Sunday, February 28, 2010

Walking & Transit Use up 25% since 2001

This is an amazing, unexpected, and very good trend, and 25% sounds like a lot. And it is, sort of. This means that today, only 82% of all trips Americans take are by car, instead of 86% of trips, which was the case in 2001. Here is the article with the highlights, and here is the original data from the National Household Travel Survey.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

NYC launches shared cabs, joins world

I’ve been taking shared cabs my entire life: in Beirut, in Guatemala, and most recently in Calcutta. Here’s how it usually works: the cabs -- often just regular cars but singled out because in any given city they have a particular brand and color -- ply common high volume routes. You stand along the route. Flag down the cab. Hop in and announce where you want to be dropped off. Pay a flat fee when you hop out. They are very much like very small buses.

I’ve never understood why we didn’t have them in the US. Fast, frequent, cheap(er than cabbing, more expensive and comfortable than the transit alternatives). I’ve chalked that lack up to protectionism and anti-competitive behavior among American taxi medallion holders.

Finally, FINALLY, an American city has changed the game.
New York city announced that starting today it will have shared cabs, plying specific routes, for $3 and $4 a ride. Subway fares in New York are $2; regular cabs across town generally are in the $6-$10 range). The cabs will have a sign on them that indicates the route/destination.

The city gets fewer cars and fewer emissions. Taxi drivers get more money. People get cheaper, faster, more convenient mobility. Hurrah!

As small aside: last year I had been shopping doing this same idea using regular people on their usual commutes. Put a device on top of your car. Electronically put in the destination and price “Lexington $3” and then drive to where you are already going. Every person along the route understands what it meant. Challenges are insurance (this industry needs to enable innovation!), regulation (rules about turning yourself into a "livery service" and competing unfairly with taxis). Security and fast payment could be done using smart cards to log in/log out of the trip.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Transportation in Calcutta: 9 ways in 8 hours

Calcutta has gotten a bad rap. My robust first-hand research, conducted over a grueling 8 hours in the course of a sunny and dry January day (I'm hoping you're reading the tongue-in-cheek in all this) led me to the following conclusion: Calcutta has an unusually resilient and effect transportation mix and that functions pretty well. Is this true everywhere and for all the people? Who knows, I was only there one day.

Modes of transportation I took:

Walking. On central city roads, we crossed at crosswalks and with pedestrian countdown lights. At one intersection in Dalhousie Square, a traffic policeman tightened and loosened a rope stretched across the intersection in conjunction with the traffic light, to securely keep bicycles, rickshaws and cars from opportunistically sneaking through. On small roads and in back alleys, non-motorized traffic predominates, pedestrians walk everywhere and yield to heavier faster moving rickshaws, carts and the occasional truck).

Ferry boat. Huge ancient metal ferries lumber back and forth across the Ganges at 15 minute intervals, connecting to the Central Train station. Amazingly, everyone accesses the ramp down to the ferry by crossing directly over railway tracks, on which crochety old trains pass every 8 minutes or so at medium speeds.

While we were standing on the metal barge, watching the Ganges flow by, with clumps of water hyacinth and plastic trash, there was a sudden grinding, squealing, and bumping. Everyone jumped back with alarm. What had happened? The tide had turned! Incredibly fast, swift, and abrupt reversal of flow now going upstream. I'd never seen anything like it.

Howrah Bridge.
Sort of a transportation mode. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, this is the busiest bridge in the world, transporting a million people a day. How is that possible? Certainly impossible with the Western idea of "congestion", meaning people traveling alone in their cars. Instead, Four lanes of motorized traffic (almost no single occupancy vehicles and many a stuffed bus) and two wide sidewalks that held a steady stream of pedestrians. Many of these people carried improbably heavy loads on their heads, going to/from the railway and bus stations which is at the one end of the bridge. It seemed like an incredibly efficient use of space.

It could use a dedicated nonmotorised lane for the bikes carrying cargo, and I dreamed of some kind of cable pulley that could lighten the loads of all those people heavily burdened crossing the bridge.

Electric Trolley. Once we got over the bridge, and through the spectacular flower market, we took an electric trolley across town. It was ancient, clean, incredibly loud, wooden slats on floor, and not crowded when we took it at midday. Many times people were let on and off without the trolley coming to a complete stop. 4 rupees (10 cents) This is an old photo, but my untrained eye says this is the same exact trolley and the same street as what I took.

Shared Auto Rickshaw. Post lunch, we hopped into a new auto rickshaw. I slid over to the far side, and my guide, Vinay, squeezed up close to me. I was surprised. Then another man slide next to Vinay and a young women sat in the jumpseat up front with the driver. She kept her back to him and faced outwards. A nice safe and modest stance so close to an unknown male. Apparently, these rickshaws ply their way up and down this specific route. 4 rupees (10 cents) per person irrespective of distance. We went about 10 blocks and hopped out. I love LOVE love love LOVE auto rickshaws, when powered by clean fuel. Space efficient, fuel efficient, versatile, fast. Western cities should have them.

Hand Rickshaw.
Woah. Did I really want to be pulled by a barefoot man in his sixties through traffic? It was a quandry. This is his livelihood, and these rickshaws are licensed by the city because of Calcutta's long history with them. Apparently they aren't made anymore and the one I was in was likely close to 100 years old. Vinay and I sat hip bone to hip bone. It could not have accommodated any wider people. Our driver (puller?) had glasses held on by a string around his head (highly unusual Vinay tells me).

Unexpectedly, he runs with the poles held up under his arms, rather than letting the poles hang down with straight arms. And yes, he runs, unless he is stopped. Apparently the human rickshaws (I don't know what you call them) are particularly maneouverable in dense traffic (they can turn in a small radius) and good in Monsoons (no motor to stall).

We traveled about 10 blocks. It seemed fine. Another 4 rupees.

Back across town in rush hour. The platform is wide, the train is clean and crowded as rush hour trains everywhere. Middle class people going from school and work to home, as well as the young family we sat near: from out of town carrying their 6 month old to meet his paternal grandparents for the first time. 4 rupees.
Taxi. With suitcase collected from my hotel, we creep through city traffic during rush hour to the airport. One hour for 250 rupees (about $5).

And then of course, plane.You know what those look like.

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Saturday, February 6, 2010

Think Globally, Act Individually

I spent 8 hours walking the streets of Calcutta and talking about the past, present, and future with my guide, Vinay Jayaswal, a historian and social entrepreneur. He told me a personal story that inspires his thinking about the power of one.

On Indian Republic Day, a few years ago, Vinay was taking his morning constitutional in a park when he met up with a friend. His friend remarked with sadness that they had missed a prime opportunity to organize a community celebration of the day. It was 8am.

Vinay told his friend: Let's just do it. You get the bamboo required for handing the flag, and I'll get a flag. He discouraged his friend from telling those nearby of their intentions, eliciting help from anyone else, or doing any further organizing. The plan was to remain simple: you get the bamboo; I get the flag; meet back here in 20 minutes.

Vinay went to the nearby market. He bought a large printed national flag for 30 rupees (60 cents), some small hand-held flags (10), and a bag of marigold flowers (10). They met back up as planned. A young kid walking by, asked what they were doing, and volunteered to dig the holes for the bamboo stakes to hold the big flag. Another bystander stuck the small flags all around. A third wove the flowers into the small flags. At 8:30am, they started the ceremony by singing the national anthem. People gathered and joined. A few gave speeches about what Republic Day meant to them. Everyone cheered and waved the small flags.

By 9am the ceremony was over. 30 people had spontaneously participated.

The moral of the story for Vinay is that people want to help, want to do the right thing, want to improve society. They just don't have the confidence to act and take the first step. They can't figure out the first step; they think the process will be complicated and difficult. They think no one will follow. They expect government to be the enabler.

Just do it, says Vinay. Think globally. His most pressing issues were environment, sanitation, and health -- intractable issues for the common Indian. Act individually. Vinay isn't going to wait for government. He believes individuals can work together to help themselves. His budding budding idea will include a website and hope to spur Indian youth to take action on issues that affect their daily lives.

The "Think Globally, Act Individually" meme was the end result of our long free-ranging conversation. Vinay believes that Eastern religion and culture are driven by the dominance of "we," while the West, thanks to Darwin's survival of the fittest and Christian traditions that relied on personal acts and salvation, focuses on "I." Think globally, act individually combines the benefits of both Eastern and Western traditions.

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