As a researcher in vehicle safety, my friends in the US often ask, “Which is the safest car to buy?” My friends and family back in India, on the other hand, have never connected with that question. Cars sell for brand-name, comfort and fuel economy, not for the way they perform in a crash.
Rapid motorization and traffic congestion are becoming a major challenge for large cities in the developing world, and generating significant economic and social costs. In Cairo, for instance, the World Bank estimates that congestion costs are as high as US$8 billion or 4% of the city’s GDP.
Mr. Julio Lopes, Secretary of Transport of the State of Rio de Janeiro, recently visited the World Bank to present what the city is doing to improve the quality of public transport. It is a fascinating example of how cities can improve urban transport, with a clear target of benefiting the poor and reducing a city’s carbon footprint.
What would blogs be good for if it were not for their intent on steering a bit of controversy?
So here it is… I do not believe that behavior change interventions can effect lasting change in people’s travel patterns unless real choices are available to them within the local context.
For fun, suppose you were a software developer, and you came up with a terrific idea to communicate public transit information. For example, imagine your city experiences frequent floods, and you have devised an automated system that sends SMS texts to passengers, advising them of alternative transit routes during emergencies.
How much revenue do you think you could earn for that software? How many people could you positively impact?
What if I told you that today, by taking advantage of one tiny revolution in open data, you could take those numbers and multiply them by 350, turning $100,000 into $35 million, or 1 million people into 350 million? Sounds pretty good, right? If you are in international development, sounds like a promotion…
If you miss me at the back of the bus, and you can't find me nowhere
Come on up to the front of the bus, I'll be ridin' right there
I'll be ridin' right there
I'll be ridin' right there
Come on up to the front of the bus I'll be ridin' right there
We know that technology is not a panacea, that gadgetry and software are not always the right solutions for our transport problems. But how do we know – really know -- when technology is truly the wrong way to go – when, say, using an old-fashioned compass is genuinely better than a GPS?
Thanks to blogger Sebastiao Ferreira, writing for MIT’s CoLab Radio, I have learned about an intriguing phenomenon in Lima, where entrepreneur data collectors, named dateros, stand with clipboards along frequented informal microbus routes, collecting data on headways, passenger counts, and vehicle occupancy levels. The microbus drivers pay dateros about 10-cents per instant update, and they use the information to adjust their driving speed. For example, if there is a full bus only a minute ahead of the driver’s vehicle, the driver will slow down, hoping to collect more passengers further down the route. In informal transit systems, where drivers’ incomes are directly tied to passenger counts, paying dateros is a good investment (Photo from MIT CoLab Radio).
If you think about it, use of dateros could be more efficient than traditional schedule or GPS-based dispatch, because the headways are dynamically and continuously updated to optimize the number of passengers transported at any given time of day. According to Jeff Warren (a DIY cartography pioneer), the dateros have been praised as the “natural database, an ‘informal bank’ of transportation optimization data.”
Does this little-known practice call into question our traditional prescription for high-tech solutions to bus dispatch?
The other day, my colleague Roger Gorham, a transport economist working in Africa, shared with me an interesting story. He was in Lagos, meeting with stakeholders about setting up public-private partnerships for transport initiatives. One meeting revealed that, in an effort to improve service, a private entity had invested in new taxis for Lagos and in each had installed a GPS unit. This little revelation may not seem interesting, but it was very exciting to Roger, who also learned that the company has amassed more than 3 years of GPS tracking data for these taxis (which, incidentally, troll the city like perfect probes, nearly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) and that this data could be made available to him, if he thought he might make some use of it.
Now, if you are reading this blog, chances are that you realize that with this kind of data and a little analysis, we can quickly and easily reveal powerful insights about a city’s transport network – when and where congestion occurs, average traffic volumes, key traffic generators (from taxi pick-up point data), occurrence of accidents and traffic blockages in real time, and even the estimated effects of congestion and drive cycle on fuel efficiency.
As Roger said, “They are sitting on a gold mine and don’t even know it….”
Since May, the Internet has been a-buzz with the “bridge bus”, a never-before-seen public transit contraption scheduled for a 186 km route pilot in Beijing later this year. The bus straddles existing roadway lanes, creating a moving tunnel-like effect for the vehicles underneath. The vehicle’s Shenzhen-based designers claim that the system can move up to 1,200 passengers at a time (300 per bus), without taking away from existing road space, while at the same time reducing fuel consumption (the bridge bus runs on electricity, partially supplied by solar panels), and at a lower cost than building a subway. A revolution!
I am a big fan of entrepreneurial innovation in transit. And when I see something truly innovative and different come out of one of the countries where we work, I get very excited! But there is something about this concept -- something that doesn’t seem quite right…