We love great public life, don’t we? We love to sit in cafes, enjoy a stroll, bicycle, and so on. Anecdotally and in research, though, that engagement drops drastically on transit. Especially when it’s crowded, we have our guard up. We’re often under stress: worried about who is around us, or who will sit next to us. We defend our seats by putting bags in the next seat. We bury our noses in books or phones. We put on headphones to isolate ourselves. The social space of transit can be stressful, and it can scare people off. What if we could allay some of our concerns?
Scenario-building for Flocks
If we take a bus with friends, we usually feel less anxious than when alone. We feel less stress in a crowded bus with other fans on the way to a game than we do on a work commute. If we could arrange to flock together with friends and neighbors, we would enjoy the ride better. We would feel more comfortable with people who are doing the same things. Consider these two options:
- It’s Saturday morning, and you need to pick up some groceries. You call for an auto-jitney. You bring a little folding shopping trolley. You wind up in the auto-jitney with a young man with headphones, and a woman huddled in the corner keeping to herself. You get out, and the kid follows you into the store. This trip is not bad.
- It’s Saturday morning, and you need to pick up some groceries. You enter the scenario into an app on your phone. A nearby friend is going shopping in an hour, and you arrange to travel together with her neighbor. You all go to the store together. Afterward, you and your friend stop for lunch. This trip is functionally equivalent, but it is more engaging and safer-feeling.
Let’s define a “scenario.” A scenario is a sequence of events you plan. It doesn’t mean just the travel itself. That’s just the itinerary. It includes what you do when you arrive. If you want to go to work, that’s a scenario. If you want to go out for the evening, that’s a scenario. So is commuting to work, grocery shopping, going to the museum, going for a walk, and just about any reason you would want to travel.
Scenario-building software should let you pick out a rough scenario before you plan your particular connections. Scenarios would let you take a little more control of the flow of your life. You might trade the convenience of a ride right away for time with a friend. A scenario with a flock of friends might make crowding more bearable, too: like a full kitchen at a party.
A “flock,” then, is a group of people in the same scenario. For most trips, flocking would be more sociable and frugal. Flocks would offer safety in numbers or just a feeling of more control. Think of a time that you have boarded a bus or train with a group. You probably felt a little more assured than you would have otherwise. Think, too, of all the trips that you might otherwise take on transit, but avoid because the ride is so alienating. Flocks should help.
Named Places and Main Corners
Buses and trains would stop at “named places, ” and auto-jitneys would go the “last mile” everywhere else. A named place means a familiar spot that a newscaster could mention and be understood. It would concentrate riders for more efficient trips between named places. It could also give you some flexibility. You could enjoy a square or café until your boarding time on a bus going directly to a theater district, say, instead of enduring stop-and-go bus travel.
In ordinary urban fabric, named places tend to be two to three miles apart. They’re farther apart in suburbia and closer together downtown. Sometimes, named places would be specialized. A zoo is a specialized named place. It would usually attract people on entirely different scenarios. Similarly, tourists and locals would often be on two different sets of scenarios. Young students might remain separate from commuters too. The scenarios must always respect civil rights, nevertheless. Everything would have to be accessible, and the software would have to avoid using photographs and names (e.g. You wouldn’t be able to choose by headshots.)
In old urbanism, most “named places” would be main shopping areas: in-town main streets organized at “main corners.” Dupont Circle in Washington DC would be a named place. Its “main corner” would be the Dupont Circle station at its northwest end. In sprawl, a mall might be a named place, and the main corner would be the best intersection for through transit. Named places should be those that already attract traffic – ideally foot traffic. Main corners should be intersections where auto-jitneys, buses and rail transit could stop briefly and efficiently. They would, of course, have bicycle stands too.
These places would then be poised to attract or organize multiple scenarios. Main corners should always have public areas and third places to wait and meet people, but they would also need curb space to host all the people arriving and departing by auto-jitneys and auto-taxis.
Such scenarios and friendly named places would only work if the numbers worked. The most important are trading trips by vehicles with single occupants for trips by shared vehicles. A more sophisticated form of congestion pricing could help. We could calculate the congestion and vehicle-miles each traveler (or delivery) contributes. We could call this the itinerary’s “impedance.” Then, riders could choose itineraries that are more efficient: those with lower impedance.
A ride with others in a shared vehicle would have a lower impedance than a solo trip in heavy traffic. Even a simple system like EZ Pass could charge conventional vehicles as in conventional congestion zones. Riders on scenarios, though, could factor impedance into their plans. A rider meeting an auto-jitney and a bus that are already scheduled would add no more impedance to those trips.
Social transit is a combination of systems already proposed. MaaS Global in Helsinki has an app, Whim, that lets people plan complex itineraries using many modes of travel. Various apps let you make plans with friends. Of course, several campuses and pilot programs are running autonomous shuttles on campuses. It is a matter of putting the pieces together – like putting wheels and luggage together to invent wheeled luggage.
Anecdotal conversations suggest that boarding a small shuttle with strangers could be daunting. If people don’t want to share their rides, congestion will remain, and the whole model of last-mile service would fail.
Shared transit depends on people sharing willingly. Sociable transit would let them do that.