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Club Transit

In a recent Streets.MN post David King and I argued that transit is usually best thought of as a club good, and the relevant club-members should be its users and potential users. We wrote:

Users should be financially incentivized to get season or annual passes (paid monthly with bank debits) and become “members” of the transit system rather than pay-as-you-go “riders”, which will encourage more usage, and many users to get subscriptions so they have the easy option of taking transit. As with many museums and zoos and other clubs, membership should be reciprocal, so joining the Twin Cities Transit System gets me “free rides” in Chicago or New York. This will increase the perceived ownership that passengers have for the service.

Many people pay for transit on a per use basis, either by cash or with a stored-value card. Others (in the Twin Cities 9.5 million rides of a total of ~71 million (which depends on what numbers you use) on Metro Transit) use a season pass for "unlimited" use ("unlimited" use still has limits, for instance in the Twin Cities you still need to pay for services > $3 per ride, i.e. Northstar). For instance, a Metropass is $76 per month (if you belong to an organization with 10 or more subscribers), and allows unlimited service. A U-Pass (for University of Minnesota students) is only $97 per (4 month) semester, with subsidy from the University. There are many options.

For the individual traveler, $76 per month is worthwhile at current fares if you make at least 34 peak trips (17 days per month) or 43 off-peak trips (22 days per month), i.e. if you are essentially a daily user for commute trips, or use it for a lot of non-commute trips as well.

Several (perhaps obvious) points:

  1. There are probably a lot of existing riders who would benefit from a Metropass who don't get one (this would cost Metro Transit money);
  2. Possessing a Metropass would induce me to make more trips by transit (since the marginal cost of use would now be zero);
  3. At a relatively lower price, more people would get a Metropass. This may or may not increase Metro Transit's revenue. This can be achieved either by lowering the price of the Metropass or increasing the price of non-Metropass use;
  4. We would expect more people to have passes than use the passes on the system every day (not every pass-holder need be a daily rider). People pay for the option of not having to think about price.

What benefits do clubs offer? Let's look at the examples of other public institutions that use the club model: museums, zoos, public radio for some ideas:

  • Unlimited transit rides in your home city
  • Reciprocal unlimited transit rides in other cities
  • Free entry to the Minnesota Transportation Museum
  • Discounts from participating merchants and at events (sports games, shows, concerts e.g.)
  • A tote bag or mug
  • A newsletter or magazine
  • Two free taxi rides per quarter
  • Free parking! (At park and ride lots? In downtown?)
  • Eligibility to vote on governance (e.g. a Member's Board which has input into real decision making)


I am sure the tote bag will be popular, but there are limits to the ancillary benefits of membership in an organization, the main thing has to be admission to the service that organization provides.

The more important aspect of membership is that it changes the perspective from being a customer to being a member if not owner of the system. As a member of a club, I want there to be more members, as it helps spread the costs and raises money for the services provided. I become an advocate for the organizations I join. I feel part of a "larger social whole." I help maintain it, since it is my "property". A lot of this is "reframing" but the psychology is important here, people act differently based on whether they feel they have real input into decisions and real effect on outcomes.

Some cities have Bus Riders Unions, but they are often at odds with the transit agency. Almost everywhere has an Automobile Association (Minneapolis and St. Paul each have one), about which I have warm feelings since they help start my car when the battery is dead, or change a tire, or tow it when something else breaks. Transit workers are members of their union. Even transit agencies are members of APTA trade association. I cannot find an example of a transit system that organizes and treats its riders as members.

Why shouldn't riders be members of the non-profit organization that provides them transportation services on a regular basis? And why shouldn't they help govern that organization?

Remapping cities

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SmartPlanet: Video: How ‘augmented reality’ will make boring cities beautiful

I imagine a new art form, recoding existing cities with more beautiful ones. As I walk down the streets of Minneapolis with my new Augmented Reality glasses, it looks like Paris or Venice, as someone has carefully remapped Parisian buildings to Minneapolitan ones. It will be much cheaper to draw nice buildings digitally than to actually build them. We can now have a new way to avoid the negative externality of ugliness. We can further subscribe to the city of our choice, I want to be in Tokyo today, I just download the Tokyo skin ($0.99 at the Apple AugmentedRealityStore) and I feel like I am in Tokyo. Even the plants are Japanese, all the Maple Trees are now Japanese Maples.

We could just let our cities crumble, since all that matters is their virtuality.

(Via Kurzweil.)

The Technium: Easy Exotic

Kevin Kelly on three types of travel (by which he seems to mean recreational travel or tourism, but might apply day to day): Easy Exotic:

"You can graph the three extremes as three corners of a Travel Triangle: Relaxation, Destination, and Experience. The ideal trip would have an equal balance of all three, but most trips favor one side over the others. In my own personal travel I favor experience and destination and have almost no interest in relaxation. Your mileage may vary.

The three extremes represent a set of overlapping qualities.

Experience includes learning, change, difference, passions, uncertainties. A trip in this corner emphasizes encountering strange things, having your mind changed, going beyond your comfort, meeting as much otherness as you can.

Destination includes traveling with goals and achievements in mind -- completing a long thru-hike, or journey to a mountain peak, or all the state capitals, or completing a race, to be the first, or your personal best.


Relaxation is just that: rest, comfort, renewal, a sabbatical, a retreat from the worries and business of everyday life. It may include luxury but might be primitive or primeval.

Places: Design Observer has a

Review of In Motion: The Experience of Travel, by Tony Hiss. I haven't read the book yet, though I read his earlier The Experience of Place many years ago ... Experience is one of the key evaluative criteria we identify in Planning for Place and Plexus (Chapter 10), along with Efficiency, Equity, and Environment, and it is the one given least attention in planning circles, in part because it is the hardest to pin down.

"In his latest book, In Motion: The Experience of Travel, Tony Hiss poses a provocative challenge: Can we rethink the value we put on all the accumulated years of our lives we spend in transit, all the "wasted" time spent in-between the places we live and work and visit? As he did in his ground-breaking The Experience of Place, published two decades ago, Hiss weaves a strong web of personal narrative, literary reference and human-awareness research, all in the service of the modest goal of changing the world. To get us going, he wants us look afresh at the hours we spend in motion, whether on a daily car commute, transcontinental flight, or adrift, wet and supine, on the "lazy river" behind the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. He posits that in these experiences there is, or could be, a special type of awareness -- neither concentration nor daydreaming, fight nor flight -- that is richly human, indeed at the core of our evolutionary identity as walking, watchful beings.

Hiss calls such experience "deep travel," and he prods us to recollect memorable travel experiences -- the kind of train rides, for instance, when to our surprise we find ourselves open to the wonder of the racing suburban landscape, a sensation especially intense during, say, the first 48 hours in a new country, when every sight and sound is distinct information, impressed onto a mind alert for risk and opportunity. It's an evocative premise, hard to read without thinking, as with his earlier book: Of course, why hasn't this been written about before? Hiss is a great synthesizer, and he's not shy of poetry, whether quoting the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, or describing his own deep travel as resembling "sunlight after rain -- details stand out," and moonlight, too, because it "changes your sense of what has become possible and of what might happen next." "

Wired's Autopia:

How Smartphones Can Improve Public Transit :

An interesting study of commuters in Boston and San Francisco found people are more willing to ride the bus or train when they have tools to manage their commutes effectively. The study asked 18 people to surrender their cars for one week. The participants found that any autonomy lost by handing over their keys could be regained through apps providing real-time information about transit schedules, delays and shops and services along the routes.

Though the sample size is small, the researchers dug deep into participants’ reactions. The results could have a dramatic effect on public transportation planning, and certainly will catch the attention of planners and programmers alike. By encouraging the development of apps that make commuting easier, transit agencies can drastically, and at little cost, improve the ridership experience and make riding mass transit more attractive.

David Levinson

Network Reliability in Practice

Evolving Transportation Networks

Place and Plexus

The Transportation Experience

Access to Destinations

Assessing the Benefits and Costs of Intelligent Transportation Systems

Financing Transportation Networks

View David Levinson's profile on LinkedIn

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