transportation equipment covered by Gizmag or discovered on Kickstarter:
Electric rollerblades: I had seen off-road roller-skates and roller blades before but I had never come across electric rollerblades until I read about Polish inventor’s Jack Skopinsi new off-road electric rollerblades. He designed these in response to customer requests for portable personal transportation that could be carried in a bag. Cost is around $1,200.
Jack Skopinski’s Off-Road Electric Rollerblades
Electric scooter and e-bikes: ETT industries designed one of each. As Gizmag reports, the firm won a design award for the bike’s unconventional industrial design. The range on these vehicles is 50 miles (impressive) after a 5-hour charge. The scooter can travel up to 45 km/h while the bike’s top speed is 25 km/h. Scooters are more expensive at $3.8K while bikes are $2.4K.
Boston is a highly walkable city (ranks third for walkability) but a study by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies shows that Boston’s public transit system doesn’t rank as highly, particularly when measuring jobs accessibility via public transit; Boston ranks third in the nation for employment, but sixth in the nation for job accessibility (based on the number of jobs accessible within a 30-minute commute). Apparently car-loving LA has better accessibility via public transit.
This issue of access to reliable transportation is being addressed through Go Boston 2030, Boston’s first transportation plan in 50 years. Access is one of three key goals for Go Boston 2030 (the other two are safety and reliability). The city’s goal for access is for every household to be “within a 10-minute walk of a rail station or key bus route, Hubway station [Boston’s bike sharing system], and car-share.” As a side note, it is interesting that car-sharing is considered an alternative to public transportation when a key goal for Boston 2030 is to reduce single-driver commutes by half in 2030 (from 40% of commutes to 20% of commutes). However, I do admire the Boston Transportation Department for putting out a very measurable goal that will give Boston households an alternative to owning a car.
Access to public transit is not equal across Boston neighborhoods, so I learned last week during Go Boston’s 2030 scenario workshops. Not surprisingly, lower-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods with a high representation of non-white households tend to have poor public transit service; buses and commuter rails are too far to walk to and they are less reliable than public transit in more affluent neighborhoods. And walking often feels unsafe due to speeding drivers. As a result, individuals in these neighborhoods are more likely to be car dependent. Under 15% of Bostonians live in car dependent places, but this rises to over 30% for those in the lower income bracket (see Go Boston 2030’s Vision report).
These discrepancies in transit service mean that lower-income neighborhoods should see a larger share of transit investments over the next decade compared to more affluent neighborhoods. It appears that a key focus will be improving and/or adding transit options to the Longwood Medical Center, a key job center for lower-income neighborhoods. Addressing the transportation issues of these lower-income neighborhoods will not only address Go Boston 2030’s access goals but should accelerate progress towards an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.