Using old technology to get around twenty-first century cities

Tom Vanderbilt considers how innovation in transportation affects urban life:

Photo by Snapwire on

And yet, there was something else that struck me about that scene in New York. For all its feeling of novelty, just about every one of those ways that people were getting around were technologies that dated back to the 19th century. The subway? It officially opened in 1904, but its basic technology was first demonstrated in 1869—the year Jesse James robbed his first bank. The car? Karl Benz sold his first in 1885. The bicycle? 1860. Ferries have gotten a revival in New York City in the past decade, but they have been around since the Dutch. Even e-scooters, which could be read as some Millennials-led plot on boomer NIMBYs, were piloting New York City streets—albeit powered by gas—more than a century ago…

It raises the question: Why hasn’t there been more innovation in transportation? Why is the 21st-century street still being trod by 19th-century vehicles? The pandemic gave the world a pause, the sort capable of disrupting entrenched habits—Zoom changed our notions of social connectivity almost overnight. Had a similar glitch in the matrix allowed us the temporary means to envision better—safer, cleaner, quieter, more efficient—ways to move around?

Transportation tends to resist rapid innovation. There’s the simple physical bounds of being human; as of yet, we can’t be zapped through the ether. The form of cities, built up over centuries, also makes wholesale change difficult. Transportation, too, must account for the way people actually want to move around: It needs to go to where people want to go and get them there reasonably quickly; it needs to be stored and then be available when you want it. Proposed innovations like Personal Rapid Transit (little pods that run on elevated rails), or the “Travelator” (moving sidewalks) have largely failed, outside of places like airports, either because there’s no room (or money) to build them or because they don’t carry enough passengers to where they actually want to go. The Hyperloop, for all its promise, can’t get around the idea it might take longer to get to a terminal in either San Francisco or Los Angeles than it would to travel between them…

But, he argues, we don’t challenge the image’s key assumption: “Why, in this coming world of wonder, are we still getting around in cars?” The passenger car so dominates our thinking that we find it neither desirable, nor possible, to easily imagine alternatives. “Even in our wildest dreams,” Townsend writes, “we can’t free ourselves from the status quo.”

Three quick thoughts:

  1. One way to look at this would be that the cities of today are still addressing the problems of the past few centuries. With the rapid urbanization of many major cities within the last century or two, how could any city coherently address transportation? The growth – often celebrated
  2. Transportation is not community destiny. And yet, changes in transportation technologies shaped numerous communities at key moments. The stretch from roughly the 1820s to the 1950s brought trains, streetcars, subways, bicycles, and automobiles/trucks (and not including airplanes and changes in ships that enabled more and faster travel between cities). This brought unprecedented speed to humans. It enabled commuting. As prices dropped, the modes became accessible to millions.
  3. I wonder if the true innovation with transportation technology in the future would involve new communities or cities developing around new technologies. Retrofitting the cities of today to new technologies limits options, is costly, and will require lots of time. If we are locked into streets and transportation grids once designed for cars, we can only do so much. But, if whole new places can arise, more opportunities might emerge.

Bringing the Texas U-turn to Chicago

An innovation is coming to a particularly difficult Chicago road construction site: a Texas U-turn will be in place for drivers hoping to get on the northbound Kennedy from the eastbound Eisenhower.

Google Maps image of Meachem Road and Illinois Route 390

Kennedy-bound traffic will be detoured onto the far-right Eisenhower lane and steered to the outbound Dan Ryan Expressway. From there, motorists will take a “Texas U-turn” at the Taylor Street interchange and go from there to the westbound Kennedy…

“The detour will be a dedicated lane separated by a barrier wall to restrict merging into the regular Dan Ryan lanes and requiring drivers to use the Taylor Street interchange,” IDOT engineers said.

What’s a Texas U-turn? It “refers to a roadway that allows vehicles to make a 180-degree maneuver to go in the opposite direction, usually without traffic signals,” IDOT spokeswoman Maria Castaneda said. “They were first widely used in Texas on one-way frontage roads that paralleled expressways.

“The free flow U-turn improves traffic flow and reduces congestion in certain situations because it keeps the U-turning traffic out of the cross road intersections. An example of this is at the Meacham Road interchange on Route 390.”

According to Wikipedia, the Texas U-turn is present in a number of states.

Two additional thoughts:

1. A precondition for the Texas U-turn seems to be having frontage roads along highways. There are some areas in the Chicago region where this is common – such as long the Dan Ryan Expressway – but many other areas where frontage roads are not present and properties back up to the highway. In Chicago, I wonder if the frontage roads are the result of fitting highways into the existing street grid (such as the Congress Street Expressway, later the Eisenhower).

2. It would be interesting to see how different road innovations spread across states. How do highway innovations diffuse across the United States? They may arise because of particular local conditions but then engineers and planners elsewhere see how they are applicable. At some point, there is federal intervention regarding safety and regulations. Having driven on highways across the United States, there is both familiarity with the system – similar signage, the roadways themselves look similar – as well as local peculiarities – exits on different sides, the size of on and off-ramps as well as the space between them, HOV lanes, etc.

Related post: the coming of the diamond interchange to the Chicago area.

Claim: “The physical environment feels depressingly finished”

As Derek Thompson of The Atlantic considers innovation and Silicon Valley, he includes this paragraph regarding innovation in the physical and urban realm:

And if you look up from your smartphone, progress becomes harder to see. The physical world of the city—the glow of electric-powered lights, the rumble of automobiles, the roar of airplanes overhead and subways below—is a product of late-19th-century and early-20th-century invention. The physical environment feels depressingly finished. The bulk of innovation has been shunted into the invisible realm of bytes and code.

There are several pieces that can be pulled out of this an examined:

1. Has innovation in cities and urban areas slowed? Many of the major changes may have already happened – think the modern skyscraper, the car and all the roads to go with them – but I’m guessing there are some lesser-known changes in the last few decades that have made a major difference. (For better or worst, one would be the global shift toward and innovations in capitalism, neoliberalism, and the finance industry that has had large effects on numerous cities and neighborhoods.)

2. If “the physical environment feels depressingly finished,” does this mean a change in aesthetics or style could alter this? Science-fiction films and shows tend to depict cities as white, gleaming, and move curved than they are today. Think Her which merges city life and technological change. Or, find images of cities from researchers, activists, and architects who imagine much greener cities full of plants and life rather than hard surfaces and cars. Perhaps the problem is not innovation as it is described in this article; one issue is that the look of big cities has not changed much in the fifty years or so (even as some individual buildings or projects might stand out).

3. If the look and feel of cities has not changed as much recently, could “the invisible realm of bytes and code” bring significant changes to the physical environment in the next few decades? In contrast to #2, perhaps future innovation in spaces will be less about collective experiences and aesthetics and more about changed private experiences. Imagine Virtual Reality in cities that allows pedestrians to see or overlay different information over their immediate surroundings. Or, easier access to Big Data in urban settings that will help individuals/consumers make choices.

GE moved to Boston to be near big ideas, disruption, competition

Big companies moving back to big cities is a trendy thing and here the CEO of General Electric describes their recent move back to Boston:

Immelt: You know, we wanted to get to a city. At the end of the day, I think for the company we wanted to get into a place where there was more of an every day where you could get up and be part of an academic setting. So I think it was important to get to a city...

I have to say it’s real. I thought it was a little bit of B.S. initially, I wasn’t sure. And when I looked out the window—when I was in Connecticut, it was beautiful, awesome, great office—but when I looked out my window, I saw nothing, there was nothing going on. I could watch cars go on the highway, things like that.

I’ve been Boston now six weeks and you just walk out the door. You’re in the middle of an ecosystem that quite honestly for a big company, it makes you afraid. You’re where the ideas are. You get more paranoid when you’re doing that and that’s a good thing. So I thought it was—

Isaacson: Only the paranoid survive!?

Immelt: No, no. It’s a good thing. When you’re a big company, it can get hidden but it’s important that you’re in touch with what the next idea is or what the next disruption is. And so I’m kind of a big believer that that’s the wave of the future.

The summary suggests this echoes Richard Florida’s approach to cities. Yet, when people talk about Florida, they often refer to his ideas about employees and the workforce: a talented, diverse, and tolerant workforce that is attracted to thriving cultural and entertainment scenes. Immelt is suggesting something else is also important: competition between ideas. In the suburbs, it is easy to become comfortable and become insulated from cutting edge thinking (and technologies?).

It seems like it wouldn’t be too hard to test this idea: cities produce more innovation and competition than suburban areas. Off the top of my head, it seems like Bell Labs did okay for decades in largely suburban office and R&D facilities. Are the various companies in Silicon Valley hampered by being in more suburban settings (or to put it another way, could they have been even more successful)? Is being in the metropolitan area enough to help spur innovation or does a physical location in an urban core (even opposed to being within city limits but not near thriving areas) near other firms and employees doing these things matter?

Proposed: self-driving cars need to have drivers at the wheel

California is proposing that self-driving cars take their time in becoming self-driving:

The approach California’s Department of Motor Vehicles offered Wednesday in precedent-setting draft regulations is cautious, though it does allow that Californians could be behind the wheel of a self-driving car by 2017.

Among other safety-related requirements, the cars must have a steering wheel, and a licensed driver must be ready to take over if the machine fails…

Before the DMV grants that three-year permit, an independent certifier would need to verify a manufacturer’s safety assurances. Google and traditional automakers advocated for manufacturer self-certification of safety, the standard for other cars.Drivers would need special, manufacturer-provided training, then get a special certification on their licenses. If a car breaks the law, the driver would be responsible.

This is not too surprising given the newness of the technology as well as the potential safety hazards for others on the road. I don’t think any body of government wants to be responsible if the self-driving technology fails and someone is hurt or dies.

At the same time, this article introduces a new wrinkle to the development of this technology: if companies think these regulations are too onerous, why not develop the cars elsewhere? The suggestion here is that Texas might emerge as another option. Could it be better for consumers and innovation if two states work with different regulations and different companies?

Fighting public urination with splash-back paint

Public nuisances can lead to innovation in San Francisco:

The city’s Public Works agency is testing a pee-repellant paint on walls in areas that have been saturated with urine. Anyone urinating on the specially treated walls will get the spray splashed back onto them.

San Francisco’s director of public works, Mohammed Nuru – whose Twitter handle is @MrCleanSF – got the idea when he read on social media about the use of the paint in Hamburg, Germany’s nightclub district to stop beer drinkers from relieving themselves in the street.

The paint, called Ultra-Ever Dry, is sold by Ultratech International Inc and is billed as a superhydrophobic coating that will repel most liquids…

In a pilot program, San Francisco last week painted nine walls in areas around bars and other areas with big homeless populations.

This may be welcome in many places. Yet, the lack of bathrooms in many major cities is a big issue. For example, Mitchell Duneier has a section in his ethnography Sidewalk on the issues homeless black street vendors have in finding facilities. The paint may help deter people – particularly those around bars who could use the restrooms there – but doesn’t address the bigger concerns about clean public restrooms.

CA homeowners looking to use greywater to save their lawns

Californians looking to keep watering their lawns and plants may be turning to recycled greywater:

At the California Water Resources Board’s recycled water unit, chief Randy Barnard is fielding many calls from homeowners desperate to save their beloved lawns and gardens. “If they’ve got a prize fruit tree they’ve been babying for years, they don’t want to lose that tree,” he said.

But for many, he has some bad news to share. Recycling water at home is not as easy as just hooking your shower up to the lawn sprinklers, and recycled water probably won’t save the lawn…

In California, homeowners are now allowed to irrigate with untreated water straight from bathroom sinks, washing machines and bathtubs, as long as — among other requirements — the water lines run beneath soil or mulch, so as not to come in contact with people. That rules out using untreated gray water on lawns, which typically need above-ground spray heads or sprinklers.

Gray water can even go to vegetable gardens like Negrin’s and Friedman’s, as long as it doesn’t touch root vegetables or any other plant part that’s eaten. Tomatoes are fine, but forget about carrots.

The latest plumbing-code changes have enabled families to install these straightforward laundry-to-landscape systems without a permit, sending wash water into the yard with a valve to divert it back into the sewage system when needed. A handy homeowner can do it with no more than a couple hundred of dollars of piping and parts.

Necessity – a drought though perhaps the state’s required water consumption cuts provide the motivation now – leading to innovation. Three additional thoughts:

1. This hints at the lengths people will go to continue watering their lawn and plants. Not everyone want to paint their lawn or replace it with other surfaces besides grass.

2. Doesn’t this pose something interesting safety issues? What if the homeowners do this wrong and contaminate certain things they grow. Who regulates all of this? I can imagine someone complaining about the children who could be affected by this.

3. If this is relatively easy to do, why isn’t this a common feature of homes already? Even if your location isn’t experiencing a major drought, this seems like basic conservation.

Using Chicago as a new big data laboratory

University of Chicago sociologist Robert Park once said that the city was a laboratory. A new venture seeks to use Chicago as just that:

On the heels of the University of Chicago’s $1 million Innovation Challenge for urban policy solutions, today’s announcement that UI Labs (“universities and industries”) will open CityWorks, a private R&D partnership that will be based on Goose Island, sets up the city to be a center for urban studies, technology and innovations. Founding partners Microsoft, Accenture, ComEd and Siemens will operate a bit like angel investors, according to Jason Harris, a spokesman for UI Labs. This project will seek to “level up Chicago as a center for the built environment.” The city’s mix of university and industry partners, government leadership and legacy of architecture and design innovation place it in a perfect position for this kind of incubator, according to Harris.

CityWorks wants to seed 6-8 ideas this year, focused on energy, physical infrastructure, transportation and water and sanitation, Harris says (funding amounts aren’t being released). “Our vision is that we have projects that can use the city as a testbed and try out ideas not being tested in other cities,” he says.

CityWorks will award grants to university and private researchers, with a focus on digital planning and the Internet of Things. Chicago is vying to be an important center for this potentially lucrative field. With the recent introduction of the Array of Things, a cutting-edge system of sensors that researchers and computer scientists are hoping will prove the value of real-time, open-source city data, and the recent opening of Uptake, a Brad Keywell-backed startup looking to bring custom data analytics solutions to businesses, the city is well-positioned to become a leader in the field.

I’ll be interested to see what comes out of this. It sounds like the goal the goal is to use big data collected at the city scale to find solutions to urban business issues. I do wonder if this is primarily about making profits or more about addressing urban social problems.

Some might be surprised to see such a project going forward in Chicago. After all, isn’t it a Rust Belt city struggling with big financial problems and violence? At the same time, this project highlights Chicago as a center of innovation (which requires a particular social context), a place where businesses want to locate, and home to a good amount of human capital (in both research interests and educated workers).

Innovative design in response to social needs and social conditions

The creativity in innovative design doesn’t come emerge from a vacuum: one academic explains how it is related to social forces.

“The ADA totally changed transport, architecture and every area where accessibility is important,” he says. “Design also develops out of a sense of social needs.”…

At a time when Jony Ive’s creations for Apple are as much status symbol as a technological advance, Margolin believes that the discipline’s potential lies in solving big problems and the creation of culture, not just the newest products…

He sees system design and a systemic perspective as key to innovation. Numerous modern inventions, such as Peapod and mobile banking, are built upon pre-existing infrastructure and only work well when they encompass different behaviors and user cases. Failures that ignore these perspectives are apparent every day…

Margolin also believes that innovation on a disruptive scale often requires a concept that creates a community of people around a common cause, such as the American mobilization of industry during WWII, the growth of research laboratories of mid-century American industry or the Silicon Valley of Steve Jobs’ era, inspired in part by the innovations of Xerox’s PARC research division.

This is related to one thing I try to impart in my Culture, Media, and Society course: despite our images of lone geniuses developing great novels, music, art, technology, etc., objects come out of a social process. This is the argument of a number of sociological works on cultural production and includes famous ideas like Becker’s idea of “art worlds.” You can also this in case studies of certain objects that once were not very popular but became popular through a series of events, such as the Mona Lisa whose stature was heightened by theft. Of course, social forces can also limit creativity whether we are talking about Babylonian culture in the first century BC where they were more interested in preservation of their past or in current copyright law that places restrictions on using created works.

Boom in Data Designer jobs in the future?

One designer argues the proliferation of data means the job of data designer will be needed in the coming years:

When I began my career 25 years ago, the notion of design in the software industry was still nascent. It was an engineer’s world, in which just making software function was the consuming focus. So the qualification for this design role was quite simple: do you know anything about software? Those of us trying to apply humanistic or artistic notions to the process faced fundamental technical challenges. It was actually quite exciting, but a constant uphill battle to effect change…The new design challenge is to use this data for the same humanistic outcomes that we have in mind when we shape products through the user interface or physical form. Even conceding that many interfaces are not changing much—we still use PCs, and the mobile experience still mirrors traditional PC software tropes—we can see the data that moves through these systems is becoming more interesting. Just having this data affords the possibility of exciting new products. And the kind of data we choose to acquire can begin to humanize our experiences with technology…

We might consider the Data Designer a hybrid of two existing disciplines. Right now, Data Analysts and Interaction Designers work at two ends of the spectrum, from technical to humanistic. Data Analysts offer the most expertise in the medium, which is a great place to start; but they are approaching the problem from a largely technical and analytical perspective, without the concentration we need in the humanistic aspects of the design problems they address. Interaction Designers today are expert in designing interfaces for devices with screens. They may encounter and even understand the data behind their interfaces; but for the most part, it’s too often left out of the design equation…

Sociological implications. Presented with new capabilities of new technology, the design problem is to determine not just if a certain capability can be used, but how and why it should be used. When systems take in data quietly, from behind the scenes, from more parts of our lives, and shape this data in radical new ways, then we find an emerging set of implications that design does not often face, with profound sociological and safety issues to consider.

Data doesn’t interpret itself; people need to make sense of it and then use it effectively. Simply having all of this data is a good start but skilled practitioners can do effective, useful, and aesthetically pleasing things with the data.

My question would be about how to make to this happen? Is this best addressed top-down by certain organizations who have the foresight and/or resources to make this happen? Or, is this best done by some new startups and innovators who show others the way?