Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Walking Dead comics are no doubt a rollicking good-time phenomenon

I've been accused occasionally of not having a wide enough spectrum of knowledge about pop culture to be the owner of a pop-culture blog. But you try watching everything on Netflix, Amazon, and HBO, going to the movies, reading all the books on my Kindle list, going to the theater, and listening to all the new music on Spotify with a family and a full-time job.

Ahem. I do what I can. Well, after finally watching The Empire Strikes Back today (yes, it only took me 36 years; I swear I thought I had seen it multiple times already!), I also read book one of The Walking Dead. It captures the first 12 comic books and is a story of cultural significance nearing that of Star Wars.

It does not match Y: The Last Man, which I consider the greatest graphic novel and is also from the apocalyptic genre. The dialogue of Dead can be cliche and lazy and the story is fairly predictable. Or, maybe I've just heard so much about the phenomenon over the years that some of the thrill and suspense has been a bit ... suspended.

Rick stars as a cop who goes into a coma after getting hit in a shootout only to wake up in a world where most humans have been replaced by zombies. He makes his way from the country to Atlanta, where the zombie situation is extra bad. He is helped to a camp outside the city to amazingly reunite with his wife Lori and young son Carl. It's soon revealed that Lori had sex with Rick's ex-partner Shane after they thought Rick had died. This tension boils to a head when little Carl shoots and kills Shane before Shane nearly murders his dad. Turns out, Lori is pregnant, possibly with Shane's baby. Will be interesting to see how that storyline pans out.

The group meets a former NFL player named Tyreese, Carl is shot in the woods, and a man named Hershel helps save him while welcoming the RV-traveling crew to stay on his fenced-in property. This arrangement goes sour after Hershel is forced to re-kill his already-dead three children, who escape from the barn where they had been locked up. The crew leaves and soon finds an abandoned prison, which they are getting prepared to settle as this book comes to a close.

I can't wait to read the rest of the graphic-novel series, but I'm not so smitten that I feel I need to also watch the TV series. Am I wrong?

4.5 out of 5 stars

The Empire Strikes Back is the way to celebrate Carrie Fisher's life

Carrie Fisher's death may just be the biggest of the big 3 celebrity deaths that took place over these holidays (they always die in threes; Watership Down author Richard Adams and Careless Whisperer George Michael were the other two).

Almost as surprising as Fisher's death, which seemed likely after she had a heart attack on a plane from London to L.A., was when we watched The Empire Strikes Back today and I realized I had truly never seen it before! (One benefit of having kids!)

That explains why my recollections of a carbonited Han Solo, Luke's Yoda Jedi training and subsequent losing of his hand by closer-than-he-thought Darth Vader, C3PO's near destruction, and any understanding whatsoever of who Lando Calrissian and Boba Fett have always been completely foggy at best.

Well, most people say Empire is the best Star Wars flick of all, and I might have to agree. The ice battle of Noth in the opening scene isn't my favorite, but the story takes off majestically from there, with the main characters becoming more interesting as they develop further from A New Hope.

The 1980 instant classic was probably made more powerful knowing Fisher is no longer with us. She has always been one of my favorite Star Wars actors, along with Harrison Ford, because of the way she told it like she sees it and was always unedited.

Empire: 5 out of 5 stars

Friday, December 23, 2016

Prince's death may just be the worst thing that happened in 2016

One of the worst things about this year? Of course we could go on forever. But to me, Prince's premature death was probably number-one on the list.

I recorded this while prepping for a recent meeting of my neighborhood music group, Songs From a Hat. We get together every month or so to play music, with each meeting's selections based on a theme that was previously picked out of a hat.

This was from when we met to play songs by "People Who Died in 2016." It's almost criminal to cover "Purple Rain," but I did it anyway. It's a fun one to play on guitar and sing.

I tried to upload the audio clip I made to Blogger, but for some reason it's not working. Oh well. I'm sure the suspense will be rough for you, but just use your imagination.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

12 ways developers can guide tenants to better transportation decisions

Originally published at Mobility Lab.
Real-estate developers and property managers have long been coming around to the simple business decision that, if they want to manage profitable projects and attract tenants, they should build and own near transit and other non-driving options.
Just look at Detroit: A 2.5-mile streetcar system expected to launch in a few months to downtown is attracting a goldmine of $3 billion in development, with about 10,000 new housing units. On the other end, commercial real estate in car-dependent areas is proving to be far less valuable over the past decade than city cores or walkable suburbs.
This makes sense. According to Chris Leinberger and Mariela Alfonzo, in a 2012 Brookings Institution study, 90 percent of increased economic performance can be explained by walkability, job density, and workforce education.
For developers in a competitive market, however, just building in these walkable, transit-rich locations is not enough. They, along with property managers, can further improve the attractiveness of their locations by taking distinct steps to ensure that their tenants make full use of those transportation options. These measures have the added benefit of reducing traffic and the improving the quality of life in the surrounding community.
Here are 12 key tactics developers creating projects near transit should consider in order to make their residents, customers, and visitors as happy as possible. The best thing is that these are no-brainer enhancements that are far less costly than the more infrastructure-focused elements of their properties.
Perform tenant surveys to understand people: Particularly if properties have a high resident-turnover rate or difficulty attracting new residents, perhaps it’s time to evaluate what the buildings are missing. On-site brochures and advertising about transportation amenities won’t make much difference if developers don’t understand how to target customers by first understanding their needs and motivations for why they choose to live near transit. A survey that asks residents questions about their commutes or barriers to trying new transportation modes could provide insight and lead to recommendations on ways to improve these amenities. For example, property management company Dittmar surveyed its Dolley Madison Tower residents in Arlington County, Va., to learn about what factors would attract them to a possible shuttle service, among other options.
Learn from past mistakes: Developers are acknowledging that car-oriented office parks are increasingly empty, which is why, for example, First Potomac Realty Trust got rid of more than two dozen suburban industrial buildings and is purchasing multiple properties along Washington, D.C.’s Metro lines, not to mention its bike-friendly streets. First Potomac’s chief executive Robert Milkovich recently noted the writing on the wall: “I’m just continually amazed at how many people are commuting around downtown by bicycle. I don’t think that was the case even five years ago.”
Gently remind people they can bike and walk: The San Francisco Planning Department has an attractive menu of options for its proposed transportation demand management program. Front and center are active-transportation elements that can open people’s minds to biking and walking, especially in the cases of new residents, the most likely to change a long-time habit. Those options include: improving walking conditions, adding bicycle parking and repair amenities, adding a fleet of bicycles, use of bike-valet parking for large events on site, transit and bikeshare memberships and discounts, and installation of showers and lockers.
Think creatively within site-plan mandates from local government: The San Francisco program works by awarding developers a certain number of points for every element they incorporate into their buildings from the draft menu of options. Two of those options might seem unrelated to transportation, but actually are: providing healthy food options in areas identified as being underserved (no longer need to travel to eat) and affordable housing units (fewer low-income people forced to live away from transit).
Get recognized for your work: Arlington County has a checklist of options for properties wishing to be recognized as a bronze, silver, gold, or platinum level member in its Champions program run by Arlington Transportation Partners. Starting with just a handful of participants back in 2013, there are now 221 Champions, a sure sign that a little friendly competition can bring an entire community together to accomplish clear goals.
Set goals: To become a top-level Platinum Champion, employers in Arlington have to “achieve company mode-shift goals within one year.” That is pretty advanced, considering it requires actually having tenant mode-shift goals in the first place, and surveying to follow up.
Offer free money: Developers can lure people to their properties by simply offering the kinds of transit benefits building-wide that individual tenant companies have long offered their employees. Transit passes get people riding.
Display quality information: Some developers understand that boring information bulletin boards in lobbies don’t work for the needs of today’s mobile society. Wayfinding signs aren’t just for roads and highways anymore. Real-time transit-information displays and tailored, hyper-localized transit marketing are crucial to helping residents understand their sometimes overwhelming transportation options.
Provide pooling services: While individual building tenants may not yet be able to afford home-to-work shuttles, such options becomes more possible at the building-wide level. And there are also ways to improve traffic in a building’s neighborhood by offering passes and benefits for UberPOOL, Lyft Line, and other services; subsidies and priority parking for carpools, vanpools, and electric vehicles; and passes for car-sharing fleets like Zipcar and car2go.
Focus on the family: Back in San Francisco’s menu of options, the Planning Department lists incentives for developers who provide cargo bikes and shopping carts, storage for car seats near car-share parking, and on-site childcare services, which help remove the anxiety some parents feel about needing a personal car to make various stops along their daily commutes.
Dedicated, secure bike parking
Forget about parking assumptions: At the top of options Arlington and San Francisco recommend to developers is to reduce, if allowed, the number of parking spaces on site. Some of the best ways to do this – and replace all those empty spots with something more lucrative – include separating the cost of parking from the cost of renting, leasing, or owning; allowing for only hourly or daily parking passes; and giving employees the possibility of “parking cash-out,” the option to receive the cash value of the space rather than the space itself.
Think about how people will get there: Better still, developers should grab a bike, walk around, and take transit lines directly to their buildings from every conceivable direction. Being in other people’s shoes will likely open possibilities that developers may not have envisioned otherwise.
Prepare for future cities: And finally, developers must not forget the dawn of the autonomous vehicle, already testing in places like Pittsburgh and Detroit. Most of these will likely – or at least hopefully, for the sake of traffic sanity – be fleet vehicles shared among groups of people. Much like how individuals should avoid paying too much for a garage in a new home, unless you’re Jay Leno, developers too should avoid going overboard on garages (or build them in smart, convertible ways). When shared autonomous vehicles are roaming the streets, they will, in theory, not need to go into those garages nearly as much. Redfin estimates one-third of urban real estate currently devoted to parking garages could become parks.
There is a lot here for developers to take into account. As people embrace more walking, transit, and other options, and the era of paving over America hopefully trends downward, there will be an awful lot of new real estate for developers to put to better use.
Photos: Top, a Metrobus on Columbia Pike in Arlington County (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com). Middle, a bike parking room at The Nature Conservancy in Arlington (Jon Fisher, Flickr, Creative Commons).

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Washington Post quotes me on people who are making transit better

MetroHero, one of many unofficial DC Metro apps
It's been a good week for me getting quoted in major newspapers. First it was USA Today about Trump's pick for transportation secretary and now I'm in the Sunday edition of the Washington Post (Page 2 of the Metro section).

Reporter Faiz Siddiqui attended Mobility Lab's Transportation Techies this week and did a nice wrap-up of how everyday citizens are using data to figure out myriad ways to make Washington D.C.'s Metro subway better.

Here is an excerpt from "How developers are turning to Metro’s newest software tool to enhance their apps:"
The gathering at Metro’s headquarters, the latest in the series of monthly meetups sponsored by Mobility Lab, the research arm of Arlington County commuter services, was all about little fixes developers can make to improve riders’ experience, said Paul Mackie, a spokesman for Mobility Lab.
“This doesn’t need to be part of a 30-year-planning process or even a five-year process — a lot of these things can be incorporated immediately,” Mackie said. “It’s not only free labor, but it’s passionate and caring labor.”

Friday, December 16, 2016

Baseball, love, and partying in 1980 Texas with Richard Linklater

If it weren't for sports, I could have cut the cable cord a long time ago. As it stands, we were able to knock about $60 off our monthly cable/internet/landline bill by taking a baby step.

We still have cable and a DVR on our main TV, but we got rid of them on our second TV and replaced it with a Roku Streaming Stick, which already looks like a perfect option for making that TV our designated spot for Netflix, Amazon Prime, and on-demand movies.

I got to enjoy my first on-demand movie with the new setup by discovering that there are often great weekend deals on new releases. For 98 cents, how could I not rent the great Richard Linklater's followup to his classic Boyhood, Everybody Wants Some!!? Much like his other masterpieces, School of Rock and Dazed and Confused, Linklater excels at glimpsing a small portion of people's lives in order to effectively tell their larger stories, and perhaps those of entire generations and places.

Blake Jenner, who has played bit parts in TV shows like Supergirl and Glee, really shines as protagonist Jake, arriving at a Texas university in 1980 to pitch for the school's high-ranked baseball team. The team lives in a couple of houses on campus that disregard pretty much all of their manager's rules, turning them into Animal Houses.

Glen Powell is one of the many excellent supporting characters. He has an hilarious disco-era way with the ladies as the crew pops around from house party to discotheque to punk concert to classic-rock-philosophizing sessions. Jake also lands an artsy girlfriend, and this whole whirlwind all occurs over a few days before classes start. The movie abruptly and fittingly ends when a couple of the teammates fall asleep as soon as the first class begins.

Linklater is so great because he always offers it just as it was. Everybody Wants Some!! is no different.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Quoted in USA Today: Ride-hailing has a friend in Chao, but does self-driving?

Third times a charm: I'm honored to have been quoted three times in the past year in USA Today, a paper with a reach of 45 million people, according to my media analytics tool Meltwater. The first time was about the city of the future and then about Uber and Lyft being forced out of Austin.

Today I was quoted in an article about Donald Trump's pick for transportation secretary that made Page 2B of the hard-copy edition (which isn't easy to do; have you seen the hard-copy lately? It's about 20 pages). Some of the highlights of the article were republished from my gig over at Mobility Lab. The same thing appears here.


In today’s USA Today, technology and culture reporter Marco della Cava notes that although incoming U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s “public service record is extensive, her leadership tenure as Labor secretary and at the head of organizations such as the United Way and the Peace Corps doesn’t shed much light on how she would rule on autonomous driving issues.”

In September, the U.S. DOT released “a book-length document that served as the Obama Administration’s endorsement of self-driving cars as a safe and environmentally friendly alternative to human-piloted machines, which kill some 30,000 people a year. In stark contrast, the 2016 Republican platform chastises the current administration for “its ill-named Livability Initiative (that) is meant to ‘coerce people out of their cars.'””

della Cava goes on to ask me whether Chao, if confirmed, would stick by the party line and look to scrap the document and start over?
“She could in theory, but everyone recognizes this is going to happen one way or the other,” says Paul Mackie, spokesman for Mobility Lab, a publicly funded research institute that provides information about transportation alternatives and solutions.
It’s an intriguing dilemma for Chao. The last two DOT secretaries, one a Republican and one a Democrat, agreed that making bikeability, walkability, and mass transit far better was a non-partisan issue and would be great for the economy and people in general.
Mackie suggested that the movement towards funding better biking, walking, and transit conditions might not change much with a new DOT secretary in place. He said Chao’s role is more as “cheerleader” given that many of the nitty gritty decisions about how municipalities go about solving mobility challenges remain at the state and local level.
The Republican platform also opines that DOT funding is incorrectly used for bikeshare programs, sidewalks, recreational trails, landscaping, and historical renovations. della Cava and I also discussed how getting rid of federal funding for transportation elements that promote so many societal benefits “would seem to run counter to what the President-elect Donald Trump might value, given he is a real-estate developer.”
“True quality of life improvement in cities comes from walkability, which improves health, happiness and real-estate values,” Mackie says. “Real estate is hottest where mass transit is. You’d like to think Trump would understand that as a builder.”
Read the complete article at USA TODAY (Page 2B of the hard-copy edition)

Monday, November 28, 2016

Did Vonnegut foresee Donald Trump's false-idol campaign way back in 1961?

I devoured about a dozen Kurt Vonnegut books when I was a teenager, and they were worldview forming towards my lifelong love of science fiction, political commentary, international relations, and just plain sociology.

Sirens of Titan, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Slapstick are just a few of the best books ever written, and two of Vonnegut's books, Welcome to the Monkey House and Breakfast of Champions, even made my all-time top 60 novels list. And don't forget Harrison Bergeron, easily one of the greatest short stories, period.

Somehow I had missed his 1961 novel Mother Night, written in a very fertile part of his early career, and it stands up very well amongst both his greatest works as well as the test of time.

The layered tale is all about American Howard W. Campbell Jr., who begins the story from an Israeli prison and ends it there as well. He is recruited to be a Nazi spy and goes on to great infamy as a major radio voice in Joseph Goebbels' propaganda machine. Because he is a spy, he is able to escape the post-war Nazi trials and live the rest of his days in anonymity in New York City. He is visited by white supremecists who idolize him, and there isn't a ton of humor in this book, by Vonnegut standards, but the story of the supremacist dentist is among the funniest moments in Mother Night.

Howard had lived a rich love life before the collapse of Germany as well, and a woman calling herself his former wife Helga also visits New York to give him a brief respite of happiness in his old age. Then all goes wrong and he ends up turning himself in. Spoiler alert: the novel does not end well for Howard in that Israeli jail.

Even though Howard is a surprisingly sympathetic character through much of the tale, the moral is that who you pretend to be is who you actually are. Howard tried to hide behind his American spy status, but he truly said horrendous things over the air during the war that make it difficult to forgive him.

Mother Night is a quick read and pretty perfect for these times, when it remains too early to tell, before Donald Trump assumes the American throne, whether certain groups of people will be rounded up and deported or worse. Even if Trump never does all the ruthless and mean things he promised during his campaign, he will never be able to fully run away from who he pretended to be simply for the sake of beating his Republican rivals and Hillary Clinton.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Syria gets a much-needed closer look in Woolly Mammoth's Kiss

The first thing I loved about Woolly Mammoth's recent production of Kiss was the fact that I didn't read the playbill before watching the show.

That kept me guessing for several minutes in the middle of playwright Guillermo Calderon's play that the actors really were Skyping Syria to find out how life was going for the alleged writer of the play. When the translator left the screen, I caught on, but it made things about as current-event-y as could possibly be.

I feel like the world doesn't know nearly enough about the absolute destruction happening in a place I remember friends and family having told me about enjoying traveling throughout - beautiful plains, deserts, and mountains - in the past. Dictator Bashar Al-Assad has laid waste to the place in just a few short years, and the play does its best to help us understand just how awful life has turned there.

The story begins with a group of fairly average and superficial friends who are in the process of falling out of love with their chosen mates and into love with others in their tight circle. It's a funny and entertaining story, and something the audience would not expect from a night at the theater about Syria.

But then the play breaks and the excellent Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (as a Faye Dunaway-like soap-opera star) quickly informs the audience that she's the director (she isn't) and the cast Skypes Syria to speak for the "first time" with the writer, who is holed up in a very sad and scary situation. The rest of Kiss brilliantly redoes the play as life very well could actually be in today's Syria. They blaze through the soapy elements with a focus on death and sniping and the all-out destructiveness that we all hear about in the news each day.

We've been so numbed by all the bad news from Damascus and Aleppo and many points in between that we can't even digest how this might be the worst of all wars on the planet right now and at least partially a result of our country's confused and directionless war against terrorism.

Tim Getman, Shannon Dorsey, and Joe Mallon are the other key players in this masterpiece collision of the arts and current events. Let's hope it continues to be performed in places throughout the country and has some effect on the ways we can all help our fellow humans in a place that truly needs it now more than ever.

What the theater should be in the 2010s.

5 out of 5 stars

Friday, November 25, 2016

Best Magazine Reads: Rhinos all but extinct, will have to rely on the Ted Williams method

In my various trips in the past on safari in Africa, I tend to get very emotional and attached to the magnificent animals we come across. I could watch any animals, from hyenas to elephants, for hours on end if my friends, family, and tour guides would let me.

One of those obviously on the most amazing end is the northern white rhino. I'm not sure if I've ever actually seen one in the wild, but as a GQ article in the November 2016 issue details, it's unlikely. There are now three left in the world. They live in a protected reserve in Congo and are led by a grandfather who's too old and frail to reproduce.

And even if he could, he would have to do so with his daughter or his granddaughter, the only other two white rhinos in existence. The article, by Zack Baron, offers a slim hope that extinction doesn't have to be forever. There's a facility, dubbed "the resurrection zoo," outside of San Diego that stores frozen strains of endangered animals, including the white rhino. The article outlines the somewhat murky plans of the operators for bringing dozens of animals back to life after they've disappeared from the planet.

It all sounds a lot like the animal version of baseball legend Ted Williams at his cryogenic facility, but at least there's a little hope. And, for the people who continue to kill Africa's glorious animals in the name of commerce, just stop it already!

Monday, October 31, 2016

5 things I learned about John Lennon from his first wife's book

Surprisingly, John Lennon's first wife offers up a lot of interesting nuggets (it seems like they must have all been noted by now) about The Beatle's early life. For Beatles' lovers, this is definitely worth a quick read, and here are five nuggets to whet your appetite.
  1. When John was murdered in December 1980, Cynthia Lennon, his first wife, was running a little bistro with a friend (the ex-wife of Paul McCartney's brother James) in North Wales. This was more than a decade after their divorce, the breakup of the Beatles, and the beginning of John's relationship with Yoko Ono. When she heard the news, she was visiting Mo Starkey, Ringo Starr's first wife who had a brief fling with George Harrison after their divorce. Ringo called and told her. Cynthia's son, Julian Lennon, lost his dad at the age of 17, the same age both John and Cyn each lost a parent.
  2. John died on December 9 (December 8 by U.S. time), which was eerie because of all the significant dates in his life that had to do with the number, not to mention his songs "One After 909," "Revolution 9," and "#9 Dream." Yoko was happy to have Julian fly immediately to New York, where John was shot, but was blunt in telling Cynthia to stay away.
  3. Some of the early chapters are a little unexciting, as they detail the bad guy John falling in love with the nice girl Cynthia at art school. But it picks up when she meets Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Stuart Sutcliffe, whose place John and Cynthia would borrow for their sexual encounters. She got along particularly well with Paul and Stuart, and one day after Stuart and Cynthia had innocently danced, John hauled off and hit her hard. She determined she would leave him then but clearly didn't.
  4. At age 5, John's aunt Mimi took him away from living with his mother Julia because Julia was living married with someone else and Mimi thought it was unfit for John.
  5. When Stuart Sutcliffe died of a brain hemmorage at the age of 22 in 1962, John always acted like he did when someone close to him died. He laughed uncontrollably. Then he would not talk about it for weeks or months and keep his emotions bottled up inside.

How does actual sharing fit into the sharing economy?

I recently moderated a panel on insurance for transportation options like Uber and shared vehicles at the Shared Mobility Summit in Chicago. I also wrote a couple of articles, including the one below and this one on Uber and sharing in middle-sized and small cities. Both originally appeared at Mobility Lab.

It’s safe to say that, in 2016, the sharing economy has gone mainstream. What’s funny about this is that what most people are referring to when we talk about this segment of the economy has little to do with sharing.
I was thinking about this while I rode my hotel’s “shared bicycle” ($22 for four hours) around Chicago prior to the start of this week’s Shared Mobility Summit (of which Mobility Lab is a media sponsor).
The driving forces for the sharing economy, when it comes to transportation, should be efficiency, reliability, traffic mitigation, and the appeal of non-driving options.
But Uber and Airbnb, arguably the two biggest names in the sharing economy, are at their core peer-to-peer businesses. Sure, Uber helps people who don’t live near transit have a better option than taking their own vehicles, and Airbnb can be more convenient and less expensive than staying in a hotel. But in the end, drivers and hosts are providing a service that costs their customers money.
This is not the essence of sharing as most people think of it. Uber and Airbnb are technologies that, with the spread of internet access, have allowed average, non-corporate people to make money from their resources. But there really isn’t any bartering going on, and it’s not “sharing our stuff” in the sense of enjoying portions of our things with each other.
Most importantly, we don’t want to miss the unprecedented opportunity for people to use limited resources more efficiently. It’s not UberX, but UberPool, that should be the focus – actual shared rides. It’s not car companies trying to put more vehicles on the road. It’s Turo, formerly Relay Rides, that lets people rent out their already existing and sitting-most-of-the-time vehicles. It’s Sameride, which is focusing on building critical mass for its carpooling route.
There’s a long way to go before the average household understands all of this. In a recent studyby the Insurance Research Council, 71 percent of American adults “report little familiarity” with the sharing economy, with a plurality of that group, 46 percent, saying they are “not at all familiar.”
Another major study, conducted by Pew, found that only 15 percent of Americans have used a ride-hailing app, and only 3 percent say they use them on a daily or weekly basis.
These are very intriguing, and somewhat stunning numbers to a city boy like myself, where the services are more commonly used and density creates more options. Doesn’t everyone like a deal? For instance, I stayed in an altogether-pleasant Airbnb in Pittsburgh this month for $90 during the University of Pittsburgh homecoming, when no hotel in the city core could be found for less than $350. There appears to be a lot of people overpaying to stay in hotels simply because “that’s what we’ve always done.”
It makes me wonder how old-school models like hotels, taxis, and transit are going to survive once a lot more people start realizing they have all these other options. Do they even need to survive? Have we simply been doing it all wrong all these years?
Perhaps part of the problem in reaching people might actually be technology. There are so many apps that do so many different things; maybe it’s no wonder that people default to the car over transit or the hotel over someone’s guest room. A new study from Xerox found that half of all respondents believe they will have one app for all their transportation needs by 2020. This sounds like wish fulfillment by people who want all these little players to go away or merge or something.
Maybe one app for carpooling, one app for car-sharing, and one app for ride-hailing is the model that would get more people into the sharing economy.
Finally, where does government fit into all of this? Promoting and incentivizing sharing that has a larger societal benefit seems like a good start. Since the market is so competitive, most start-ups aren’t sharing their data, another thing regulation could encourage. More open data could help planners, programmers, and others make the broader transportation network run more reliably.
Perhaps federal and state governments could usher in some incentives to get these services to open up and cooperate as part of a larger transportation system. If services are going to channel the nature of sharing, it should be to play a role in improving accessibility and equity too.
If most of the businesses and services being defaulted into the “sharing economy” category truly don’t fall into a more traditional definition of sharing, then perhaps it’s not too late to call the sector something else altogether. The Associated Press has already gotten the memo, last year instructing writers to refer to “ride-sharing” as “ride-hailing” instead.
But if these options truly begin to relieve traffic congestion, increase affordability and accessibility, and improve many of society’s other ills created by our current transportation situation, then we can truly begin to feel all warm-and-fuzzy inside the sharing economy.
Photo: A ride via Uber (Andrew Brackin, Flickr, Creative commons).

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Pittsburgh emerging as a transportation leader, still has work ahead

This article was originally published by Mobility Lab and parts of it were republished by Streetsblog as well.

Pittsburgh’s time to shine has come. The city has been thrust into the national spotlight, viewed by many transportation leaders as one of the nation’s promising blueprints for how cities can finally do transportation well.

But while visiting Pittsburgh last week, I had the chance to put Pittsburgh in context with what people outside of town think.
The positives:
  • Mayor Bill Peduto is a real mover-and-shaker, something any city that wants to retrofit its car culture must have.
  • Pittsburgh made it into the final seven for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge (which was awarded to Columbus, Ohio).
  • Mayor Peduto is hiring for a director of the just-announced city Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, which will think more holistically about the ways Pittsburgh uses its streets and public spaces.
  • Pittsburgh has become a testing ground for Uber’s autonomous vehicles. It’s unclear so far how much the citizenry actually embraces this, but you have to hand it to Peduto and city leaders for trying something – anything – that’s an improvement over our current car culture.
The challenges:
  • That car culture is certainly alive and kicking in Pittsburgh. Anecdotally, at least compared to the rapidly improving Washington, D.C., region, there seems to be considerable amounts of honking, unsafe maneuvers in crowded areas, and a general animosity towards people on foot and bicycles.
  • Several times, I walked along Forbes Avenue – a major one-way thoroughfare that runs east from downtown to the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. Walking along on the sidewalks or waiting at bus stations feels terrifying, with fast-moving buses and cars passing dangerously close by. This is a street loaded with college students, who are the keys to our future and arguably one of the city’s greatest calling cards. Wouldn’t Forbes Avenue be better served as a red carpet of sorts for tourists and students to see what a great city it is they are entering? Traffic-calming measures, better and more creative sidewalks and bus stops, and protected bike lanes are all desperately needed. (The same holds true for the parallel, westbound and equally as dangerous Fifth Avenue.)
  • I loved the 28X bus that takes visitors straight from the airport to downtown. But apparently not many other people love it, which is a shame. It only runs every 30 minutes and the buses I rode had passengers, but they were not so full that anyone had to stand. More frequent buses and some sustained marketing could help make it more popular, because once you arrive in downtown or Oakland, it can be really beneficial not to have a car.
  • Healthy Ride launched as Pittsburgh’s bikeshare system just over a year ago and has been successful enough to see pretty phenomenal expansion, from 12 stations to 50 and growing still. As a tourist, I enjoyed the system and was able to quickly register and take $2, 30-minute rides throughout my stay. The challenge for Pittsburgh is its hilly topography. The city could install inexpensive wayfinding signage for the hills, similar to San Francisco’s The Wiggle, which directs riders to the easiest route around several hills.
I have a lot of hope that these challenges will be met. Pittsburgh is a hotbed of talented minds thinking about the city’s transportation issues.

In my time there, I was lucky enough to represent Mobility Lab and Arlington, Va., in presenting to two groups about how to identify and influence the decision-makers who can get things accomplished, and initiating little things, like pilot projects, that can add up to successfully changing resident’s perceptions.
First, I spoke to students and faculty at Carnegie Mellon University as part of a speaker series hosted by Traffic21, a group focused on transit technologies that is probably as close as Pittsburgh gets to having its own “Mobility Lab.”
Then, I spoke at the 4th Annual Oakland Transportation Fair to transportation experts from throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. The fair, at the University of Pittsburgh, had exhibits featuring fascinating tools and products, free rides in an autonomous vehicle, and was organized by the Oakland Transportation Management Association, which is itself directed by one of the city’s transportation leaders, Mavis Rainey.
Forbes Avenue doesn’t seem to be as dangerous through the Carnegie Mellon campus as it is around the University of Pittsburgh. But it’s encouraging that CMU’s chief campus architect Bob Reppe told me all about the plans for that stretch of roadway. PennDOT is renovating it as acomplete street, with features that recognize the existence of pedestrians and cyclists. Where once there was an underused parking lot, there will soon be a much more attractive welcoming space to the campus, and parking will be placed underground and out of sight.
It won’t happen overnight, but for rebuilding a city that’s better for everyone – drivers included – there is a formidable braintrust in place to keep Pittsburgh heading in the right direction.
Photo: A bike lane on Clemente Bridge, installed in 2015 (David Kent, Flickr, Creative Commons).

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Fountain of Youth springs eternal in Youth and Zootopia

The fountain of youth can be a powerful theme in the movies, especially as we get a little older and more aware of the swift mortality that is our lives.

This fact makes the Michael Caine-Harvey Keitel vehicle, entitled Youth, a spellbinding work. While it's difficult to take one's eyes off the movie, it's not for want of trying. Youth is slow, with a barrage of cliche lines (that mostly somehow work well), and often seems it would be best suited for the stage. It's also a little disorienting, perhaps intentionally, as for most of the film the two lead actors seem to be at a strange home for rich people (young and old) who have fallen on difficult times. But it turns out are were only vacationing at a resort in the Swiss Alps.

At the 2015 European Awards, it took home best movie, best lead actor for Caine, and best director for Italian Paolo Sorrentino. And the content about losing once greatness or even ability to show talent (see the stunning depiction of once-masterful soccer star Diego Maradona) is intriguing, as are the many strange fantastical sequences with the lead characters looking back at various aspects of their lives.

On the most primal level, I could watch anything with Caine and be at least somewhat entertained.

But much more uplifting is a film for the youth, Zootopia, which I finally got around to seeing. The animals zoom around the big city in a quest to eradicate stereotyping, police profiling, and racism. It's a pretty great message to be teaching our kids at this point (or really any point) in history. And Disney has once again mastered the art of entertaining both children and adults with a raft of double meanings throughout.

Youth: 3 out of 5 stars
Zootopia: 4 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 29, 2016

Quoted this week by PBS Newshour, Pew Statelines, and Raleigh Agenda

An interview regarding my work with Mobility Lab while waiting for a plane in the Albany airport after our regular summer vacation at Sacandaga in the Adirondacks resulted in some nice coverage from a Pew Charitable Trusts reporter. The article ran in Pew's Stateline publication but was also reprinted by PBS Newshour.

I was asked if carpooling can make a comeback after dropping from its peak in the 1970s of 20 percent of work-commute trips to its current state of around 9 percent. And whether Uber and Lyft can help.

Paul Mackie with Mobility Lab, which advocates for sustainable transportation, said the ride-hailing services have started to change attitudes about carpooling by having gotten people “to get out of the mind frame that you have to drive alone.”
My plane ride was to Raleigh, North Carolina to speak to about 200 entrepreneur types in that bustling state capital. Raleigh Agenda ran an article that quoted me:
Paul Mackie, a longtime journalist and the communications director for transit advocacy nonprofit Mobility Lab in Arlington, Va., led the transportation discussion. Mackie’s overarching message —that a community can easily cut down on the number of cars on its roads without spending billions of dollars—is welcome in a city where commuter congestion only increases.
“We’re a car country. Cars are cool,” Mackie explained. “But while people love cars, they hate driving. And that’s an opportunity.”
In dense areas, transforming parking lots (not building more) into walkable corridors with shops, restaurants, and green space can make an immeasurable change. Improving the messaging around available public transportation options, so they’re seen as efficient and easy to use rather than dangerous and scary, is another approach. And local businesses can encourage their employees to commute to work on foot, by bike, or bus by providing transportation vouchers rather than parking spaces.
Raleigh is poised and overdue for such incremental improvements to its transportation system, as a panel of local and regional experts made clear. A network of buses already connects the city to the rest of the Triangle, and the R-Line works to make downtown feel compact. Dedicated bike lanes are on the rise, and a bike-share program is coming next year.
“It’s such a concise, could-be dense place,” Mackie said. “It’s like a playground to play with, if you’re a city planner.”
And before the event, Raleigh Agenda actually ran an event preview that interviewed me:
“[Government] cannot just do this alone,” says Paul Mackie, communications director for the transit advocacy nonprofit Mobility Lab. “You need collaborators to get the messages out—evidence as to why improving transit options is the right thing to do, stories so people can relate, talking to people face-to-face.”
Emphasizing expanded transit as “the right thing to do” may well be what tips the debate in Raleigh: Cities with more transit options typically have better long-term economic prospects. And removing mobility as a barrier enables people, potentially making for a city with people who are more fulfilled.  
Though the conference isn’t designed to address it specifically, the possible success of this fall’s county-wide transit referendum is at stake by having these conversations before November. A “yes” would significantly expand Wake county’s bus system and help craft a long-term vision for commuter rail.
“Inevitably there will be an anti-transit group out there that will have its ducks in a row,” says Mackie. “I have seen it before, where cities just are not prepared to deal with that kind of debate. This is not a country that is easily convinced that transit will work.”

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Improving safe routes to school through champions for open data

The following post is based on my presentation to a Safe Routes to School National Partnership webinar, “Harnessing the Power of Data to Support Kids Walking and Biking.” My slides and a recording of the webinar can be found here.
In the United States, cities build all kinds of new infrastructure when it’s time to host a Super Bowl or the Olympics. But at most schools, where missing sidewalks and bike lanes are routine, they continue to look away – often with very little planning or thought – and force kids, year after year, to enter and exit strictly by either bus or car.
These schools still don’t have the buy-in from:
  • Traffic engineers, who often create roads that prioritize the movement of cars over people moving about who aren’t in cars,
  • Planners, who are often more concerned about the buildings themselves than how those buildings connect with the surrounding landscape,
  • Teachers and staff, who often say they need to carry too much material to bike, walk, or take transit (which is usually not that accessible anyway), meaning the issue isn’t particularly a priority, or
  • Parents, who have plenty else to do and usually don’t have children at any one particular school for more than a few years, meaning the time investment may not be worth the effort.
So how do we make it easier to walk and bike to schools, gaining all the societal positives such behavior would bring?
One answer could be data collection and analysis, and the ways we can become so much smarter when we build our neighborhoods around what we learn from it.
Five years ago, we didn’t have this much smartphone data, Waze, or Google’s Sidewalk Labs – which is working to track how people move about walkable places. Governments and businesses now have access to much of that information. There should never be another “Bridge to Nowhere”-like debacle. Decisions about which projects to fund have to be made on the facts, and nowadays spending $400 million on a pork-barrel bridge that carries fewer than 100 people a day would not – or at least absolutely should not – happen.
In an article this spring, I quoted Tyler Duvall of McKinsey & Company on the use of transportation data, in which he said it’s “a big departure from where we were for many, many years, when it was largely an engineering decision, people were drawing maps, and it was unrelated to demand or to planning or economics or technology.”
Of course, leaving decisions strictly to the policymakers may not exactly be the answer either. If it were, safe routes to school would be the norm. You need champions, and some of the most promising champions are citizens, hackers, writers, artists, and others who know how to take data and turn it into compelling stories that inspire actionable pilot projects, advocacy, and even funding and policies.

Champions are civic hackers

Our own Transportation Techie group was founded by Michael Schade (a true champion) nearly three years ago. It has held about 30 monthly show-and-tell events in which hackers (and many with minimal computer skills) present data visualizations and discuss trends in transportation they’ve discovered by digging into data sources such as open transit data feeds. In one meetup last year, presenters shared projects related to capturing and analyzing walking data, such as measuring the state and usability of sidewalks.
The Techies group has grown to 1,700 members, a testament to the widespread interest in transportation data. There could be similar meetups just about anywhere, which could mean more data turned into stories, in turn creating action from that data.

Champions are friends and family

Most people don’t really know how long biking or walking to school will take or what kinds of variables go into navigating landscapes outside of the confines of the personal car. But there’s something any towns, individual schools, or groups can organize to generate their own data – Radius Rides.
As Mobility Lab contributor Randy Cole wrote, Radius Rides are:
“…organized events in which a group of cyclists starting from the same location, like a high-school parking lot, library, or shopping center take routes away from there. This actual ride data is then valuable for showing the local public how far one can get on a bike in five, 10, or 15-minute intervals from the selected starting point. The rides are relaxed-speed group rides – not races – for the purpose of recording data to plot on maps.”
Schade, of our Techies group, took the data compiled from one such Radius Ride in Alexandria, Va., and turned it into a full-motion graphic, which could then be communicated understandably to stakeholders. This effort had the added benefit of showing that bicycling for everyday trips and errands is often the best transportation option by many measures. Along with cool graphics, this kind of fact-finding is invaluable for messaging, marketing, and advocacy purposes.

Champions are information bearers

TransitScreen was born as part of Mobility Lab’s tech fellowship program in 2011. Since then, it’s come a long way in the marketplace, expecting to have screens and displays in 5,000 locations in 40 cities across 10 countries, and in 10 languages, by the end of the year. Even in a world where so many people have transportation information on their smartphones, real-time information on a billboard-like display is crucial in training people to think about their many options.
That kind of brain training will get school kids practicing active transportation. And wouldn’t a TransitScreen in every school be great for helping kids hop on the subway or the city bus on their way home?

Champions are partners

All that said, it is ideal when real champions eventually wind up including the top decision-makers. In Arlington County, Va., the public schools are working with county employees and the county’s commuter bureau on a transportation demand management plan, a first-of-its-kind program for schools. A report fully outlining the TDM plan will be released later this year, and will feature extensive survey information showing biking, walking, and driving rates along with data on the number of active-transportation programs at all Arlington public schools. The report also will include relatively aggressive targets for improvement by 2021.
Data for these initiatives needs to be comprehensible, as noted in a recent Safe Routes to Schoolreport. And the report highlights several excellent projects around the country, but these too often remain the exceptions. As generations younger and older alike begin to understand the possibilities by having the facts in hand and the tools to make them clear and actionable, better decisions will begin to happen in many communities.
Schools won’t be built at the end of highways, strong infrastructure like protected bike lanes will connect neighborhoods to their schools, and parents will understand that driving their kids to school every day isn’t necessarily the best decision.
Open, accessible data, and the communication tools and wide-ranging partnerships they will help create, will ultimately make students’ routes to school more safe – and even fun.
Photos: Top, students walk to school in Arlington County, Va. (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com). Middle, a presenter at August 2015’s Walk Hack Night (MV Jantzen, Flickr).
This article originally appeared on Mobility Lab.