Week 3: Understanding the Customer
I began my task of exploring Winter Travel by considering different modes of transportation available in the Twin Cities. I conducted three interviews with individuals that used different modes of transportation. I photographed different varieties of bus stops and stations around the Twin Cities including the Metro Transit and Campus Connector. I also audited my own experiences commuting in winter by automobile and bus.
I. Ask: Observation Study
A. Interview 1: Louis, Winter Driver
My first interview was with Louis, a compact car driver. He commutes to work using a Honda Civic. He drives on a mixture of city streets and highways. He is about 30 years old.
He began by saying that driving was most dangerous during the first two weeks of snow. People drive too swiftly in snow storms, and are unaccustomed to the road conditions so they get into accidents. Things normalize after a few weeks, but overall the chances of accidents and delays are higher during the season and need to be considered.
Road conditions are concealed by the precipitation and ice, so potholes can be a surprise and cause vehicle damage.
Commuting in winter adds time to the travel. He said it takes about ten minutes to clean the car of ice and snow, and ten minutes to heat the vehicle. Usually he does both at the same time, starting the car and turing on the defroster and heater as he clears the ice.
Car maintenance is important. Louis checks his tire pressure when preparing for winter driving. The cold air lowers the pressure of the tires, which affects grip and milage.
He uses a combination ice scraper and brush from an auto-parts store. It has a knife-edge to get under the ice sheet that builds on windshields. He tries to lift his windshield wipers to be perpendicular to the windshield so that they do not freeze to the surface. He cautions that he doesn't do it when he thinks there is a chance someone will break them off during vandalism.
He carries ballast in the trunk of the car. He has used sacks of bird seed in the past.
Sometimes the car becomes stuck. He has tried a variety of methods for freeing the car. Louis tried pouring the bird seed under the tires, but it did not work. He has used flattened cardboard for traction, but sometimes that is thrown by the rotation of the tire. He has also tried digging the snow out from under the wheel.
Louis says that the streets look nicer when there is a clean blanket of snow.
Louis like driving because of the convenience and control. He says that as a child and teen he had to wait for rides and be at the convenience of others. He doesn't want to "mooch rides from friends or be stuck."
Other winter travel hazards he noted include:
-he repeated the likelihood of a stuck car.
If given the option, sometimes he would rather stay home than drive in the snow.
B: Interview 2: Jack, Winter Cyclist
The second interview was with Jack, a frequent cyclist, even in winter. Jack uses a variety of methods of commuting. He cycles, drives a car, and walks. With the right equipment, it is possible to ride in the winter. He cycles for errands, commuting, and for pleasure. He is about 40 years old.
His commute is 11---12 miles each way, twice per week.
If it is between 10 and 20 degrees (Fahrenheit) it is comfortable to bike. He says he does not mind the cold during winter. When biking during winter, he dresses as if he was going skiing or ice skating. He says he wears less clothing than people might think, because he builds heat during the exercise. He dresses in layers so he can adjust for the weather. He wears a beanie hat under his helmet, and sometimes a face mask for the snow. He wears regular gloves, though if it particularly cold he will wear two pairs of mittens. Hands and feet get colder than the rest of the body because of the distance from the core. He wears regular bike shoes most of the time, but sometimes he wears snow boots.
He likes cycling in winter because it is quieter than in other seasons. Fewer people are out.
He likes to ride in the morning when he is fresh.
He doesn't like to ride when it is brutally cold outside or when it is too windy. Similarly, Jack sometimes doesn't like to ride when he is going to a late afternoon class because when he leaves at night the conditions will be worse because of darkness and temperature drops. In these instances he sometimes drives a car.
Other instances when he doesn't bike are based on circumstances other than the weather. If he has family obligations and he will drive, sometimes with a passenger. If he will be staying somewhere late, or if he is physically tired he will drive. He needs to be aware of his body's messages because cycling unprepared can be dangerous.
There are some considerations for cycling in winter. Jack warns that riding in winter requires more energy. He says he needs to eat and drink more water. Cyclists need more calories or they can get into trouble. Similarly there is more preparation time as he dresses for the ride and then changes clothes when he arrives at work.
His bike has two panniers (saddlebags) for storage. One container stows his change of clothes and extra clothes for variable weather. The other contains his lock, personal belongings, work materials, and iPad.
Some bikes have special frames with wide tires for driving on snow and sand. There are also studded tires with metal or knobby rubber for these surfaces. These tires can be 4--5" wide and only have a low tire pressure of 8--9lb., compared to other bike tires that can be about a hundred lb.
Sometimes he uses the bike for errands. The panniers are large enough for some groceries. In these instances he carries an extra messenger bag or backpack. He makes a list before going so he knows he will have enough storage, and plans his route ahead of time.
Bike riding in winter gives Jack a sense of accomplishment. He feels the effort is worth it because it is harder than driving. He repeated that he enjoys the quiet when noise seems dampened by the snow.
For about 2/3 of his ride he travels through trails in Minneapolis. He enjoys being outdoors in the woods and the physical effort.
It can be challenging starting in the morning. During the first 10--15 minutes of the ride before his body has warmed up it is difficult. The exertion warms him and the rest of the trip is better.
If he needs to drive his car, he follows some of the same rules. He takes his time and plans ahead. He maintains it is important to not be in a hurry.
He warms up the car and cleans it off much like Louis described.
C: Interview 3: Ben, Winter Walker & Bus Taker
Ben is a cyclist, bus-taker, and a walker. Though he owns a car, he seldomly uses it. He prefers not to drive, even in winter. He is about 50 years old.
Ben keeps cycling as long as possible during the winter. The first major snowstorm is when he usually stops. He says he stops when the salt trucks start heavily working because his bikes (he owns four) are not equipped for the salt. If he had a bike with wider tires he might ride later in the season.
He will begin riding again when the salt trucks stop, even if there are remnants of snow and ice remaining.
He doesn't mind the cold.
When he has stopped riding for the season he commutes with a mixture of walking and bus riding. He walks about a mile to the bus stop and transits from there.
He enjoys the walks twice a day. During the walks he notes the weather. He can walk in any conditions. The effort makes him feel empowered.
When Ben has errands, he walks or bikes. He lives about ten minutes' walk from a co-op. He will ride his bikes, or walk when that is not possible. Occasionally he will use his car if it is dark, the weather is extremely inclement, or he has a purchase too big to carry otherwise.
He lives centrally in the cities, near bus routes and the light rail, so he doesn't need to drive. He is near the midtown greenway, the river, and campus. This was a key factor in where he chose to live. He thinks the Twin Cities couldn't be better for cycling.
Ben has always preferred to walk. He feels terrible, and disconnected from the world, when he is not walking. Even when working at home he will take breaks to walk.
He finds it empowering to go on a 20 minute bike ride or walk. He keeps a modicum of fitness this way and does not need to go to the gym. He doesn't use elevators when possible.
He likes to walk in wild places such as cliff tops, or by the sea. In the Twin Cities he walks on trails and near the river banks. These locations feed into his creative works.
He is grateful for the opportunity. He takes many small walks rather than infrequent long hikes, though he does those occasionally.
Ben feels the UMN Transitway is "super key." He likes the walk to the station, and enjoys the twenty minutes of reading he can get while riding the Campus Connector. He feels that public transportation can help a meditative state.
Walking in snow is wonderful, he says. He loves seeing the changes to the world and the feeling of the cold.
Ben thinks walking is a necessary human experience. It is inspiring, he says. Walking is a tried and tested aid to creativity and there is a link between walking and thinking in humans. He feels the mental stimulation can't be matched by a computer.
II. Observe: People in the Setting
I see cars for at least a couple of hours each day. In observing for this blog post, I noted a lot of distracted driving. The worst spots were on I-35W between downtown Minneapolis and 62. There are frequent lane changes and a lot of overpasses and underpasses.
The easiest drive is Hiawatha Avenue (55). The road is very straight, with fair lines of sight. It is mostly industrial, with the exception of the Trail park, with clear traffic lights. Though, there has been a lot of residential housing built up last year.
Drivers tend to be single occupants in vehicles at the times I drive: during rush hour and late at night. Most people seem to be eating or drinking while driving. Some are talking, either on a phone or to themselves, I a cannot say.
B. Bus Takers
The experience of bus riders varies quite a bit.
By my house, the bus stop is simply a metal sign in the grass. There is no shelter or even pavement to stand on in winter.
The Apple Valley Metro Transit Station is new and modern. There is a skyway to cross Cedar Avenue. The station has a ticket booth outside and another somewhat hidden inside under the stairs to the skyway. The buses drive to the doors of the station so riders can embark from the station interior, even if bringing bicycles.
Technology is used to enhance the passenger experience. The station has a positive pressure heating system so when the doors open, cold air is kept out. There is a audio system for times with a braille sign for the visually impaired. Emergency phone stations are clearly marked. There is ample light.
The station has ample parking in a two-story lot. This will be handy during winter because if you parked on the ground or first floors your car will have less snow than if you parked on the roof or in a surface lot.
Some of the Metro Transit buses have space to carry the bikes in the bus, though most have racks on the front of the vehicle.
The University Avenue Metro Transit light rail station at University and Snelling is not yet in use. However, the station is fully constructed in anticipation of the 2014 opening. The stations are open, roofed structures with a wall on one side of the split-side platforms. It appears like it will be cold in the snow, with little shelter from the weather.
Across the street was an older bus shelter, about then feet long. It has a bench, room for a wheel chair, and a heater lamp. The wall of the shelter is adjacent to the street to protect waiting commuters from vehicle splashing.
St. Paul's University of Minnesota campus has similar bus shelters. This design is enclosed on three of four sides, with a partial wall on the fourth. It is better than the open shelter design for stopping the wind.
There are many walkers in St. Paul. Frequently people seemed to be walking from stores or near bus stops.
The St. Paul UMN campus has many slopes that are difficult to walk in the winter because of ice. They are often cleaned and salted promptly, but sometimes the ice is treacherous. Students and other on campus were dressed lightly for November, but many had jackets or hats. Few wore actual winter coats.
III. My Experience
Mostly, I commute to class and work by automobile. I have a daily commute between an hour and two hours, though on bad winter days the round trip is sometimes two to two and a half hours long. In one terrible snowstorm it took four hours just to drive home because traffic was so slow.
I drive a Honda Fit, which is a superlative vehicle for my needs as an urban/suburban commuter. The only downside is that it has a really low ground clearance. I have been caught in snow troughs made by plows a couple of times while trying to enter parking lots. Additionally, I have been unable to leave my townhouse's parking lot when it was not plowed because of some high snowfalls.
This week we have not had much snow. With the light precipitation, I haven't had trouble driving. I think the important thing is to maintain both hands on the wheel and avoid too many distractions. Driving over bridges can be hazardous because of ice build-up, and a good grip can help steer off of black ice.
I carry a combination ice-scraper and snow brush in my vehicle all year long. I put it in the trunk in the summer. Usually it sits in the cavity between the door and the driver's seat. The brush has a bow-shape for extra leverage and I feel it works better than straight-staffed combos I have used in the past.
I frequently listen to NPR and books on CD from the county library systems. The books on tape are a way to get some fiction experience during the school year, though I tend to alternate between non-fiction and fiction so they don't become repetitive. Abridged books are titles I wouldn't otherwise read.
If I talk on the phone, it is through the speaker-phone on my iPhone. My car doesn't have a bluetooth enabled stereo for handsfree talking, but have seen them in use.
I use the Campus Connector to go between St. Paul and Minneapolis. Once on either campus, I usually walk, even if it is between the East and West banks. Partly, that has to do with how the bus routes intersect with where I am going. My main locations are McNeal Hall in St. Paul, Rapson Hall on the East Bank, and Wilson Library on the West Bank.
The Campus Connector is usually swift, and saves me the price of parking. Parking has been particularly expensive in the last year. Most of the lots that were free after hours have been upgraded with electronic parking payment stations that operate at all hours. Similarly, many of the $4 lots have switched to carpool-only until 9 a.m., so I cannot use them when I have a class during the first period.
I also first heard one of my favorite musicians while riding the connector: Jackie McLean. So, though most of the time rides are solitary affairs while people listen to MP3 players, sometimes there is cultural expansion.
C. Baby Car Seat
My wife and I will be having our first child in January. As part of the process of getting ready, we shopped for car seats. Health Partners hospitals will not release a child from the hospital if the pickup vehicle doesn't have a car seat.
Car seats are complicated devices. Fire Departments will install them for you if you make an appointment, because people do it wrong and it negates the point of the seat.
Some of the car seats have integrated carrying handles for lugging the baby around out of the car, but when out of the vehicle the child may not be sitting at the correct angle for an unobstructed airway. Some of them are made to snap into a base, so you can install a base in a vehicle and a second in a different vehicle. This also allows them to snap into strollers made to combine with the chair.
In a course on newborns we took at the Amma Parenting Center, we were told that car seats have a "fuzzy" expiration date of five years from manufacturing, attributed to advances in product design. They are rated for one car accident. After that they should be disposed of.
IV. Cell Use in Minnesota Vehicles
In Minnesota, we have a few state laws concerning cell use. It is illegal for bus drivers and drivers under the age of 18 with learner's permits to use cell phones. It is illegal for people operating a Commercial Vehicle to use hand-held cell phones. Texting is banned for all drivers.
According to the Star Tribune, in "Minnesota traffic deaths are on the rise for second consecutive year" by David Chanen (7/30/13) 395 people in Minneota died in traffic accidents in 2012. There were 368 in 2011. Car accident deaths have been on the rise in recent years, though they are far below the record year of 1060 deaths in 1968.
V. Problems and Opportunities for Improvement
A. Quality of Experience
One problem I've found is a noticeable difference in the quality of perceived experience between the walker and cyclist versus the car driver. The former spoke of fulfillment and empowerment while the later was discouraged and unhappy driving.
B. Time Efficiency
The second problem is one of time management. In all three cases the interviewees spoke of the added time requirements needed when preparing for and executing winter travel.