Thought Experiments



3 Innovations In Gondola Transit

A thought experiment:

You’re now the owner of the world’s largest cable gondola transit manufacturer on the planet. This could be a fictional company or a real company; it doesn’t matter.

You’re told by your CEO that three (and only three) innovations must be developed to ensure the technology’s viability into the future. One innovation needs to be relatively simple; the second innovation needs to be difficult but manageable in the near future and; the third innovation needs to be a pipe dream – something that’s likely never to happen within the next decade, but that would nevertheless improve the product drastically.

Your CEO asks you what those three innovations should be.

Here’s mine:

  • Reduce dwell times to under 30 seconds – should be relatively simple.
  • Develop gondolas that can operate at the maximum speed of aerial trams – with time it shouldn’t be a problem.
  • Allow for off-line stations such as those found in faux-prt systems – unlikely to occur anytime soon.

What’s your answer?

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Understanding Travel Decisions—A Human Perspective

Like many people of my generation, I put myself through two university degrees working in restaurants and bars. The last spot I ever worked at was a high-end Irish Pub in Toronto’s financial district.

Thankfully, the pub was located exactly 25 minutes’ walk from my apartment. I knew, because I’d meticulously timed it, measured it and shaved off every potential minute by finding every potential short-cut I could find—demonstrating the kind of meticulous attention to detail that makes us transit geeks so popular with the ladies.

The question then before I walked out my front door was whether to walk or to take transit.

Seems like a simple question, right? It wasn’t. Let me explain:

The most direct transit route from my apartment to the pub involved (in order of sequence of events):

  • a 2 minute journey from my front door to the streetcar stop;
  • an undetermined wait time for the streetcar;
  • a 6 minute streetcar trip;
  • a 2 minute transfer time from the streetcar to the subway;
  • an undetermined wait time for the subway;
  • a 4 minute subway ride;
  • a 2 minute journey from the subway to the pub.

You see the problem right away.

While the trip itself (let’s say the fixed journey time) was 16 minutes long, the wait times for the two vehicles in between were completely undetermined. Generally speaking, those wait times ranged any where from 1 minute to 10 minutes, and predicting them were nigh impossible.

That meant that my actual travel time by transit would be any where from 18 minutes to 36 minutes. Sure there were some situations where transit was a faster option, but that only occurred in 28% of all the possible wait time combinations.

Here’s the most interesting part: If I had to wait 8 minutes or more for either the streetcar or (not both) the subway, travelling by foot always yielded a shorter travel time. I know this because I built a spreadsheet to understand it for myself.

Assuming that an 8 minute wait time for any transit vehicle in Toronto is 50/50 proposition (at best) and given the $3.00 fare, is it any surprise then that I almost always walked?

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Thought Experiment: The CompuTrans 3000

Don't touch the CompuTrans 3000. Image by flickr user Don DeBold.

Because we haven’t done one of these in a while; a Thought Experiment:

In the not-too-distant future a group of transit geeks invent the CompuTrans 3000*. It is the world’s most advanced method of analyzing and predicting the success or failure of a planned transit initiative based upon a series of metrics. It quickly establishes a name for itself given its near-perfect track record.

Very soon, the CompuTrans 3000’s inventors decide to open it up to the entire world by creating an online portal for it. Suddenly, any transit geek, planner, politician, community advocate, academic or anyone else interested has the opportunity to present their armchair transit plan to CT3 (as his nickname becomes) and have it vetted by the greatest known analytical tool ever yet marshalled in the industry.

Here’s the catch: You can use CompuTrans 3000 for free, but your idea – and it’s score – gets posted online in a leaderboard comparing the relative merits of one concept against another in a given geographic area.

In City X, the three plans that sit atop the leaderboard are:

  • A plan by the city’s own transit agency that receives a score of 74%
  • A plan by a noted transportation academic that receives a score of 78%
  • A plan by an anonymous individual, group or business that receives a score of 94%

Which plan will City X’s transit agency choose to undertake, understanding that they have absolutely zero obligation to follow the prescribed actions of the CompuTrans 3000?

The answer, I suspect, says more about you and your relationship to the city you live in than anything else – and that’s the point.

There is, of course, no such thing as the CompuTrans 3000 and there likely isn’t to be such a thing any time in the near or distant future. But by imagining a world where the quality of a plan can be rationally analyzed fully completely, we’re freed to explore the very real reasons why the best plan might not be be selected for implementation.

And those reasons might be more important than the plan itself.

* Note: The CompuTrans 3000 was invented by the same people who developed the CableRailyGyroCopter

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London Cable Car Averages “Just” 20,000 Trips Per Day

The London Thames Cable Car (or “Emirates Air Line” if you so prefer) is quickly becoming not only one of the most expensive cable cars ever built – but also one of the most talked-about. It seems that no day goes by without someone coming up with something to criticize the system about.

Problem is, oftentimes those criticisms amount to little more than political posturing.

The latest volley against the system comes from Mayor Watch, where columnist Martin Hoscik criticizes the system for running “significantly below capacity.” Hoscik states that while the system has a maximum daily capacity of 35,000, the system’s 20,000 trips “averaged just over half that.”

Now before anyone accuses me of being a gondola apologist, let me restate that I’ve been critical of the London Cable Car in the past (herehere, and here). Notwithstanding my problems with the system, Hoscik’s criticisms are completely off-base and inaccurate. His arguments are flawed and of the politically-motivated sort that try to turn non-issues into issues while ignoring all nuance and statistical relevance.

While never explicitly deriding the system, he crafts the piece in such a way to suggest that the system is somehow a let-down because it is not operating at maximum capacity. But let’s take Hoscik’s basic thesis at face value and extrapolate it. Let’s conduct a few quick thought experiments because we haven’t done one of those in a while:

  • The Dark Knight Rises was one of the most anticipated summer movies since, well, the last Dark Knight movie. It has been making insane amounts of money. Imagine you’ve just gone to see the movie and the theatre you’re in is half empty. Does that make TDKR a failure?
  • You hear about a hot restaurant with an up-and-coming young chef. All reports indicate the restaurant to be a success. You try to get reservations for the prime 8pm slot but are told there are only seats available for the 10pm seating. Upon arrival at 10 pm, only half the seats are full. Does that make this restaurant a failure?
  • You live in a large, cosmopolitan city and the subway line you take to work each day is one of the only lines in your transit network to be self-sustaining. As such, the rush hour commuter crush that characterizes your subway line is horrific. You therefore decide to adjust your work schedule so you can travel on off-peak times. Much to your delight, you discover that when you travel on your subway line at 10 am instead of 8am, the train is half-empty. Does that somehow invalidate the line’s clear success?

The answer to all three is obviously, resoundingly no.

Even at “just” 20,000 trips per day, the London Cable Car is a success. Heck, even half that number at the lowest ticket price possible, the system is still a strong performer. Hoscik conveniently ignores this economic reality and judges the system based upon a metric that is simply and entirely irrelevant.

Very few enterprises – public or otherwise – operate at maximum capacity at all times. Mr. Hoscik should realize that and stop trying to make a mountain out of a molehill.

(Not to split hairs here, but Hoscik also doesn’t address whether those 20,000 journeys were round trips or single trips. He also makes an error when he states that the total capacity of the line is 35,000. Not that it really matters, but that’s only in one direction, not both.)

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Thought Experiment: Cuisine Zealotry?

A thought experiment:

Imagine you’re a chef with a decent reputation, good training and a strong generalized understanding of most popular world cuisines. You know your Classical French, your Fresh Market California, your Asian Fusion, your Italian. But then one winter, you take a trip to The Philippines and discover something: Filipino cuisine is incredibly unique, incredibly interesting and (most important of all) incredibly underrepresented and misunderstood within mainstream culinary circles.

Philippino Kangkong.

You therefore decide to dedicate yourself for a few years to learn about the intricacies of the cuisine. You travel the country and learn how to make such staples as Adobo, Kinilaw and Kangkong. You see it made first-hand and read as many cookbooks as you can find – which are few and far between.

By the end of that time, you’ve developed a base of knowledge on Filipino cuisine rare in your industry and find ways to inform the food industry about that knowledge. Maybe you write a cookbook or start a website. You never say that Filipino cuisine is the best cuisine there is (because you know how pointless that would be) but you maintain that it’s an interesting cuisine worthy of further attention and use in mainstream culinary circles.

Does that make you a Filipino Cuisine Zealot?

Hardly. It makes you a chef who knows a lot about Filipino cuisine. Nothing more.

Some chefs specialize in Molecular Gastronomy. Others in pastry. You happen to specialize in Filipino cuisine.

I bring this up because last week I was accused by a commenter of being a blind “modal zealot” uninterested in “promoting transportation solutions that will actually come to pass.” I’m not going to go into why that’s demonstrably false. If you want to know why that’s demonstrably false, spend a bit of time reading this website (or just this post, for example). This is not a site of zealots. It’s a site of people passionate about public transit and passionate about looking at it from a different perspective.

That doesn’t make us zealots, it makes us transit specialists with a different specialization than the majority. That’s it.

We’ve a demonstrated understanding of public transit and its various permutations. We’re not hostile to other modes. We don’t claim gondolas to be superior to all other forms. We aren’t violent, rebellious or aggressive. At the end of the day, all we say is that gondolas are a transit tool – nothing more.

Perhaps the worst we could be accused of is getting a disproportionately high amount of media attention for what is – admittedly – a completely ridiculous idea.

But that doesn’t make us zealots any more than it makes us Filipino chefs.

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Dual Mode Gondolas – Hook and Anchor

Over the past week and half, we’ve discussed two hybrid/dual-mode transit technologies – AutoTram and DMVs. To build on this topic, I was contemplating if such a concept could apply to Cable Propelled Transit (CPT). I asked myself: what if a gondola cabin could be both propelled from above and below?

Well, I decided to whip something up quickly today to demonstrate my design concept. If you’ll pardon my photoshop skills and the crude images, I’d like to briefly showcase a purely conceptual CPT idea, the Hook and Anchor (patent pending, but of course).

A vehicle that can travel both terrestrially and aerially can be advantageous in a city context. Image by Nicholas Chu, CUP Projects.

Imagine a detachable grip vehicle/cabin with the capability to “anchor” itself like a cable liner/cable car, but also have the ability to “hook” itself like a gondola. Would this idea solve some of complicated alignment and visual privacy issues often found in cities?

It is difficult to say at this time because this idea is so raw. But under the right circumstances, this theoretical configuration may mitigate some of the complex land use and settlement patterns seen in urban environments.

For example, this design may enable vehicles to manoeuvre themselves around complex turns and spaces in “anchor” mode but also soar above topographical (natural and man-made) challenges in “hook” mode. See hypothetical usage and illustration below.

In theory, a vehicle in "hook" mode can glide above urban obstacles such as intersections. Image by Nicholas Chu, CUP Projects.

Now I’m not an engineer, so I am unsure if this concept is technologically feasible. But I hope that this post and the ones preceding it, can help spur and initiate a conversation and discussion on how “simple” (I use that term loosely) technological innovations/changes can help us rethink transportation in cities.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on such a concept. Possible? Impossible? Insane? Sane? Feel free to be brutally honest.

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Thought Experiment: Towers vs. Stations

Firstly, I’d just like to thank Nick and Julia for pitching in so much these last couple of weeks. I’ve had a hectic schedule of travel and I couldn’t have done it without them.

Secondly, I want to throw a question out there for our readers:

I recently got into a discussion with a project team about a specific urban gondola project. And of course, the question of aesthetics came into play – specifically about what to do about towers and stations.

A debate quickly ensued: One group of individuals was adamant that station architecture/infrastructure was the more important of the two design considerations and if a city needed to spend money on aesthetics, that money should be spent there.

The other group insisted that stations were a no-brainer and no worry. It’s the towers that are the bigger concern and that’s where the money should be spent.

Of course the most reasonable answer is that both tower and station design are incredibly important when integrating a gondola into an urban environment. But let’s play along.

A quick thought experiment:

You’re the mayor of a fictional city that intends to install an urban gondola system. The budget is tight and there is only so much money available for purely aesthetic concerns. Your team of consultants informs you that your budgetary situation basically means you can only spend “aesthetics” money on either tower or station design – not on both.

Which do you choose?

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