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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

“City-dwellers don’t want cars, they want choice”

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A press release which actually deals with issues I want to blog about is an increasing rarity. Dozens arrive, few get more than a glance. This one is all about a study that found that if you live in a city like Boston or San Francisco you will use your smart phone (if you have one) to help you get around without a car if you are deprived of one for a week.

I reproduce the entire press release below and note that it includes a link to the study itself. This is so that people who are keen on smart phones and new media can have access to it.

I am using the article to make my usual point. The marketing and information systems are important, but not as important as having an adequate transit system – and a government determined to make that system steadily more available and affordable “going forward”. That means not just plans and aspirations but the rising spiral of better service and increasing use. For a little while Translink had that. But its mandate to look after the road system and its desire to build mega projects, coupled with three levels of government (outside of the City of Vancouver) mostly concerned to expand road use has changed that. The latest rounds of service cuts are being defended – by commenters here and the spin doctors there. It’s an adjustment. Service hours are the same. Yadda, yadda. The reality is that people who have limited choices – and probably cannot afford a smart phone and its monthly service charges – have seen a distinct deterioration in transit service. Especially if the service they happened to rely on was not one of the best performing. What looks like efficiency improvements to the service planners looks like the loss of mobility and convenience to people who travel off-peak, or who live in lower density areas.

It also needs to be understood that even if you have great service, if it is overcrowded or unreliable due to traffic congestion, the fact that your smart phone can tell you how long you have to wait is, after a while, small comfort. Yes better information does reduce perceptions of waiting time, but it does not give you back the time you lost. Eventually those who have choices will exercise them.

“I hope this will inspire officials debating whether to invest in public transit to expand their systems, now that we’ve shown that people want options.” Julia Serazio, Executive Editor of Next American City

Those officials she is talking about are the newly inspired Republicans who are taking an axe to public spending programmes of all kinds but transit seems to be the top of mind for many of them. Nothing in this study – or indeed any facts of any kind – will deter them in their ideological quest for government spending cuts. And it is ideological and has been shown to be counter productive. For instance family planning programs are anathema to the religious right but there is lots of evidence that they are highly cost-effective – an ounce of prevention for a ton of benefits. But like I said no objective evidence is ever used – there or here. We have known that we need more transit for many years – but we still build freeways. And it looks like more people who desire to see more prisons or an end to needle exchanges will turn out to vote next month than those who support more transit spending.

Boston and San Francisco have good transit systems – for North America, that is. Both are in need of more tax payer support. And, I suggest, spending on service provision will do more to retain and grow ridership than any marketing or information system. Here, the prospect of continued chipping away at services will lead to a steady decline as people give up on a system that is not there for them when they need it. Like late night service. Like service in the suburbs. Those people will find they have ever less choice.




Latitude Study Finds Access to Mobile Information Plays Important Role in Choice to Use Car-Free Transportation

– Smartphones Can Reduce Reliance on Driving by Making Sustainable Transit a More Flexible, Equitable and Enjoyable Experience –

BOSTON, Mass. – April 20, 2011 – Access to real-time and mobile information is infusing alternative transit with a range of benefits traditionally reserved for car ownership, according to a new study: Tech for Transit: Designing a Future System.

The study was designed and run by Latitude, an international research consultancy, as part of their ongoing Latitude 42s: Exploring the Possible World innovation series, and was published in collaboration with Next American City, a non-profit organization and quarterly magazine advocating for sustainable cities. Latitude helps clients create engaging content, software and technology that harness the possibilities of the Web.

The study asked regular drivers from Boston and San Francisco to give up their cars for one week. Participants in the deprivation study completed surveys about their attitudes and experiences before, during and after the car-free week and contributed to online discussion groups with other participants to chronicle their experiences.

“The beauty of deprivation as a study design is that it’s so immersive and experiential, and it can’t be fully recreated through thought experiments or role-playing scenarios,” says Marina Miloslavsky, a Senior Research Analyst at Latitude who specializes in innovative experimental design and who led this particular study. “By following our participants through every step of the lifestyle change, we were able to get a real-time glimpse into this novel situation and the poignant insights that arose from it.”

The goal of the study was to learn how new technologies and improved information access could enhance transit experiences, and uncover how cities, transportation providers and technology companies can work together to develop these information-based solutions to encourage adoption of more sustainable transit.

“The results of this study are incredibly heartening to us and to everyone who advocates for sustainable cities. We have long found that people are pleasantly surprised once they trade in their cars for public transit. City-dwellers don’t want cars, they want choice,” explains Julia Serazio, Executive Editor of Next American City.  “I hope these results will inspire drivers around the nation to try leaving their cars at home and explore their cities using other means, and I hope this will inspire officials debating whether to invest in public transit to expand their systems, now that we’ve shown that people want options.”

Key business opportunities from the study include:

  • Apps that Enable Aspirations (and Make It Easy to be Good): Developing car-free lifestyles helped participants fulfill other social or personal aspirations such as helping the environment, curbing their budgets and improving their health. A wide range of existing and future apps can help people to track their progress and make good, knowledgeable choices in real-time (e.g., by evaluating one’s carbon footprint, recording calories burned, etc.).
  • Collaborations Between “Competing” Entities: Participants expressed a desire for one-stop, mobile information shops that would allow people to make more informed decisions on-the-go (e.g., by comparing information across public transit offerings, car-sharing or ride-sharing services, etc.). Government and private-sector entities should collaborate on these kinds of resources, enabling users to choose among multiple – and sometimes competing – options by comparing schedules, cost, availability, and convenience.
  • Connections Between Transit and Other Local Information: Routes and schedules are a good start, but local area information can make car-free transit even more enjoyable. This might include dispatches about local or route-specific stores, public resources, business openings, promotions, and events. This data will increase convenience for users, boost the local economy, and foster positive opportunities for community discovery and a greater sense of connection to the places where we live.

“This study highlights broader implications outside of transit: that readily accessible information, thanks largely to mobile, is becoming the great democratizer of products and services,” says Neela Sakaria, Senior Vice President of Latitude. “People now expect to compare companies and brands against each other at any given moment, potentially leading them to choices they wouldn’t have previously considered. We’re seeing this trend across several studies: that most people want to make good choices – they want to be more healthy, more sustainable – and they increasingly expect mobile information to help them pick the brands and services that let them do so.”

Tech For Transit Study Findings Now Available

A complete PDF study summary is available for download at

A discussion of findings for Latitude’s (in collaboration with Next American City) Tech for Transit: Designing a Future System study is available on Latitude’s Web site at

About the Study
The 2011 Tech for Transit: Designing a Future System study was designed by Latitude (and published in conjunction with content partner Next American City and technology partner Locately) to learn how new technologies and improved information access could enhance transit experiences, and uncover how cities, transportation providers and technology companies can work together to develop these information-based solutions to encourage adoption of more sustainable transit.

Latitude asked 18 regular drivers from both Boston and San Francisco to give up their cars for one week. Participants completed online surveys about their attitudes and experiences before, during, and after the car-free week, while also contributing to online discussion groups with other study participants.

Latitude 42s: Exploring the Possible World
Latitude 42s are an ongoing series of innovation studies (of which Tech for Transit is one) that Latitude publishes in the spirit of knowledge-sharing and opportunity discovery for both established companies and emerging entrepreneurs. The 42s explore how technology and new information access can redesign a range of everyday human experiences most likely to shape the future of commerce, communication, and civic life, from sustainable transit to the new sharing economy to the Internet of Things.

About Latitude
Latitude is an international research consultancy helping clients create engaging content, software and technology that harness the possibilities of the Web.

About the Study Partners

Next American City
Next American City is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, dedicated to promoting socially and environmentally sustainable economic growth in America’s cities and examining how and why our built environment, economy, society and culture are changing. They achieve this goal through the publication of their quarterly magazine and interactive website, their emerging leaders program, events across the country, and advocacy on issues central to the future of cities.

Follow Next American City on Twitter @NextAmCity and become a Facebook fan at

GPS tracking and analytics for this study provided by Locately.

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Written by Stephen Rees

April 20, 2011 at 8:23 am

Posted in transit

One Response

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  1. Here’s a link to a great guest post on The Urbanophile site that describes the financial ramifications of sprawl in America.

    Apparently as much greenfield land was developed in the US over the past 15 years than was developed in the previous century. That is, the total developed land area doubled nation-wide in a half generation.

    Now the form of development was primarily low-density sprawling subdivisions, mega malls and a vast support system of roads and utilities.

    The kicker was that much of this development was financially unsustainable (let alone environmentally unsustainable) because over time it became obvious the level of debt needed to build it exceeded the value it generated. Malls sit empty, and the too-easy credit resulted in a bubble that burst in 2008 when the huge hollow paper mountain the banks created collapsed.

    Many individuals and families who managed to avoid the first few waves of debt defaults were caught in the spiral of increased cost of living so far away from the necessities of life when fossil fuel prices hit the stratosphere, or when the bank that held their mortgage evaporated.

    Moreover, the public assets (namely vast networks of roads and utilities) were highly subsidized by state and federal governments and reached a point where there wasn’t enough local tax revenue to maintain them, so deferred maintenance became standard practice in many, many cities and towns just when the deep recession kicked in.

    Now there is a move to eliminate federal and state funding from transit and other elements that may help more than is admitted.

    With deeply seated troubled scenarios like this, a much more extensive analysis is required by those who say the recovery is well on its way. In fact, full recovery may never happen, unless perhaps there is a serious reckoning of past paradigms.

    Canada, be warned.

    [moderator’s note: this comment has been editted to remove typos]


    April 20, 2011 at 9:42 am

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