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.

Narrow car. Click image to expand.
Are narrow cars the wave of the future?

We asked you for ideas on how to create "Nimble Cities": plans to solve the increasingly pressing problem of moving people in and among the world's growing urban centers. You responded with ideas that ranged from spreadsheet-sober to borderline Where's My Space Age? But the voting has closed, and while Slate's intern army is still out tracking some absentee ballots in Miami-Dade County, we can safely enshrine the top three vote-getting proposals.

Like the right-wing political best-sellers on the New York Times list, this idea clearly had the hallmarks of being lifted by a targeted enthusiast campaign. Not only did it conspicuously outpace the other ideas (racking up 1,296 votes, more than twice the tally for the second-place finisher); it touts a branded product that garners regular media mentions and has also shown up in other crowd-sourced idea campaigns.

But let's take the idea on its own merits. The basic concept is that rather than trying to expand road infrastructure to meet traffic demand—a fiscal impossibility in many places—we should instead look for smaller vehicles that can more efficiently use the existing space. Hence the Tango, a twin-forklift-motor-powered micro-car that boasts fuel efficiency of 100 mpg, a roll-cage for safety, fans like George Clooney, and a host of potential benefits advertised in the submission: everything from increasing road and parking capacity to increasing suburban property values as commute times go down.

This is actually not a new idea. So-called "micro-cars" dotted European cities in the postwar years (the Tango looks a bit like an amped-up P50) and continue to haunt the design studios of the major manufacturers (and race-car designers). The primary problem in the United States, where a 3,500-pound vehicle like the Volkswagen Tiguan can be considered a "compact" SUV, is consumer resistance. In an age when everything from coffins to theater seats is getting wider to accommodate the outward growth patterns of Americans, pitching a vehicle that, as its boosters note, is 5 inches narrower than many motorcycles, is always going to be a tough sell.

But as the amount of space dedicated to cars in cities continues to decline, as it is beginning to now, it only seems logical that car sizes will shrink accordingly. As the authors of Reinventing the Automobile argue, in cities there is less need for SUVs (the inventor of the Range Rover called urban 4x4 use "completely stupid") than what they call USVs—"ultra small vehicles." As they note, the "average traffic speeds in cities (below 20 mph) and typical daily driving distances for urbanites (less than 25 miles) provide significant opportunity for mass and cost reduction, compared with conventional vehicles that can travel 300 miles nonstop and can exceed speeds of 100 mph."

Our second leading vote-getter begins with a recognizable observation: "Somehow it always happens: traffic causes empty buses to cluster together at rush hour. After a long wait for a bus, I'm greeted with four empty buses and one super-crowded bus. What's up with that?"

Buses actually tend to bunch in twos more than threes, argue the authors of the aptly titled Why Do Buses Come in Threes? And the answer, they write, "is nothing to do with incompetent planning by the bus companies." Rather, bunching is a "simple fact." The problem is that no matter how rigorously scheduled the buses are, the arrival of passengers is inevitably a random process. More passengers, more boarding time, more time for the other (potentially empty) bus to catch up and have precisely no passengers to pick up.

 As "mchmiel," the poster of the idea, observes, so-called "smart elevators" are now deployed in high-rises and are said to boost efficiency by 50 percent simply by grouping passengers by their destination floor ("destination dispatch"), rather than filling cars with people going to a number of random floors.

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."

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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