Posts Tagged: Urban Design



Forcing Functions

We all do stupid things. Constantly. Wouldn’t it be nice to have something that prevents those things?

Forcing Functions are a principle of industrial and interactive design that shapes human behavior in order to prevent error when using a machine, interface or system. They are functions that – quite literally – force us to behave in a particular way. Forcing Functions are often irritating and annoying but when designed properly, they prevent behaviors that are even more inconvenient and irritating:

  • The reverse key lock in cars. Before the advent of the key lock fob, cars could not be locked from the inside. Was it inconvenient to have to lock the car manually from the outside? Yes. Did it prevent thousands of people from locking their keys inside their cars? Also yes.
  • Placing your alarm clock out of reach of your bed. Yes, when the alarm goes off you have to get out of bed to turn it off. Really irritating, especially on a cold winter’s morning. But more irritating is when you slap the alarm off half asleep and miss your 8 am conference call.
  • Keycard activated lights in hotel rooms. Lights will only be engaged once you insert your hotel keycard in the appropriate slot. Prevents people from forgetting their card and from leaving lights on. A great example of a Forcing Function that benefits the service provider rather than the user.
  • Child proof medicine bottles. One of the most benign and irritating Forcing Functions ever developed. But the display of strength and ingenuity needed to open these bottles prevents children from accidentally ingesting medicine they shouldn’t.
  • Freezing your credit card in ice. A classic from the debt-reduction self-help world that is rarely if ever seen as a Forcing Function. The time it takes to return home from the store and thaw out the credit card provides room to pause and contemplate, preventing poorly thought out impulse purchases.
  • Repeated requests for confirmation of a computer-related action. 99 out of every 100 times you know you want to delete the file you just asked the computer to delete. So why then does your computer keep asking you if you’re sure? Because there’s always that one time out of every 100 when you’re not sure.

Forcing Functions are all around and often completely invisible to us. And yet they seem noticeably absent from our existing transit systems and technologies. I can think of at least half a dozen problems with public transit that could easily be resolved with the proper Forcing Functions:

  • People who do not exit by the rear doors of transit vehicles.
  • Riders who dangerously rush down stairs and platforms to “catch” a departing vehicle.
  • People who refuse to let people off of a vehicle before they board.
  • Drivers who take unapproved breaks.
  • Not having the “exact change.”
  • Riders who will not move to the ends of a subway platform or to the back of the bus.
  • People on escalators who clog both the “walk” lane and the “stand” lane.
  • Chronically behind-of or ahead-of schedule vehicles.

As I see it, our current transit systems are not designed to recognize how people behave in reality. They are instead designed under the assumption that people are purely rational decision-makers that will behave as they are supposed to. We know, of course, that this just isn’t the case.

I suspect there’s something in the human condition that doesn’t like the concept of Forcing Functions because it implies that we are fallible and capable of moronic errors in judgement. We don’t like to think of ourselves as stupid and therefore don’t like the idea of a system forced upon us to correct for our stupidity. No one likes to be reminded of their shortcomings, after all.

Problem is we are stupid. Each and every one of us. And there’s nothing wrong with that, so long as our stupid decisions don’t ripple through an entire system to the inconvenience and hassle of thousands. Why not just admit that, design around it and move on with our lives?

Ironically, admitting to our own stupidity might just be the smartest thing we could ever do.

Beyond those listed above, what other public transit problems can you think of that come down to simple, stupid human error? Name a few and try to suggest a simple Forcing Function that could correct for it.

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More Urban Gondola Images

Image by Johannes Geisler, used with permissions.

Image by Johannes Geisler, used with permissions.

Image by the Doppelmayr Garaventa Group, used with permissions.

These images just landed in my inbox and I wanted to share them with everyone because I think they’re pretty special and inspiring. The first two are more from a series of renderings by Austrian design student, Johannes Geisler. You can see more of his designs here.

The final image is a new rendering of the Koblenz urban gondola system being opened for the BUGA horticultural show in Koblenz, Germany. That system should be operational any moment now. If you pay particular attention, you’ll notice something particularly important about this station: It’s an incredibly small, slim-profile station, ideal for the urban environment. Very exciting!

You can learn more about the Koblenz gondola, its unique design and BUGA here.

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Multimodal Transit

Nowaday’s, it’s easy to be partisan. In fact, it might even be a requirement.

The Light Rail boys have LightRailNow. The bicycle crew’s got Probicycle. Bus Rapid Transit has the National BRT Institute. High Speed Rail has the AHSRA. The PRT posse’s got Citizens for Personal Rapid Transit. Trolley Bus fans have these guys. Paratransit’s got Paratransitwatch. Even the urban gondola aficionados have their own site. And, of course, automobile lovers have the AAA.

While partisanship has always existed, it’s positively flourished in this new world of blogs, websites, web 2.0 and the internet at large. It seems that while our opportunities to communicate have grown exponentially, our ability to communicate has stagnated. Every transit mode advocacy group has staked their claim and refuses to budge. Everyday each finds some new and arcane statistic that proves theirs’ is the best or the most and the other guy is the worst or the least.

It’s a zero-sum, scorched earth strategy. You’re either with me or against me. It’s virulent. It’s nasty. And it helps no one.

Transit technologies shouldn’t be considered better or worse than one another. Instead they should be considered better or worse given a particular situation or environment. They shouldn’t be confrontational, they should be complementary. Just because The Gondola Project is pro-cable, doesn’t mean it’s anti-subway, anti-bus or anti-streetcar.

It’s all a question of context:

  • Buses are cheap, expedient, flexible and easy. They’re also not particularly pleasing to ride.
  • Subways are great but only if you’ve got the money and the ridership. If you don’t, look elsewhere.
  • Streetcars are pleasant and stylish and do a lot for the urban environment. If that’s what’s important to you, do it. Just don’t expect them to be fast, reliable or cheap.
  • Light Rail is a strong technology when designed and built properly. It needs its own exclusive right of way. Without it, it’s just a very expensive streetcar.
  • Jitneys are a fantastic complement to a transit network that cost a city nothing. They’re great for filling in the gaps in a transit network, but they should never be the main transit solution.
  • Cable’s an excellent medium-capacity, medium cost technology capable of navigating complex topography and urban traffic. But its uniqueness requires public and political support.
  • Bicycles are wonderful and deserve their due respect. But it’s not enough to slide a bike lane into the middle of mass traffic. They need their own realm.
  • The private automobile is convenient but it has no place in the dense core of cities that were originally designed for pedestrians. Keep them outside the core where they belong.

My goal with The Gondola Project is a simple one: Make people aware of cable transit as a potential option among many.

Do I have my biases and partisan leanings? Sure. For example, I find PRT highly suspect. I also believe Light Rail has been misleadingly sold as a new solution when it really is nothing more than a gussied-up streetcar (check out Jarrett Walker’s excellent HumanTransit blog for a thorough analysis of this issue).

But my biases don’t blind me. Cable’s not a panacea. When I say “cable’s good” I’m not saying “cable’s good to the exclusion of all other technologies.” I’m not saying you should tear up your rail tracks, sell-off your fleet of buses or fill in your subway tunnels. I’m not saying your city needs two dozen urban gondolas and cable liners to replace your existing transit system.

I am, however, saying this: You have options and you owe it to yourself and to your city to explore them fully and within their proper context.

Cable’s one of those options.

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Zombie Streetcars & Transit Bling

One of San Francisco's Fleet of Classic Streetcars.

I am decidedly against the City of Toronto’s decision to purchase almost 2 billion one-and-a-quarter billion dollars worth of new streetcars/light rail. And my problem with the decision has absolutely nothing to do with my position on CPT. I recognize that CPT is not a technology for all environs and I recognize that streetcar technology has its place.

My position on CPT is that it should be included as one among many transit technologies including bus, streetcar/light rail and subway. So let’s leave it at that. Back to the streetcars . . .

My problem with purchasing new vehicles to replace the old fleet is this: It’s nothing more than wasteful Transit Bling. In times of economic trouble, it seems irresponsible to replace that which could be rebuilt. Are Toronto’s existing streetcars decrepit?  Sure.  Are they falling apart?  Probably. Are they comfortable to ride? Not on your life. But none of those issues are unresolvable.

Havana is well-known for its plethora of 1950’s and 1960’s classic American cars.  These cars are at least a generation older than Toronto’s current aging streetcar fleet, but are in good condition, having been well-maintained and rebuilt several times.  These never-dying  zombie cars, have in fact, become something of a tourist attraction themselves.

Classic American cars crowd the roads of Havana to this day. They have even become an unofficial tourist attraction. Despite their age of 50-60 years, they are in good working condition due to ongoing maintenance and rebuilds.

So why then rush to abandon the current fleet of streetcars in Toronto?  Surely there must be some experienced mechanics, engineers and designers capable of creatively rebuilding the fleet at a fraction of the cost of buying new vehicles (around $5-6 million each). I’m even more certain there’s some inexperienced mechanics, engineers and designers in university who could do it. And if they did, it would be a testament to Toronto’s ingenuity, fiscal prudence, dedication to the environment and history.

San Francisco did just that with a fleet of Zombie Streetcars they purchased on the second/third hand market. The great irony is that many of those streetcars were never part of that city’s historic fleet. Instead, they were vehicles that had once serviced cities as far and wide as Kansas City, Philadelphia, Cleveland and . . . Toronto.

And just to one up those cities further, San Francisco painted these cars in colour schemes that replicated those of their original city of operation. The city positioned them as “Commemorative” streetcars, in effect celebrating that which other cities chose to dispose of. This was brilliant marketing to locals and tourists alike. (The streetcars are not a Toy for Tourists, they are instead an integral part of the San Francisco Muni system.) San Francisco took other cities’ “junk” and put it to good use because they recognized the inherent value these vehicles possessed when others didn’t.

It’s like being savvy enough to spot a Picasso at a yard sale whose owner is selling for $1.

Streetcars in San Francisco are not accessible, but redesigned platform ramps provide the same level of accessibility.

The one argument you could make in support of new purchase over rebuild is the issue of accessibility, which is a 100% legitimate agrument. Sort of.

Are San Francisco’s zombie streetcars accessible? No. But is the system itself accessible? Yes. All streetcar platforms were equipped with simple and cost-effective ramps that, in effect, give the streetcars complete accessibility.

Most amazing is that the San Francisco streetcars date from the early part of the last century. Many of them are 2-3 times older than the streetcars Toronto plans to replace. They’re also stylish to no end with a story that capture people’s attention and imagination.

Ironically, Toronto knows this. The city maintains a couple of these very same Zombie Streetcars for private charter operation and special event rental.

Infrastructure is part of our collective civic imagination and history. Merely replacing this infrastructure every 20 or 30 years robs us of something innate and valuable.

Maybe using Zombie Streetcars doesn’t play as well in the media as spending billions of dollars on brand new Transit Bling. But in the long run, it seems like a far more logical and stylish investment.

At the very least, San Francisco knows where to get a new lot of vintage Toronto streetcars for a very good price.

Creative Commons images by bstoragegj_theWhite and tibchris.

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The Wuppertal Schwebebahn

The Wuppertal Schwebebahn in Central Germany. Image by JuergenG.

In the central German city of Wuppertal is a piece of transit infrastructure completely unique in the world.

Translated directly, the Wuppertal Schwebebahn means “floating railway” and it’s easy to see how it received it’s name. Built in 1900, the Shwebebahn in the oldest monorail on the planet and an elegant piece of transit history and infrastructure. (FYI – It’s not cable propelled.)

Even 110 years ago, civil engineers understood the problems of public transit co-mingling with other private modes of transportation. But unlike today where we try and work around the problem of mixed traffic with dubious Transit Signal Priority Schemes, these engineers decided to forget about the band-aid approach and just get out of traffic’s way completely. And in doing so, they arrived upon the solution of creating the world’s first “hanging monorail.”

While the age of the system gives its infrastructure considerable heft, it’s not at the expense of the urban environment. The green support structures arch gracefully and their conspicuously large steel rivets conjure images of turn-of-the-century skyscrapers and the Eiffel Tower.

Much of the Wuppertal’s route lies overtop of the local river. Whereas some might have thought such a scheme would only be useful for crossing rivers, Wuppertal planners were wise in recognizing the other more intrinsic value of river corridors: Running along a river instead of across a river opens up wide areas of public space and provides an attractive view for riders.

The Wuppertal Schwebebahn shows how aerial transit systems are not only possible, but elegant, practical, safe and efficient. The Schwebebahn has an excellent safety record, and is still an essential part of that city’s transit infrastructure; not just a toy for tourists. It also suggests how an aerial gondola system might be similarly configured/integrated into the urban environment.

Check it out:

Special thanks to Christian for suggesting I discuss this unique and amazing system.

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Tomorrow’s Urban Gondola

All images courtesy of the Doppelmayr Garaventa Group. Design by Johannes Geisler.

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Children, Transit & Play Trains

When I was a child, my mother had a very simple rule when we were taking public transit:  If I misbehaved, we walked . . . no matter how far from home we were.  I knew perfectly well that my mother didn’t want to walk home any more than I did so one day I decided to call her bluff.

Four hours later we arrived – by foot – at home.

Children, like everyone else in public transit, are people that need to be designed for.  Children get restless when in a confined space . . . unless they are distracted by something.  Why do you think Ikea has a playground and restaurants have coloring books?  Adults do not perceive time the same way children do.  For adults, half an hour is gone in an instant.  For children, it’s an eternity.  Why don’t we ever take this into consideration?

If transit planners want to keep people and families using transit throughout their lives we should be designing systems so that parents look forward to – rather than dread – the experience of taking their easily-distractible children on a subway.  This, I suspect, is one of the major reasons behind young parents almost inevitably gravitating to the private automobile.

One of the most delightful distractions I can remember as a child was the front seat of a subway or the backseat of a streetcar or bus.  In these locations a child can witness first-hand what the vehicle is experiencing and are mesmerized by it.  To this day, I still see children clamoring for space in these prime locations.  Like me in my day, these kids tend to be quiet, behave and just generally watch the world go by, causing little concern for their parents or other passengers.

Unfortunately, current transit design practice eliminates these prime viewing spots.  Rear windows in buses have been replaced by air conditioning units and trains (both the light and the heavy kind) reserve the front of the train almost exclusively for the driver.  What’s a kid to do?

How about this:  Why not reserve a small and designated section of subways just for kids to play around in?  Nothing dangerous, just a place where kids can be kids.  That, I think, would make the experience more enjoyable for everyone.  In fact, it may actually attract ridership as parents would be nagged to death by their children who want to ride the “play train.”

One rule, however:  No adults in the ball crawl.

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