This is uncharted territory for most transportation advocates and planners. A strategy that couples transit investments with upzoning, affordable housing creation, tax incentives and tenant protections requires collaboration among transit advocates and planners with housing experts, and municipal and metropolitan planning agency staff.
Parts of Europe are now so hot that their dogs need to wear shoes to go outside. So says the Zurich police force, at least.
In a summer where much of Europe has seen unusually high temperatures for an unusually long length of time, the police in Switzerland’s largest city have taken to fitting their squad’s German Shepherds with booties—and have urged others to do the same. They have a point: Asphalt in many places has reached egg-frying temperatures that can hurt paw pads, possibly causing damage to dogs that are already hot and bothered as it is. The warning serves as a reminder that, as the blazing summer continues across much of the continent, humans are far from the only ones to struggle.
In the far north of Norway, for example, temperatures have in recent weeks reached as far as 31 Celsius (88 Fahrenheit), a remarkably high level for a largely coastal region straddling the Arctic Circle. Unused to the heat, reindeer and sheep grazing the area have taken to cooling down in dangerous locations: the region’s road tunnels. Herd animals looking for shade not uncommonly wander into Norwegian tunnels in high summer, but this year an occasional phenomenon seems close to being an epidemic. Between the 10th and 31st of July, 44 animals were spotted entering tunnels—places where they run a high risk of being hit by unsuspecting drivers, who don’t stand to do well out of the clash either.
Wild animals are of course quite adaptable to changes of temperature. As this German article notes, for example, German boars regulate their temperatures by moving onto a meatless diet during hot spells, while deer get much of their liquid from their food. Some German animals are still feeling the punch, notably livestock, whose normal sources of fodder have turned dry and stopped growing. Right now, water levels in the country have gone so low that some nuclear power plants have reduced their output, because the rivers they use for cooling just aren’t cool enough.
That’s when the rivers are still there, mind you. Some parts of the River Elbe have shrunk so much that grenades and mines left over from World War Two have become visible for the first time on the now-dry river beds. In the eastern province of Sachsen-Anhalt, there have been 21 recorded instances on unused ordnance being discovered on the newly exposed river bottom in the last five weeks alone. The lack of feed that this extended dry spell has caused means that some farmers are increasingly slaughtering stock rather than buy feed for them. The E.U. has waived rules that require a proportion of pastureland to be left fallow for a time to increase biodiversity, and cow slaughtering in Germany has gone up by 21 percent compared to the same period last year.
Is an end in sight? Luckily for the arctic reindeer, temperatures in Northern Norway have fallen a bit, although only to still-above-average highs of 20 C (68 F). In Iberia, on the other hand, things are heating up, with fears that temperatures could reach a record-breaking 48 C (118.5F) over the weekend.
Every year in Jamestown, New York, the beginning of August brings an invasion of Lucys.
For the past three decades, thousands of people in red wigs and polka-dot dresses have converged here each summer for the five-day Lucille Ball Comedy Festival. These superfans don’t just love Lucy—they’re head-over-heels for her. They compete in a fashion show, buy I Love Lucy memorabilia, and participate in an intense chocolate-wrapping contest, inspired by perhaps Ball’s most memorable scene. Lucy-centric events occur all over town alongside a series of stand-up performances in nearby theaters.
For this Rust Belt city of about 30,000 people, it’s a defining event in honor of its most famous native. But it also served as inspiration to be something more—not just a destination for Lucy aficionados, but a hotspot for comedy culture in general. That effort culminates this month with with the opening of the National Comedy Center, a 37,000-square-foot museum dedicated to the history of the comedic arts.
The museum, backed by a nonprofit of the same name, represents an investment in the future of Jamestown. The city has ambitions to draw in comedy fans from around the world, in the same way that the Baseball Hall of Fame turned Cooperstown, New York, into a must-see for enthusiasts of America’s pastime.
The museum itself comes with a $50 million price tag, some of which was curried from state and federal government coffers, and it boasts a state-of-the-art mix of nostalgia and technology. On entering, visitors get an electronic wristband that they swipe at a kiosk that asks about favorite comedians, movies, sitcoms, and more. The exhibits then respond to the personal comedic sensibilities of each museumgoer. In the Stand-Up Lounge, for example, after touring groups settle into chairs at cocktail tables and swipe their wristbands across electronic readers, interactive multimedia presentations begin—performances, documentary shorts, trivia—all algorithmically curated specifically for the group in the room. A hologram theater, meanwhile, offers stand-up excerpts from comedian Jim Gaffigan.
“You have a lot of young people facing either leaving the area or trying desperately to find a way to make a living here,” says Journey Gunderson, executive director of the National Comedy Center, a nonprofit group that runs the museum of the same name.
Jamestown may seem an improbable destination for it, but plans for the museum go back to the 1980s, when city officials and the local arts council approached Ball with the idea of building a museum dedicated to her. She thought it would be better to celebrate all of comedy in the city, turning Jamestown into a national destination.
“Lucille Ball always felt very strongly about the power of the art of comedy, and she was a very savvy businesswoman,” Gunderson says. “She was wise to suggest that.”
After her death in 1989, the city erected the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum, focusing on the achievements of both her and her husband, and their TV show, I Love Lucy. The Lucille Ball Comedy Festival, founded in 1991, became more of a Lucy convention, too, Gunderson says.
But the National Comedy Center has been rebranding in recent years, and today, the organization, its events, and museum are closer to Ball’s broader vision. Joan Rivers headlined the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival in 2011, for Ball’s 100th birthday, and it’s been drawing big names since, including Lewis Black, Kevin James, Jerry Seinfeld, and, this year, Amy Schumer.
The National Comedy Center isn’t a “Comedy Hall of Fame,” per se. (There’s already one of those in New York City, though it’s more of an oral history and educational initiative than a museum.) But Gunderson says that many in Jamestown have been thinking about the parallels with Cooperstown and its signature attraction, the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Since its opening in 1939, that facility has drawn 17 million visitors; at least 60,000 people are expected for even modestly attended induction ceremonies, says Cassandra Harrington, executive director of the Destination Marketing Corporation for Ostego County. In the past decade, the Hall has brought an estimated $1.5 billion into the local economy. In Cooperstown—which has just 1,800 residents and is (sort of) the birthplace of the sport—baseball culture utterly dominates the village. “If you walk down Main Street, almost all the shops are in some way related to baseball,” Harrington says. “Everyone has their own take on it.”
Such a feat could prove harder to pull off in Jamestown, which, despite its Lucy connection, can hardly claim to be a hotbed of comedy. And comedy itself is a somewhat less family-friendly draw than baseball, especially in the stand-up realm. (The museum reserves one floor for more adult-oriented content.) Plus, the Baseball Hall of Fame enjoys the institutional support of a multi-billion-dollar organization; most of the National Comedy Center’s funding arrived via private donors, and the financially strapped city of Jamestown was unable to put up any money for it.
Still, there’s hope that the center’s opening will lure a larger cohort of comedy fans to New York State’s Southern Tier throughout the year. The Lucille Ball Comedy Festival now attracts about 15,000 out-of-towners each year, and there’s talk of adding performances year-round at the handful of venues already in Jamestown, with hopes that new clubs will open, and open-mic nights at bars and cafes will pop up. According to an economic impact analysis from consultants at AECOM, the National Comedy Center stands to pump $22 million a year into Western New York, and generate 32 equivalent full-time jobs.
The state’s economic development arm hopes the museum can deliver on those promises. “The National Comedy Center is a key component of Western New York’s strategy for economic growth through investments in our tourism industry,” says Howard Zemsky, president of Empire State Development, which provided $9 million in funding for the museum’s construction. “It’s already receiving the support of comedy greats and national recognition as a cultural showplace that visitors will flock to for generations to come.”
The National Comedy Center’s five-day grand opening, from August 1 to 5, coincides with this year’s Lucille Ball Comedy Festival, and the event lineup features a slate of famous names in addition to Schumer, including Lily Tomlin, Fran Drescher, and original Saturday Night Live cast members Dan Aykroyd and Laraine Newman—who says she was “blown away” by a recent tour of the exhibits. “I don’t know who the average person is who would go there,” Newman says, “but if they want to be enlightened [about comedy], they certainly will be.”
Among the museum’s collection ephemera are Charlie Chaplin’s cane and handwritten one-liners by Rodney Dangerfield, as well as artifacts from more modern comedic artists.
Self-described “comedy nerd” and stand-up Tony Deyo, who’s been hosting monthly National Comedy Center-branded shows at New York Comedy Club in Manhattan as part of the museum’s promotion, is particularly eager to scour the George Carlin Archives. Donated to the Center in 2016 by Carlin’s daughter, the collection of 25,000 artifacts includes some Ziploc bags with topics scrawled on them, filled with notes outlining how the funnyman made his material. “I get super into what someone’s process was and how they worked,” Deyo says. “To think that I could ever just peek at what George Carlin did [and] study how he did it is amazing to me.”
Deyo proselytizes about the importance of the National Comedy Center. “Stand-up was an art form invented in the United States,” he says, “and we had no place that honored it in any way, other than your local comedy club. I have very, very grand visions in my mind for it.”
If he’s right, the future of Jamestown—economically, culturally, and perhaps spiritually—might start to seem a little less rusty.
There are other scenes in Drake’s video that remind you that this is not the New Orleans that Hip Hop grew up with. Instead of the Louisiana Superdome built in the 1970s and damaged by Katrina in 2005, Drake features shots of the restored and corporate logo-hogged “Mercedes-Benz SuperDome.” Props to Drake for giving props to public transportation though, having some of the city shot through its streetcars. But these cars—probably the least-reliant form of public transit for actual New Orleanians— are used more by tourists.
This is not just to nitpick at Drake but it’s worth recognizing that there is a whole music video genre out of New Orleans that uplifted its most downtrodden and written-off people and neighborhoods. Drake’s new video barely registers a spark with that genre.
The No Limit and Ca$H Money videos defied conventions by casting women who who not only rejected MTV-model beauty standards, but women who were often otherwise rendered invisible in everyday society (the song lyrics, not so much). Just before that era, most rappers and artists filmed videos in mansions, on beaches, or in some environment that typified wealth. No Limit and Ca$h Money chose to film videos in the places that they simply considered home, regardless of their income, and not as places of poverty. Their videos surfaced a dignity that already existed among the marginalized people and places of New Orleans, that otherwise would not be seen by the newcomer, developer, and voyeur. There are several New Orleans artists today carrying on the No Limit/Ca$H Money music video legacy, however. 3DNa’tee’s videos—like the one for her song for Big Dawg—come to mind for its fresh portrait of the city.
Drake’s new video surfaces the places where you can find a good po’ boy. That’s great for the tourist, but doesn’t mean so much for the people and cultures that define the soul of the city. The No Limit/Ca$h Money videos left you with the fuzzy feeling that there are valued communities in New Orleans. Drake’s would-be throwback just leaves you in your feelings.
Just before it opened, a short film starring a nationally beloved voice explained the residents how the new transit system would work. O Metropolitano—made by the prestigious Tobis Portuguesa film production company and directed by Arthur Duarte—was released in 1959, appearing on televisions and movie screens across Lisbon. In it, radio and TV journalist Artur Agostinho gives a young local couple a thorough tour of the system down to every last detail a rider could possibly need in time for its December 29 opening that year.
The system didn’t fully blossom until well after the Carnation Revolution in 1974 in which the country’s authoritarian regime was overthrown. By the time the city hosted Expo ‘98, Metro had expanded to 36 stations and four lines and has since expanded to 56 stations.
In Hollywood, his grizzly chuckle is unmistakable from miles away. Now in Vancouver and, most recently, Toronto, Seth Rogen’s signature laugh is gracing the ears of morning commuters as he becomes the temporary voice of two of his country’s public transit systems.
His laughter accompanies public service announcements calling out people on bad rider etiquette. And judging from the promotion video from Vancouver’s TransLink, Rogen does not hold back.
To that lady whose bag has taken up a highly-coveted seat? “I know your bag is probably very nice, and you care deeply for it, but that doesn’t mean it needs its own seat,” he quips in his raspy voice. And that guy with his feet up? “Very nice sneakers, but kind of a horror show on the sole, so get those feet off the seat. My mom might be sitting there one day, c’mon!”
It started out as a joke, with Twitter users nominating Rogen to replace Morgan Freeman (who is facing allegations of sexual harassment) as the voice of Vancouver’s Skytrain. Now it’s a reality, and Rogen, an unabashedly proud Vancouverite, seems beyond excited for the gig. “Any opportunity to enrich the lives of the Canadian people is an opportunity I will take,” the actor, known for movies like Neighbors and Pineapple Express, said in a video—right before bursting into laughter.
It turns out that Rogen, a genuine public transit fan, is perfect for the job (though some in Toronto disagree). He famously posed for what was supposed to be a candid photo of him taking the airport shuttle in Los Angeles. And he proudly claims in the video that he grew up using public transit and still rides the Canada Line every time he’s in Vancouver.
Public transit announcers have gained local celebrity status in cities around the world. In 2016, Londoners mourned the death of Phil Sayer, who was best known for reminding riders to “mind the gap”on the London Underground. In other instances, musicians and actors have lent their voices to the greater good—like Jarvis Cocker, frontman of the British band Pulp, who re-recorded streetcar announcements in Sheffield, England, with his seductive voice.
Rogen’s announcements got CityLab writers thinking: What other celebrities would we like to see follow his lead, and where should they do it? Here’s who we’re nominating:
Judi Dench for the London Tube
Judging by the history of public announcements on its Tube, Londoners like being shouted at.
Since 1968, the authoritative voice of Oswald Lawrence has been scaring the bejesus out of people getting on and off trains at Embankment Station, even though his hectoring tones have been phased out elsewhere. Couple this with London Tube drivers’ habit of hectoring people who block doors over the in-train intercom and you have a city that’s used to—indeed, has a tradition of—receiving instructions in no uncertain terms.
This would make Judi Dench the perfect candidate. She’s so long established that she’s been shoehorned into the role of British “national treasure” for several decades already, and has a voice that would be recognized even by many tourists. Now that she’s known internationally for playing M in the James Bond movies, having her order Londoners to mind the gap would also tickle that part of the British soul that dearly loves being chastised by a contemptuous-sounding, well-spoken woman. It’s no less than we deserve.
The Roots for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority
There’s no dearth of hip hop talent in the City of Brotherly Love—from Will Smith to Meek Mill—who could lend their voice to the SEPTA. But the Roots crew seems like the ultimate match to the versatility of SEPTA, which is one of only two U.S. public transit systems that boasts all five major forms of terrestrial transportation. The agency already has the honor of getting spelled out in the opening verse of “Push Up Ya Lighter,” where lead emcee Black Thought narrates a trip on the El to City Hall. Just imagine Questlove’s soft-spoken announcement on a trolley pilgrimage or Roots beatboxing-alum Rahzel remixing stop callouts on the city’s forthcoming redesigned bus network. It might take a lot to get the very busy Tonight Show band back in the studio to record directions, but if Jay-Z can save Made in America’s claim to the Parkway, maybe we can hope.
Lily Tomlin for the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority
New Yorkers are known for their fast-paced lives and no-nonsense attitudes, which doesn’t jive well with city’s troubled subways and buses (the slowest in all of America). That’s why those who tolerate the delays and shutdowns could use a good laugh, especially given that they live in the capital of America’s comedy scene. And who better to deliver snappy one-lined service announcements than Broadway’s treasure and “comedic chameleon” Lily Tomlin—who just so happens to also be the original voice of Ms. Frizzle in the beloved Magic School Bus series. There’s no guarantee that she will transform MTA buses into rocketships, but if she enthusiastically says, “OK, bus, do your stuff!” maybe—just maybe—the bus will inch forward and get straphangers where the need to be in a more reasonable time.
Jeffrey Wright for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority
Washington, D.C., has plenty of homegrown musical heroes who could narrate bus and Metrorail journeys around town, from Ian MacKaye of the seminal hardcore band Fugazi, to Mary Timony of Ex Hex and Wild Flag, to hip-hop stars Wale and Logic. But the voice that would lower Washingtonians’ blood pressure during all-too-frequent Metro delays belongs to actor Jeffrey Wright. Wright, who was born and raised in D.C., portrayed the electronics savant Beetee in The Hunger Games movies and now plays the sincere, befuddled Bernard on Westworld. He has a rich baritone voice that viewers of the animated series BoJack Horseman will recognize as that of Mr. Cuddlywhiskers. The soothing quality of Wright’s voice, in and of itself, would reassure harried commuters that an offloaded train is not the end of the world.
Or… HAL 9000 for WMATA
But then again, D.C. has already decided that the job belongs to robots. When Metro’s gleaming new 7000 series trains arrive at a station, they make their presence known. “This is a 7000 series train,” a robo-voice self-declares at every stop—an announcement that had puzzled ridersuntil this week.
Who is this robot talking? On older trains, operators make on-board announcements themselves. And when doors open and close on any Metrorail train, the prerecorded voice of Randi Miller, a certified human, tells passengers to step back. The cold, halting, feminine computer voice on the new trains doesn’t feel like an upgrade. Does she even have a name, like Siri or Alexa? (Metro doesn’t know the answer; the manufacturer, Kawasaki, supplied the voice.)
As long as robots are conducting the trains of the future, Metro might as well spring for a more familiar voice. Someone—okay, something—comforting. Something state of the art. A known quantity. A friend. HAL 9000 doing Metro 7000 would be a step up over the status quo. And who better to convey WMATA’s #Back2Good message than a robot that knows its own limitations? HAL 9000 is already saying what we expect to hear from Metro: “I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal.”
Greta Gerwig for Sacramento Regional Transit
California’s capital city is humble, and its transit is no different. Sacramento’s light rail remains under-appreciated due to California’s car culture, but it pulls its weight carrying 40,000 passengers during the workweek. Recently, writer and director Greta Gerwig made “SacTo” a household name with her 2017 blockbuster Lady Bird, her “love letter to Sacramento.” Which is why no one is more deserving of the glory of narrating Sacramento Rapid Transit’s announcements. She could take all SacRT riders on a scenic tour around the State Capitol, around the Sacramento Kings’ stadium (the most high-tech in America), and past the iconic Tower Bridge. As the gold and blue train zooms through midtown, she’ll remind passengers to keep their flip-flopped feet off the seats and to stop spilling their Chando’stacos de lengua on the floor.
Jennifer Hudson for the Chicago Transit Authority
Chicago already has pretty great announcements, but if we’re looking for some fresh blood, I nominate Jennifer Hudson, who grew up in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. The case for Hudson, who rose to fame as a finalist on American Idol. But she is perhaps most well-known for her performance as Effie White in Dreamgirls, which arguably even overshadowed her more famous co-star Queen Bey. The case for Hudson is clear: a native Chicagoan who chose to go back and live in the area? Check. Angelic voice? Double check.
Queen Latifah for Newark Light Rail
Without Whitney Houston, the only possible voice for Newark’s city rail is the buttery tone of its own queen: Latifah. Think of the rhymes she can spit! Who would dare disobey her? Newark’s subway isn’t much to speak of—just a few lines, and not even on the well-traveled route between the airport and Penn Station—but Latifah could really bring it to life. Joe Pesci, another native son, can have the buses.
–K. A. Dilday
Rini Simon Khanna and Shammi Narang for the Delhi Metro
The Delhi Metro already has it just right: A female and a male voice call out stations in both English and Hindi, and they’re just about perfect. In fact, the people behind them are already voiceover legends.
Former public news anchor Rini Simon Khanna, was an anchor for the public news channel in India. Her voice reminds passengers to “mind the gap,” but when she took a ride on the metro herself with a writer for Caravan magazine, she wasn’t impressed with what she heard. “That sounds different than me,” she said. Later, she critiqued the pause between her words: “There is too much gap between the name of the station and the word ‘station.’”
The male voice belongs to Shammi Narang, also an iconic broadcaster who was born and raised in Delhi. “My milestone was basically the metro,” he toldIndiaTimes, talking about how his career kicked off after being discovered by a Voice of America producer. “People may be thinking that he just does the voice for the metro, but you don’t understand, you all have made my voice immortal.”
When Monica Bartley got off the New York City subway at Union Square, she found the station didn’t have an elevator for her wheelchair. So she took the 4 train all the way uptown to Grand Central Station, 28 blocks away, where she knew there’d be an elevator.
It was broken. So Bartley was stuck underground for hours trying to head to work. Finally, she circled back to the station where she started, took the elevator up to the street, and took the bus instead.
“By the time I got to my office in the afternoon, my spirit was broken,” said Bartley, a community outreach organizer with the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York.
Only 24 percent of New York City’s 472 subway stations are accessible via an elevator, according to a new report by the City Comptroller’s Office, and half of the city’s subway-served neighborhoods qualify as “ADA transit deserts,” meaning that they lack a single accessible station. In these areas, nearly 640,000 residents are impacted, including those who are mobility impaired, seniors, and children under five, who often need a stroller.
Comptroller Scott Stringer’s report appears less than two months after the Metropolitan Transit Authority released its $19 billion “Fast Forward” plan. It proposes to build at least 50 accessible stations within five years, so that riders are no more than two stops away from an accessible station. The MTA also hopes to upgrade signals, replace its fare payment system, and reroute bus networks in every borough.
“A Metrocard should be a ticket to all 472 subway stations in New York City—not just to 24 percent,” Stringer said in an email. “Every time a subway station gains an accessible elevator or escalator, the subway system expands to tens of thousands of New Yorkers—and ultimately, funding for ADA upgrades will build out our subways to over 640,000.”
According to TransitCenter, a foundation dedicated to urban transportation and mobility, the New York subway is the nation’s least accessible, defined as available to those who need stair-free access. Even Chicago and Boston—whose rapid-transit stations are just as old or older—rank far higher in accessibility, at 70 percent for both. The Washington, D.C,. and Los Angeles metro rail are fully accessible, either with elevators for below-ground stations, or ramps for above-ground.
The MTA is currently being sued by Bronx Independent Living Services, a community nonprofit which helps those with disabilities live autonomously, under the Americans with Disabilities Act for failing to build an accessible station during recent construction. In court filings, United States Attorney Geoffrey Berman cited $27 million renovations to a Bronx subway station in 2013, which added enhanced lighting, public art, and other cosmetic repairs. But the MTA did not add an elevator, due to cost and technical feasibility.
Beyond elevators, advocates are also pushing for other accessibility improvements inside stations, including increased signage for visually-impaired riders, more handrails, and smaller gaps between the train and the platform. Furthermore, although the MTA currently offers Access-A-Ride cars equipped with wheelchair lifts, the service is lacking, by many accounts. Rides must be scheduled at least 24 hours in advance and trips can be lengthy; a 9 to 12-mile ride can take nearly two hours, according to the MTA website. Bartley said that her rides are often extremely late, or simply never show up.
Insufficient accessibility also has an real economic impact, Stringer’s report says. In neighborhoods with at least one accessible station, median rent costs at least $100 more than in neighborhoods with no accessible stations. Mobility-impaired riders struggle with employment: Those living in transit deserts struggle to get to work, no matter the neighborhood. The 608,000 jobs located in inaccessible neighborhoods are even more difficult to reach. This contributes to the dramatic discrepancy in labor force participation rates within the city: Only 23 percent of individuals with mobility impairments are employed or actively looking for work, compared to 74 percent of those with no disabilities.
New York State Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens has long been an advocate for accessibility reform, authoring a bill in 2017 to fund accessible stations by taxing high-income earners. The Fast Forward plan doesn’t have a detailed budget, timeline, or funding yet. Other state senators have also offered congestion pricing as source of funding. Gianaris isn’t concerned about which resolution passes—as long as the project gets funded.
“I want to move the conversation past whether the measures are popular. I’m fine with either of them or both of them, but the bottom line is the system needs the money and the system needs to spend that money wisely,” he said. “We’re doing neither of them right now.”
There are some hopeful signs for disability advocates. In accordance with the plan, last month the MTA hired its first senior advisor for systemwide accessibility, Alex Elegudin, who uses a wheelchair himself.
Bartley still wants to see a more detailed action plan for the renovations, but she’s optimistic about the agency’s recent direction. “They’ve been trying to improve,” she said. “Things have changed. I think they’re listening to us more.”
As today’s cities look for better ways to use the troves of new data at their disposal, augmented reality (AR) offers a new way of bringing this data to life. This technology—which assimilates digital objects and information into the real world via headsets, mobile devices, and other tech tools—has a unique capacity to enliven information and processes via immersive experiences.
AR has captured the public imagination in the form of Pokémon games, Snapchat filters, Minecraft demos, and much more. However, applying this tech to a less sexy task—seamlessly integrating data into everyday experiences—could provide much more concrete value to cities.
In 2016, as a part of its City Science initiative, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab collaborated with the City of Hamburg on a project called Finding Places, using optically-tagged LEGO bricks, simulation algorithms, and augmented reality to model potential locations for refugee accommodations. MIT researchers held dozens of community engagement meetings with local leaders and community members, where participants gathered around displays of the city that adjusted in real-time to user interactions, showing key statistics and transformations of urban areas. Locals could move the gridded LEGO bricks around the table to control locations and attributes of accommodations, and visualize the results. Participants identified 160 locations, and the government quickly authorized 44 and constructed ten—compressing a process that can often take years.
Ariel Noyman, a researcher with the City Science project at the MIT Media Lab, has argued that “physical, tangible tools are better for understanding what happens in a city.” AR can vivify once-static data: “If we add an office building, that might be another 700 people leaving in cars and more congestion,” he said. However, there’s a huge difference between hearing this statistic and seeing it played out. “We want people to be able to physically visualize congestion,” he continued.
According to Noyman, “the next big question with AR is how to create collaborations.” While traditional AR—one device and one user—is not inherently collaborative, the Media Lab has explored AR more broadly with tools like the Hamburg display table. As governments push towards a more participatory planning process and engage residents in important decisions, these new technologies offer a more accessible medium for engagement. Not every resident will understand a blueprint of a new subway station, but most will have an opinion when they’re standing in it.
Another MIT collaboration initiated by the city-state of Andorra used AR to do large-scale community engagement, involving a population of 70,000 rather than a handful of community representatives. The Media Lab released an AR mobile app that allowed residents to see and comment upon a 3D model of the city “on their desk at home,” Noyman explained.
This year, both Apple and Google enabled AR as default in their devices, a sign that AR is “going to be something that we use seamlessly more and more,” Noyman said. If the trend continues, these kinds of large-scale civic engagement projects will become more and more feasible, as will other applications in local government. There is the potential for city workers in criminal justice, emergency management, and public works to benefit in new ways from data on places, objects, and people.
Consider the possibilities: Equipped with an AR headset, police officers approaching a building can literally see a 3D floor plan, info on past arrests at the address, and 311 reports about hazardous conditions. First responders can see where residents in distress have plotted their locations and visualize the safest rescue routes informed by real-time disaster data. And public works employees can identify potential hazards at worksites and view relevant repair info, like where a water pipe is located in proximity to other infrastructure. Rather than expending precious time calling up data, workers will simply encounter information in the course of their regular activities.
A number of startups have already created AR tech with these capabilities, if not yet these city applications. Blippar’s AR City mobile app embeds directions as well as info on local restaurants, hotels and more into users’ view of the city landscape. A motorcycle helmet from BMW visualizes route guidance and flashes warnings about roadwork into riders’ vision. White Raven’s AR for connected vehicles displays info on nearby entertainment and retail offers as the driver passes by. It’s only a matter of integrating more existing data into these systems.
Partnerships with institutions like MIT that are already innovating in AR offer cities a way of experimenting with the technology without spending huge sums on products. A number of other institutions including the University of Washington, American University, and Shanghai University have begun exploring government applications of augmented reality, opening possibilities for collaboration with cities. And tech-focused government grants offer additional opportunities for funding. Earlier this year, the City of New Rochelle won $100,000 via the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge to use augmented reality for participatory development, and is now competing for the $5 million grand prize.
But partnerships are not the only way of integrating augmented reality into city operations. Recently Carolyn Bennett of the Boston Planning and Development Department presented the city’s use of AR for urban planning at the ESRI User Conference. Using its existing license with ESRI and the ArcGIS Urban tool, the department was able to visualize the effects of a major construction project in Boston Common, and in response reduced the initial height of the building. The City of Seattle also pursued augmented reality on its own, leveraging Microsoft’s Hololens in a series of public meetings on city zoning plans. The tool allowed residents to visualize potential developments in their neighborhoods, both providing info for meaningful public comment and alleviating unsubstantiated fears of change.
Imaginative officials and vendors can now help transform fieldwork, community engagement, and a number of other areas through augmented reality. To get the most out of these tools however, cities and vendors alike must involve workers and community leaders in designing and deploying these technologies. For AR to work, it must make users’ lives easier and their efforts more effective, rather than merely becoming another flashy piece of technology with little concrete benefit.
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This piece is the first in our new series, “Room to Grow.” For the rest of the year, we’ll bring you stories from around the globe about raising tiny humans in cities. We kicked off the series by surveying the parent-readers among you about what you want to learn, and what we can learn from your communities. We’ll use your answers to inform our reporting in the months to come. Hundreds of respondents told us their greatest sources of anxiety in the urban environment are cars, cost, and guns. You told us about your challenges bringing strollers on public transportation, and how you have to use a car to haul your family around even when you’d prefer not to. Some of you told us that the only community support you have is on the Internet; others are creating their own new communities. We’ll be talking to you.
Many of you also talked about defying the “wisdom” that you needed to leave the city or your neighborhood to raise children. But it hasn’t been easy to hold your ground.
Read Linda’s story for some insights into one of your most pressing questions: What can we learn from places that offer more generous benefits to new parents? The answer is more complicated than we might like it to be.
For decades, aldermen have used their “aldermanic prerogative” to reject affordable housing development, confining the city’s low-income residents, who are mostly black and brown, to a few areas of the city, a new report says.
Ever planned to take the bus, but wound up calling an Uber? That’s what the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority did in 2016.
That year, ridership across St. Petersburg, Florida’s fixed route bus lines plummeted by 11 percent—twice the drop PSTA experienced in the first year of the recession, and one of the deepest declines of any major U.S. system. Pinellas County constituents had recently rejected the concept of transit even more directly: PSTA’s one-cent “Greenlight Pinellas” sales tax proposal to spread bus service and build a light rail system bombed at the ballots in 2014.
That forced the agency to eliminate some of its existing routes, and to rethink how it was doing business. So it called in the apps. To cover the areas it had left transit-bare, PSTA became the first agency in the country to subsidize Uber trips. Since its “Direct Connect” program launched in February 2016, PSTA has given $5 discounts on rides provided by Uber and a local taxi company (and as of more recently, Lyft) to and from 24 popular bus stops in its service area to as many as 1,000 riders per month. “This is the future,” PSTA CEO Brad Miller told reporters on the day of the launch of the program, which was widely hailed as an example of what an amicable partnership between mass-transit and ride-hailing would look like.
Municipalities of virtually every size nationwide are dipping their toes into contracting with ride-hailing services. Washington, D.C., proposed a partnership with Uber as a transportation response to non-emergency 911 calls. Centennial, Colorado, offers free Lyft trips to light rail stations; Dublin, California, has across-the-board half-price Uber and Lyft fares. The partnerships range in focus and in scope: The most robust program in the country might be in Monrovia, California, where visitors and residents have reportedly taken more than 53,000 subsidized rides since its transit agency began offering $.50 rides on all Lyft trips within the city’s boundaries in March 2018. Others, like those in Boston and Las Vegas, are more limited, drawing on Uber and Lyft as platforms for paratransit that are easier to use for passengers and substantially cheaper for agencies to subsidize.
In many ways, the same factors that pushed Pinellas County to the world of ride-hailing have pushed the rest of these cities: a desire to provide higher-quality mobility in areas where transit options fall short or where there’s not enough parking. There’s also a degree of brand-consciousness at play, said Joseph Schwieterman, the director ofDePaul’s Chaddick Institute, who co-authored the report with Mallory Livingston, a DePaul graduate researcher. “Transit agencies can’t afford to become like the taxi industry and let the world pass them by,” Schwieterman said.
Working in tandem with Uber, Lyft, and other similar offerings is a way for transit agencies to insert themselves on the primary communication channel riders are already using—their smartphones—and could be a step towards reimagining the on- and off-board customer experience.
But as the transportation analyst Bruce Schaller has recently written, surveys in several major U.S. cities show in aggregate that a majority of TNC users in those cities would have taken public transit, walked, biked, or forgone their trip if the ride-hailing apps hadn’t been available. These services are siphoning off some transit passengers who can afford it, in some areas.
In most cities, rider demand for Uber and Lyft trips through these transit agency partnerships has not been overwhelming. That much-ballyhooed pilot program in Centennial, for example, was not extended due to insufficient demand. PSTA has seen consistent ridership increases with its Direct Connect program, growing 210 trips per month in March 2017 to 994 trips per month by August of that year, according to PSTA data provided to CityLab. That’s still not much: Amixed-traffic lane with frequent buses can move at least 1,000 people per hour.
These TNC partnerships have hardly boosted transit demand. And plenty of transportation advocates fear they could be counterproductive, by unwittingly contributing to the perception that Uber and Lyft can meaningfully replace mass transit. “I’m sure we’ll get some criticism with this report for creating a risk that funding for transit will fall as these partnerships come to the table,” Schwieterman said. “It’s a fine line between maintaining the system and outsourcing parts of the system.”
There are other risks tied to partnering with TNCs. These companies are notoriously protective of ridership data, which is a limitation for transit agencies trying to judge the success of these subsidy and tie-in programs. When PSTA signed its original contract with Uber, for example, “there was nothing in it about data,” said Bonnie Epstein, a senior planner at PSTA. The agency did eventually get some ridership totals from Uber (as noted), but nothing about the origin or destination of the trips, for example.
Similarly, there’s nothing stopping Uber, Lyft, or any other private transportation company (including taxis) from raising minimum fares without notifying public agencies first. Uber has done this repeatedly in Pinellas County since the Direct Connect program launched in 2016. According to Epstein, some riders have complained that the $5 public subsidy is no longer as useful as the cost of the Uber becomes equal to (or greater than) the cost of a second bus ticket in addition to the one they’re already buying at their connecting station. This story will be updated with responses by Uber and Lyft to requests for comment.
Partnerships between ride-hailing companies and transit agencies are still in a delicate courting stage, said Jon McBride, a business strategist with a focus on emerging transportation modes. As far as agreements go, “I expect public agencies to become more specific about their data sharing requests, ways to influence equitable access and compensation models,” he said.
By now, there’s almost a sense of inevitability that transit agencies will fold ride-hailing into some aspect of their operations. Livingston, the co-author of the report, said that she expects TNC/transit tie-ins will eventually be the default in smaller markets. Many of the partnerships so far have been pilot programs, “giving the agency experience in this area so that they can figure out what’s going to be successful in the long term,” she said. PSTA has expanded the Direct Connect program since it launched, but not all have hit the target; at least eight of the initiatives counted in her and Schwieterman’s survey have been discontinued.
Indeed, the million-dollar question about these transit agency partnerships may be what “success” looks like. Is it finding a cheaper way to do business on a seldom-used bus route? Is it creating connection points in neighborhoods that didn’t have them before? Or is buddying up with Uber and Lyft more about branding, a way for a fuddy-duddyish agency to look a little cooler and more relevant as its riders drop away? The more clearly defined the goal, the better, Schwieterman said. Public transit should embrace TNCs very carefully, lest they end up sabotaging themselves.