Public Transit and Technology – Chicago Edition

The Chicago Tribune reports on a recent study completed by OECD on Metropolitan Governance of Transport and Land Use in Chicago. As the Tribune describes:

“The Chicago area’s transportation is hamstrung by a proliferation of local governments, the “irrational organizational structure” of the Regional Transportation Authority and the service boards and an antiquated formula by which transit agencies are funded, the report found.”

When reached for comment, the various transit organizations had no comment:

“Spokesmen for the RTA, Metra and Pace said officials had not read the 20-page report and had no comment. As it has previously, the CTA said last week that it opposes transit agency consolidation, as does Emanuel.
A superagency would be an unnecessary bureaucracy unaccountable to commuters that would divert dollars from train and bus service, said [CTA] spokesman Brian Steele.”

Per the Tribune, the report points out that:

“”The current state of transit ridership in Chicago is relatively depressing,” concludes the report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based research agency whose backers include the world’s richest nations, among them the U.S.

The report found a lack of coordination among the four transit agencies and their four separate boards as well as insufficient accountability. Those issues intensify the economic impact of congestion on Chicago, estimated at over $6 billion in 2011 by the Texas Transportation Institute, the report said.”

Transit organizations in Chicago aren’t well-integrated, and leadership in Chicago opposes any integration or consolidation of those organizations. In the meantime, ridership is low and congestion (and its related economic impact) is high.

Contrast that with the recent article in Citylab about the importance of the smartphone in transportation.

“As more and more of the transport system falls into private hands and becomes fragmented, multi-modalism risks declining and cities will lose out on valuable data on where people want to go, how they travel, what’s slowing them down, and how the network is operating. A publicly-operated unified mobility app has enormous potential to eliminate barriers between modes, use existing infrastructure more efficiently, and bring the entire transport network to the smartphone.”

Privatized transportation systems, especially fragmented ones, means that cities lose valuable opportunities to find out more about their riders–and thus lose opportunities to attune their systems to the needs of their riders. Jason Prechtel writing for Gaper’s Block has closely followed the public-private partnerships that dominate Chicago public transportation.As the article continues:

“Better data about movement makes it easier for officials to site bike-share docks, or re-route buses to fit travel patterns, or add an extra train during rush-hour to meet demand. Instead of operating on a static schedule that forces users to adapt to it, a transportation network that’s monitored and adjusted in real-time can adapt to users. Just as the paved road launched a transportation revolution by enabling point-to-point travel via the car last century, networked technology can shift the paradigm again by making the user and infrastructure dynamic actors who respond to one another. This isn’t a trivial improvement—it’s a dramatic reimagining of how transportation systems operate.”

Transportation systems making use of ample data across the network have the ability to reshape themselves to meet the needs of customers–thereby reducing congestion, and increasing ridership.

“if U.S. cities can move past the fractured transportation landscape and embrace the challenge, their slow start isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it might even help officials avoid the mistakes of bad apps and refine the successes of good ones.”

Chicago has a long way to go before it can embrace and make use of technology across all of its public-private partnerships. Finding a way to integrate the data on ridership from Divvy, with the public transit usage stats from Ventra-carded services Pace and CTA, as well as Metra, could lead to some public transit innovation and some cost savings alongside transit improvements. Maybe claims of creating a “smart city” with “big data” could lead to some movement, but without improved partnerships and governance across transit organizations, Chicago’s public transportation situation seems destined to fester.

9/16/14 Update:

Jason Prechtel wrote in an earlier Gapers Block column about the role of the RTA (regional transportation authority) which oversees the CTA, Pace, and Metra and which was responsible for uniting the three under one common payment system, Ventra. Prechtel on the RTA and Ventra:

“…both Gov. Quinn’s office and the SouthtownStar have called for finding ways to reduce waste and bureaucracy and eventually overhaul the entire regional transit system.

From this perspective, the need for a system like Ventra makes sense. Uniting transit fare payment under a single system is one major step towards merging the transit systems together under the RTA umbrella, and reducing overall transit costs and inter-agency squabbles.”

While that common payment system has been plagued with controversy and difficulties, perhaps the efforts of the RTA could lead to a unified transportation app for Chicagoans.

Women, the Web, and the App Takeover

Here’s what was important this week…

Today is Pi day. Here is more than you probably ever wanted to know about pi day.

Last Saturday, March 8 was International Women’s Day. Started as a revolutionary holiday to honor the achievements of women, International Women’s Day is recognized in many countries. However, in Nepal it is recognized by women only, rather than as a day where men pay tribute to the women. Nepal also has another holiday that only women observe:

“In early September in Nepal, Hindus – who make up 81 per cent of the country’s 30.5 million people – celebrate Rishi Panchami, a festival that commemorates a woman who was reborn as a prostitute because she didn’t follow menstrual restrictions. It is a women’s holiday, and so Nepal’s government gives all women a day off work. This is not to recognise the work done by women, but to give them the time to perform rituals that will atone for any sins they may have committed while menstruating in the previous year. (Girls who have not begun menstruating and women who have ceased to menstruate are exempt.)”

However, the interesting thing about a cultural distaste and monthly banishment that occurs surrounding menstruation, is that “they talk openly – more openly perhaps than the average teenage girl in the UK might – about what they use for sanitary protection. Some use sanitary pads, some are happy with cloths, although they dry them by hiding them under other clothes on washing lines.”

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Bitcoin, Security, and Photography

nananananananananananana BITCOINNNN

I had to talk about it eventually, and Thursday’s news was a good impetus. Newsweek had a big “scoop” potentially unmasking the founder of Bitcoin. The magazine saved this story for the cover of their return-to-print issue. The story features stalking masquerading as investigative journalism, as the author tracked down this man through national records, then tracked his interests to a model train forum, where she emailed him purporting to be interested in trains, then began asking about Bitcoin (at which point he stopped responding).
Then she tracked down his home and family members, and interviewed them extensively about the man and itcoin. She finally paid him a visit at his home, and instead of answering the door he called the cops. This surprised her. Read the article in full, if you’d like to know more about the lengths some people will go to find people who don’t want to be found (and who haven’t done anything wrong).(After some sushi and a car chase the man himself claims he is not involved with Bitcoin).

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Protest and Media

Here’s what was important this week…

Are women being infantilized or endangered in the Olympics?

Also, the Olympic medal count gets more interesting depending on whether you look at it in terms of total medalsnumber of gold medals, or medals per capita.

In world news, protests in Ukraine that have been going on for a few months have escalated as the government ramps up its violent response. Just today (overnight for us in the US time zone) a deal was signed between the government and the protestors. Hopefully it will hold. That article (CNN) provides a good overview of the violence, but essentially the protests started as the government aligned itself with Russia, while many citizens wished for more of an EU alignment. Photos (some graphic) of the violence were collected yesterday by In Focus, and the New Yorker is wondering if this protest is the final straw: Will Ukraine Break Apart?Like many of the protests in recent years, the protests have been named somewhat with the square in which they’re occurring. Tahrir, Zucotti, Gezi, and now the Ukrainian protests, combining the word for “square” and the crux of the protests, european integration, to make euromaidan. You can watch four simultaneous live feeds of the park if you like. (The current president of Ukraine also ran for president in 2004 and was “elected” but forced to concede to his opponent after accusations of electoral fraud. One of those protesting the election results also happened to be the sign language interpreter for the state run news channel.)

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Tech tidbit: an observation

Newt might’ve been onto something. It’s jarring to see pieces about the “internet of things” written using a dumb vs smart dichotomy. Once something becomes networked it becomes a “smart” device where previously it was a “dumb” device. It attributes an odd sense of inferiority on mere “manufactured” devices which are excellent at what they do–toasters, for example. Why do we refer to networked devices as “smart” inherently?

The article that sparked this thought train.

Certainly having Internet access gives one access to greater information, and having networked devices enables one to easily and efficiently collect data on such machines, but to what end? Smart meters in electricity are lauded as reducing the guessing game and allowing power companies (and homeowners) to evaluate their electricity usage and ways to reduce consumption. But they involve many pros and cons.

The myriad definitions of “smart” make defining networked devices as smart devices quite easy, and meaningful when assessing this dichotomy. In terms of smart meters, one might say they’re called such because choosing to install one could be a shrewd investment in ones energy savings. However, when it comes to devices with more fluid functions, like the smartphone, it becomes a bit more difficult to discern where such a prefix came from, and why analog devices have come to be known as “dumb”. Perhaps instead of shaming Newt Gingrich for his tech illiteracy we should entertain the idea that he might, in fact, be onto something as he searches for a new definition that goes beyond calling a networked device merely “smart”.