Narrow cars, smart buses, and the most popular ideas for making city transportation more efficient.

Collective wisdom.
July 13 2010 5:25 PM

Is It Time To Buy a Narrow Car?

The three most popular ideas for making city transportation more efficient.

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So why not buses? As mchmiel argues, "If elevators can be smart when there isn't any human driving them, why can't buses be smart?" In fact, buses are getting smarter all the time, with computerized bus dispatch systems, which give passengers real-time bus location and arrival information, now in play in many cities. But mchmiel has something more far-reaching in mind: "Here's the solution: A city is broken up into a series of sectors and sub-sectors. Each sector has its own mini-fleet of public taxis, vans, and minibuses. Those buses move about in a flexible current that can respond in real time to user demand. Bus stops in each sector will be equipped with call boxes that can determine urgency and need. The route a driver takes to make it to the targeted bus stop is up to the driver—if traffic is preventing one way, then he can take an alternate route to get there as fast as possible. An organized dispatch prevents 'leap-frogging' buses from over-responding to stops."

It sounds good in theory, though it's not hard to imagine the challenges, owing in part to the sheer randomness of traffic. (There are more variables to consider on city streets than in dedicated elevator banks.) For example, what if user demand at one stop has suddenly evaporated as a bus is halfway into its route? The bus could theoretically shift its route to go where the next group of passengers is waiting, but what about the destinations of the passengers already onboard? In fact, the future seems to be tilting to having buses act more like fixed subways with bus rapid transit programs. But perhaps taxis or minibuses, armed with real-time routing, can pick up the slack in terms of transfers and the "last mile" problem. But mchmiel has a winning point in that urban transportation systems can be made more efficient, as elevators were, through fresh algorithmic thinking.

As reader "Izzy" notes, one of the challenges in increasing bicycle use in the United States is making it convenient and safe. That means not just giving riders a good environment in which to ride but ensuring they have some place to park at their destination (preferably a place where they can be assured their bike will be waiting when they return; one transit agency reported that one out of every two bikes parked at a train station was stolen). And, as Izzy points out, bicycles are one of the best solutions to the "problem of the first and last mile—the distance from homes to public transit that keeps people driving and (expensively) parking their cars rather than taking the bus or train."

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Thankfully, there's a solution, one that is already being deployed in U.S. cities (and which has been written about in this column): the bike transit center. "These centers," Izzy notes, "also include amenities like lockers, showers, restrooms, bike repair and rental, and accessory retail, making it convenient and feasible to ride a bike for transportation. Bike transit centers placed near public transportation stations become a network, allowing people to ride a bike from home to the train station, park it securely, hop on the train, and rent or share a bike or electric vehicle at the other end of the line to get to work."

The bicycle stations that have been deployed to date can be largely judged a success. (The station in Chicago's Millennium Park seems to have a perpetual waiting list, while Berkeley, Calif., recently expanded its 10-year-old bike station facilities to become the nation's second largest.) They have their own limitations, especially if one wants to use the bike on the other end of the trip. Still, in a country where urban cyclists largely get the stick, bike stations are a very promising carrot.

So that's the top three. Tomorrow I'll take a more global look at all the entries.

Read the introduction to our  Nimble Cities Hive here.Read about how  eliminating parking spaces could improve urban transportation, how bicycle highways could increase cycling, and whether airport-style moving walkways could be useful in cities. View contest entries by clicking the button below.

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Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.