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”.
There have been several articles recently about the impact of modes of transportation on health; for example, car drivers have higher BMIs, on average, than bikers and public transit riders (see WBUR’s recent series on traffic). But, there has been less focus on the impact of vehicle pollution on the health of city dwellers. I just learned of a study in this area at a Mass DOT planning meeting today. One of the speakers, a Tufts researcher who was advocating for an extension of the Green Line train to Medford, discussed the results of a Tufts / Boston University study on the higher health risks present in populations living close to highways.
The Boston Globe wrote about this research in April of this year: “New Evidence of the Dangers of Living near Highways”. The study looked at the blood chemistry of individuals living close to I-93 and the Mass Turnpike to those living half a mile away from these highways. Results show that individuals living within 500 feet of a highway have higher levels of three chemicals that are associated with heart disease, lung cancer and asthma. The areas studied were:Chinatown, Dorchester, Sommerville and Medford. One of the immediate actions being taken following this study is the migration of a park in Chinatown. Real estate developers and architects who are learning about these issues are talking about improving air filtration systems.
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.
As a Boston citizen, I am paying attention to the city’s bold transportation plans started by the late Mayor Menino in 2014. Called GoBoston2030, the city’s transportation initiative should be a model for other cities to follow when tackling big policy issues:
It takes a citizen-centric view of transportation; it’s about how people get around and not public transit, biking or walking
Program goals are holistic; changes should lead to equity, economic and environmental improvements
The program engages citizens in building the future. The City just spent the last 18 months gathering feedback from citizens through multiple street and web-based initiatives such as an “Ideas on the Street” pop-up (bike-trailer) that visited 31 neighborhoods over a period of a month.
The GoBoston2030 initiative generated 5,000 questions about transportation and 3,700 project and policy ideas. Next week, GoBoson2030 gives citizens the opportunity take part in scenario building workshops with policy leaders, planners and engineers where this feedback will turn into possible projects. I intend to be there and will report back.
For the vast majority of Americans, commuting is one of the least enjoyable parts of the day. Economists Daniel Kahneman and Alan Krueger studied individuals’ well-being when engaging in a variety of daily activities and found that the morning commute was the most unpleasant of activities (out of 19 activities). Specifically, individuals reported negative emotions during 28% of an average 28 minute morning commute (survey of 909 employed women in Texas conducted in 2004). By comparison, exercise was the sixth most pleasant activity with individuals feeling unpleasant 9% of their time.
Source: Daniel Kahneman and Alan B. Krueger, Developments in the Measurement of Subjective Well-Being, Journal of Economic Perspectives-Volumes 20, Number 1-Winter 2006, 3-24.
Causes for unhappy commutes are not hard to come by. The vast majority of Americans commute alone by car (76% according to the 2013 report Commuting in America) and other studies have shown that this passive, solitary and often unpredictable form of commuting makes it the least enjoyable of commutes when compared with walking, biking, or taking certain forms of public transportation (see a study from Montreal researchers at the School of Urban Planning). Furthermore, those with long passive commutes (greater than 20 miltes) are less healthy (higher rates of blood pressure, higher BMI), get less exercise, sleep less well and report lower levels of life satisfaction compared to those with shorter commutes (see this excellent article on commuting and health by Vox).
So if we were rational beings seeking to maximize our utility (which we know we are not thanks to behavioral economists), we would want to minimize our commute and/or add enjoyable aspects to the commute (socializing, exercising etc.). The goal of this website is to help readers reduce the unpleasantness of commutes by bringing together the lateset research, equipment, and apps dedicated to to this challenge of turning commutes into a source of energy.