Could Americans be convinced to use buses by new technology?

Technological advances to buses might make them more attractive…or they might not. Here are the five new features:

Electrification

Autonomy

Minibus/trackless train

Seamless payment

Accessbility

Two things stand out to me from the argument:

  1. Newer technology tends to make things more attractive in society. This does appear to be a general pattern though I am not sure technology alone could overcome misgivings wealthier Americans have about buses.
  2. The shifts described here tend to reduce some of the features that might be less attractive about buses: they would not be as large and they would be less tied to particular routes. This makes them less like traditional buses and more like large vans that have flexibility.

One aspect of mass transit to which I’m surprised there is not more discussion of in this argument is whether these smaller and more flexible buses would be faster for users. If so, this could be a tremendous plus. One of the promises of self-driving vehicles is that traffic flow could be better coordinated and would not be affected by drivers slowing things down.

What routes would Waze recommend that drivers would turn down?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by a 32% grade Los Angeles street to which Waze routes drivers:

But residents along Baxter Street in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood—reportedly one of the steepest streets in America (comprising two major hills)—are now banding together to try to change local traffic patterns. Neighbors have contacted city officials and Waze’s parent company, Google, to try to mitigate the problem…

The street, which dates back to 1872, has a 32-percent grade—more than double what current city law allows for today.

In 2003, the Times described the street this way: “Unsuspecting motorists gasp when they reach the crest and discover the roadway in front of them has dropped out of sight and there is nothing but empty space in front of their car’s hood.”

A decade later, Los Angeles magazine noted:

Baxter later became a proving ground for automobiles, as manufacturers staged elaborate stunts to demonstrate their vehicles’ power. In one such event in 1916, a four-wheel-drive truck loaded with 4,300 pounds of baled hay groaned its way up the grade, pausing twice for newspaper cameras. Nearly 100 years later, Baxter Street continues to bewilder uncertain drivers and confound elongated vehicles.

The appeal of apps like Waze is that drivers can avoid traffic by taking lesser-known routes. While residents may not like this, the more interesting question is how far drivers would let Waze take them. The apocryphal stories of drivers turning into lakes may make more sense when the story begins with a driver frustrated with the ridiculous or unpredictable traffic in many major American metropolitan areas. Would they drive through standing water? (The regular stories of drivers getting stuck on flooded roads suggest yes.) Would they be willing to go off pavement? Would they navigate through extremely tight places? Take a road with a severe and unblocked drop-off? Are there as willing to go through higher-crime areas? Apparently, a 32% grade is not enough so perhaps 40% would be too much?

I know this would not help Waze’s cause but I could imagine the company issuing some sort of award or recognition to users who are most willing to do something unusual to get around traffic.

Dwindling yet still present pay phones

Even as the number of pay phones has dropped dramatically in recent decades, they can still generate money:

In 1999, you could still plunk a coin into one at 2 million phone booths in the United States. Only 5% of those are left today. About a fifth of America’s 100,000 remaining pay phones are in New York, according to the FCC…

But pay phones remain a steady business for some of the 1,100 companies operating them across the country.

Pay phone providers reported $286 million in revenue in 2015, according to the most recent FCC report. They can still be profitable, particularly in places where there isn’t cell phone or landline coverage, said Tom Keane, president of Pacific Telemanagement Services. Keane’s company operates 20,000 pay phones around the country.

Yet, even if pay phones help serve the need for calls in certain circumstances, the article says the future of pay phones is “bleak”:

More low-income Americans, once a steady revenue stream for pay phones, have turned to prepaid phones or receive subsidizes on cellphones through the federal government’s Lifeline program. Ironically, providers contribute to the Lifeline fund on their phone bill taxes.

Four quick thoughts:

  1. What is most intriguing to me here is not that pay phones are dwindling – the rise of smartphones in everyone’s pockets may be just as remarkable – but that there may still be a market for a limited number of pay phones. Is there still a business opportunity in the remaining phones?
  2. Imagine something drastic happens to the cell phone network. How would people communicate over long distances with the decline of pay phones and landlines?
  3. What other features of physical spaces are still around but are also anachronistic like the pay phone? Perhaps the water tower on top of some buildings or the occasional hitching post.
  4. Last thought: it takes some work to have sufficient change to regularly use pay phones. I realized again recently that I rarely make cash purchases and this means I generate a lot less spare change than I did before. If I really needed to use a pay phone, it would take some work to get some change.

Forget smart cars; we should at least have smart traffic lights everywhere

Getting to the point where most or all American drivers have safe and reliable driverless cars will take time. In the meantime, why don’t we have smart traffic lights or at least every traffic light operating with sensors?

There are several intersections near my house and work that clearly do not have sensors. You pull up in your vehicle and regardless of time of day or how many others want to go the same way as you do, you will wait a full light cycle. Some of these lights are one to one and a half minutes long. Sometimes this makes sense: one road clearly has more cars. Yet, often this full period passes with few to no cars going through the light.

But, let’s go further. I’ve also run into situations where the sensors might just be too sensitive. This occurs particularly between 9 PM and 5 AM when traffic is light on major roads. A single vehicle wanting to turn onto the major road can stop traffic. If you have a few of these on a single trip, this can be frustrating. Why not have coordinated light signals along major corridors? Cities and suburbs do not necessarily have to go to full-blown smart systems that hope to coordinate all traffic; even just doing this on a few main roads with significant amounts of traffic could help ease congestion.

Perhaps one issue is cost: what municipalities or other governments (depending on who has jurisdiction over the road) want to spend money on sensors and devices? One of the supposed benefits of driverless cars is that they will allow for more flowing traffic through coordination across vehicles. However, in that scenario the cost of less congestion is pushed to the car owners who have to purchase such a vehicle. Sensors at major intersections or at all intersections would not require anything or much from drivers. Yet, I bet you could make an argument that putting money into better intersections will be a cost savings in the long run with less time spent in traffic.

Living inside and outside Facebook and Google’s new developments

Online and physical realms will collide even more in new developments Facebook and Google are planning:

Willow Village will be wedged between the Menlo Park neighborhood of Belle Haven and the city of East Palo Alto, both heavily Hispanic communities that are among Silicon Valley’s poorest. Facebook is planning 1,500 apartments, and has agreed with Menlo Park to offer 225 of them at below-market rates. The most likely tenants of the full-price units are Facebook employees, who already receive a five-figure bonus if they live near the office.

The community will have eight acres of parks, plazas and bike-pedestrian paths open to the public. Facebook wants to revitalize the railway running alongside the property and will finish next year a pedestrian bridge over the expressway. The bridge will provide access to the trail that rings San Francisco Bay, a boon for birders and bikers…

Facebook is testing the proposition: Do people love tech companies so much they will live inside of them? When the project was announced last summer, critics dubbed it Facebookville or, in tribute to company co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, Zucktown

Google will build 5,000 homes on its property under an agreement brokered with Mountain View in December. Call it Alphabet City as a nod to Alphabet, Google’s corporate parent. The company said it was still figuring out its future as a landlord, and declined further comment.

Throw Apple in the mix – as this article does – and these tech companies are doing something unique in Silicon Valley: looking to develop campuses that are around-the-clock and provide housing for employees. Few companies would even think of such a plan and I could imagine many workers would have serious reservations regarding living in facilities provided by their company.

But, there is one distinguishing feature of these new developments that complicate this already-unique story: the particular geographic context in which these physical developments are located. This is an area that already has a tremendous level of inequality with limited affordable housing and some of the poorest and richest living near each other. Tech companies like these three have brought tremendous wealth and notoriety to the area and have also exacerbated issues. What responsibility do these large companies have to the local area? The article mentions Steve Jobs’ claim in front of a local government that a good company is only required to pay taxes.

I suspect physical developments from these companies would be treated differently elsewhere, particularly in places that are desperate for jobs or economic energy. The case of a Google development in Toronto will offer an interesting contrast in how local residents and officials respond. Or, we see what cities are willing to offer to Amazon for a large facility.

Additionally, the idea that corporate campuses or facilities should be open to or available to the public is an interesting one to consider. There are already numerous areas that are actually private spaces that function more like public spaces (think of shopping malls or some of the urban parks that Occupy Wall Street found out were actually private land). But, it is different to ask that an office building or housing for employees also be available to the public. I wonder if there is a company that will lead the way in this and tout the benefits of having employees and the public interact as well as share their corporate benefits with others.

26% of adult Americans online “almost constantly,” 43% “several times a day”

New data from Pew reveal how often Americans are online:

Not surprisingly, more use was related to more use of mobile devices, youth, more education, and more money.

Two additional thoughts:

  1. The difference between “almost constantly” and “several times a day” is worth considering. I would be a good example of someone who works in an office for much of the day and is online there but also has significant amounts of time when I am not online (at home as well as longer periods at work). I would say more than “several times a day” but “almost constantly” isn’t quite true either. This is where some observational data or tracking people through their device use would be particularly helpful.
  2. Only 11% of Americans say they are online less than daily. This means that those who are online – the vast majority of American adults (89%) – are online quite a lot. The Internet truly is part of everyday life.

Now, we will see how long before the majority of Americans fall into the “almost constantly” category. It may not be very long at all.

Can you be opposed to Walmart in your community but not Amazon?

Alana Semuels compares the fight of Greenfield, Massachusetts and other New England towns against Walmart and other big box stores to a struggle with shopping on Amazon. The story begins and ends with an activist who led the fight in Greenfield against Walmart:

Al Norman has been fighting to keep Walmart and other big-box retailers out of small towns like this one for 25 years. He’s been successful in Greenfield, his hometown and the site of his first battle with Walmart, and in dozens of other towns across the country—victories he documents on his website Sprawl-Busters, an “International Clearinghouse on Big Box Anti-Sprawl Information.” Partly because of Norman’s efforts to keep out such stores, Greenfield still has a Main Street with dozens of businesses, including a bookstore, a record store, and Wilson’s, one of the last independently owned department stores in the country.

But Norman and business owners in Greenfield are noticing that the Main Street stores are now struggling in the face of another force that’s become more and more powerful in recent years: e-commerce…

But the challenge posed by online shopping to local businesses is immense. Even Al Norman, who refuses to shop at Walmart, says he doesn’t have the same aversion to Amazon, in part because he thinks the internet is the future of shopping. His wife has a Prime account, and he recently ordered tea from the website when he couldn’t find it locally, he said, adding that he has no plans to organize protests or zoning meetings about Amazon. He doesn’t love the idea that some of his money is going to Jeff Bezos, “the richest human around,” as he refers to the Amazon founder, and so still shops locally whenever possible. He doesn’t know whether he’ll still be doing that in a decade. When he launched the first campaign against Walmart in Greenfield 25 years ago, he led activists with bumper stickers that said, “If you build it, we won’t come.” He knows the same can’t be said for Amazon, because shoppers, including him, are already there.

Can a community oppose Walmart and not Amazon? Here are some of the common complaints against Walmart and other big box retailers:

  1. Land use, particularly the large parking lots and the contribution to sprawl and driving as well as issues with water and open space.
  2. A negative influence on local businesses. Walmart’s prices and options made it an attractive place to shop compared to local small businesses.
  3. A detrimental effect on local social life, ranging from decaying downtowns that used to be at the center of civic life to low wage jobs affecting health care systems and local wealth.
  4. The wealth generated by large corporations located somewhere else with little visible impact on communities where stores are located.

Do these same concerns apply to Amazon? They could: Amazon’s warehouses and other facilities take up space, it certainly affects local businesses, it encourages less social interaction as you can shop from home, and Amazon has tremendous revenues (and its founder, like the Waltons, have tremendous wealth). But, it seems like the fact that Amazon is “somewhere else” compared to the big box stores – the physical footprint of Amazon touches fewer communities that all the locations of Walmart, Target, Home Depot, and others – means that people can support it without feeling as bad about its negative effects on communities. Because it is viewed as being online, Amazon is an issue for only some communities and not many.

Yet, I think an argument could be made that Amazon and other online retailers can shape local conditions even more than big box stores or other local retailers. The Internet makes it possible to act as if we are in a completely placeless world (even though this is not true) and to leave certain problems for others to solve in other places. Only in certain circumstances, like when cities fight to offer Amazon a great tax break or deal in order to become home to a second headquarters or groups in Silicon Valley express frustration about mammoth tech headquarters, are we reminded that even Internet companies affect communities.

To be consistent, big box retailers and Internet retailers both threaten local communities and smaller businesses. One may be more obvious than others and they offer different kinds of conveniences but both can contribute to a less civically minded and placed America.