Posts Tagged: Thought Experiment



Thought Experiment: Should Roller Coaster Designers Design Public Transit?

Image by flickr user Mike D.

Disclaimer: This post in no way, shape, form or description advocates using roller coasters or thrill park rides as mass public transit.

Should Roller Coaster Engineers and Theme Park Designers participate in the design of public transit?

Probably an insane idea; no doubt completely and 100%. But also probably worth exploring, if only in a space as limited as a short thought experiment on a niche blog.

To begin, a presumption: Thrill Ride Engineers and Designers are very much in the same business as Public Transport Planners.

Though neither is likely to admit it, both at their cores are in the business of moving people in pursuit of a larger goal. Neither move people just for the sake of moving them.

Public Transport agencies move people for a whole host of reasons: Increased mobility, social inclusion, economic development, decreased car emissions, traffic reduction, etc., etc., etc. Rarely, however, do transit agencies consider such things as enjoyability to be an important motivator behind transit planning decisions.

Roller Coaster Designers, meanwhile, move people in order to evoke a feeling from riders. That feeling can be awe, terror, joy, whatever, but the fundamental work of a Roller Coaster Designer is to provoke an emotion in people that would not exist if not for the environment and motion that designer creates.

Yet despite their implicit similarity, the metrics used to measure success in each industry are completely different: The first is quantitative, cold and mathematical. The second is qualitative, experiential and emotional.

A second presumption: Public transit ridership is at least in part dictated by the enjoyability of the ride itself.

Public transit ridership is oftentimes low in western society. Furthermore, people who ride public transit tend to do so grudgingly and are only willing to pay a few dollars at most per trip. If we believe the second presumption to be true (which it may not be), then we can logically assume that part of the reason for this low ridership and grudging acceptance is due to a dissatisfaction with the enjoyability of the system itself.

On the flip side, groups of families and friends will travel great distances for the privilege of attending a theme park, spend hundreds of dollars to do so and be willing to stand in lines of an hour or more for the thrill of a two minute ride. Again, the enjoyability of the ride experience must therefore be high enough such that large volumes of people are motivated to endure significant hardship merely for the pleasure of a short ride.

This isn’t to say we need roller coasters instead of public transport (though some people will surely decide that’s exactly what I’m saying).

It is to say, however, that if ridership and ride enjoyability are connected then in order to increase public transit ridership we must therefore improve the experience of public transportation. It might therefore be wise to consult with individuals who actually understand those emotional things which are currently lacking in our assumptions and models about public transit ridership.

Hence Roller Coaster Engineers and Theme Park Designers.

Humans, after all, are emotional creatures and it seems logical to engage with people who understand how the emotional experience of transportation impacts a human’s heart, mind and soul and how we can best calibrate those experiences to best align with a transit agencies’ need for increased ridership.

And again, just because the internet has a way of twisting people’s words: This was a thought experiment. I don’t believe we should be replacing public transit with thrill rides and roller coasters.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.



Thought Experiment: Why Not Experiment?

Image by flickr user Gary Huston.

A thought experiment:

Imagine if we created financial incentives for people to experiment professionally with transit?

For example: What if, for a transit agency to receive federal/state/provincial funding they had to dedicate at least 5% of their total annual budget to research and development?

How would that change things?

My recent flaying at the hands of the PRT community got me thinking about this. While I may disagree with the logic of PRT, but I’m pleased the industry continues with their somewhat quixotic quest. Their dedication to an ideal and their perseverance to doggedly pursue it is admirable.

The fundamental beauty of what the PRT community represents is a willingness to experiment and take risks. Whatever your position on PRT, you have to admit, these are a group of people with guts.

Generally speaking, transit doesn’t have those guts. And maybe it needs it.

In the last 100 years, we’ve basically seen no risk-taking and innovation limited risk-taking and innovation in transit and we’ve been left with the results of that neglect. Sure there’s been the occasional BRT or LRT, but those are just standard technologies put in their own rights-of-way. Most innovations have come in things like ticketing and fares.

Don’t even get me started on monorails.

We need a culture of transit that privileges – nay, expects – experimentation, innovation and invention because the status quo just isn’t working too well anymore. That doesn’t mean taking reckless risks, especially when it may endanger people’s lives, but it does mean we can’t change things for the better using the same techniques that got us to where we currently are.

We may laugh at things like the Chinese Tunnel Bus™ but what if it actually works?

Yes research, development and experimentation is expensive and the fruits of it somewhat elusive. But it is something that successful companies (whether public or otherwise) commit to. There’s a reason things like auto show concept cars and haute couture fashion exist.

Maybe no one’s ever going to wear a dress made of meat or drive a shape-shifting sports car, but the ideas and discussions those things provoke go on to challenge and influence our preconceived notions of the world around us. They inspire us to dream a little higher and a little better.

When was the last time we saw a high concept tram? A bus made of paper? A flying subway? All ridiculous, of course. But that’s partly the point.

There’s a reason PRT continues to hang around: It inspires us to imagine public transit better than what it currently is.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.



What Transit Can Learn From Camping Gear: A Thought Experiment

Image by capcase.

In his legendary treatise on industrial design The Design of Everyday Things, Donald A. Norman professes his love for camping gear as being some of the best-designed products in the world.

Why does he think such gear is so well-designed? Because more often than not, the products are designed by people who actually use them.

It makes logical sense. Campers, hikers and the like are prone to understand the needs of outdoor gear better than anyone else by virtue of the fact that they encounter the situations that warrant said products more frequently than anyone else.

They get it because they do it.

It’s such a simple and intuitive concept that it almost slips past you. Products designed by people who use them are often (typically?) better than products designed by people who don’t use them.

You wouldn’t trust a plane engineered by people who don’t fly, now would you? Nor would you want to eat from a restaurant that even it’s own head chef wouldn’t dine at.

So then why do the same standards not apply to transit?

A thought experiment:

The remarkably poorly-named city of Transitopolis passes an ordinance obliging all the people who planned, engineered, operated and designed Transitopolis’ transit system to use the service on a semi-regular basis.

That is, all people in Transitopolis who worked in transit must make more than half of all their trips by public transit. And I’m not just talking about the engineers. I’m talking about everyone from the drivers to the ticket takers to the planners. Everyone.

How much different and/or better would public transit be in Transitopolis than, say, your city? Might it be worse?

The situation described for Transitopolis is impossible, I know. Despite what some transit advocates would like you to believe, one can’t force another to take a specific mode of transit to and from work everyday. And if one could it’s likely to be in a part of the world you wouldn’t want to live in. I think it safe to say that Transitopolis wouldn’t be the most popular place to live on earth.

Nevertheless, the question intrigues me.

Maybe a better way of phrasing the question is this: How many of the people involved in the daily operation, running and planning of your city’s transit system actually use your city’s transit system? How many of them see transit as nothing more than their job or as a product they believe in strongly enough to use it everyday?

I doubt such statistics exist. But if they did, you’d probably learn a lot about the state of transit in your city just by looking at them.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.



A Thought Experiment: Witricity

I’m going to forego my usual thought experiment introduction and just leave it at this:

What happens to cities, transit, cable, etc when Witricity (or something comparable, but with a less awful name) is scaled up and as common as an electrical outlet?

Watch, contemplate and discuss:

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.



50 Percent Less

A thought experiment:

What if you took anywhere from one third to one half of the commuters off the road each and every workday? How would that change things?

Well for starters, your commute would be far more pleasant, whether you were a driver or not. Congestion and delays wouldn’t be nearly as harsh as they are today. If you were a transit rider, you might even get a seat on the subway.

Fifty  years ago that would’ve been the case. After all, back then only one person commuted to work in a formal workplace. He – of course – was the breadwinner, but the housewife provided labour in an informal economy of child-rearing, food preparation, tailoring and perhaps a small home-based business making and selling what-have-yous.

And remember: That informal economy was impossible to track and thus, tax free.

That’s not to say that a woman’s place is in the home. Far from it. It’s just to say that maybe the home is the place for half of a household’s economic activity, whether it’s generated by man or woman.

Were that the case, we’d have a lot fewer cars on the road and riders on the subway.

Maybe our traffic and transit problems have nothing to do with roads and wheels and rights-of-way. Maybe traffic isn’t the horrible disease we make it out to be. Maybe it’s the symptom of something far more troublesome than itself.

If so, we’ve got to stop worrying about the symptom and go after the disease directly, whatever it may be.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.



The Future of Public Transit

A Thought Experiment:

Imagine a world 30 years from now (not so far into the future) where there is no such thing as public transit in whatever city you happen to live in. How did it happen? Why? What caused public transit’s demise? Think it’s impossible? Ask Clayton County, Georgia.

Or the flip side:

Image a world 30 years from now where there is no such thing as the private automobile. Again: how did that happen? Why? What caused the demise of the car?

Both are equally plausible. And just because you want one scenario to occur over the other (or some other third option), that doesn’t guarantee that scenario will occur.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.