What is a user-friendly city? We say that the iPhone is user-friendly, but what about Washington, D.C. or Madrid? The concept of designing from a user-centric perspective is common in the creation of web and mobile applications. There is a whole field of User Experience (UX) designers who take a holistic approach to optimizing the “system of systems” that make a product. A major focus of my company is helping people navigate unfamiliar indoor spaces, so I look at the world through this lens all the time. But who does user experience design for our cities? For whom are we designing? And even if an amazing design is created, how does it get implemented amidst the dynamic cultural, political, and economic flows of a city?
There are increasingly-many similarities between web and mobile applications and cities. Both often start as small endeavors, experiments cobbled together out of necessity or a dream of a better way. Sometimes they stick, attracting citizens and snowballing. Sometimes they die, fading into just another line in a history book (or Wikipedia entry). Sometimes, they turn into something entirely unintended by their founders:
- SF: Spanish mission to gold rush boom town to silicon valley.
- Shenzhen: fishing village to financial center.
- Burbn: HTML5 location-based service becomes top photo-sharing app.
- MS Excel: intended for financial calculations, actually (ab)used for: lightweight databases, recording OSHA notes, list of b-day party invites
So, why do we have cities? What are they intended to do? Most cities are concentrations of economic and social activity collected under some form of governance, and many provide “systems for sanitation, utilities, land usage, housing, and transportation“. From this, we can derive that the intended users for cities are people (Note: while this may seem obvious to us, Douglas Adams asserts that an outside observer may be mistaken). But even if we can agree that cities are designed for use by people, who are these particular people? Are they permanent residents or temporary visitors? Are they old or young? What languages do they speak? What type of education do they have? Do they like Bluegrass music?
A major challenge for both cities and software is making changes amidst a large-scale deployment. Like a large enterprise application, cities have a lot of legacy features that must be supported, and a very broad user-base. It’s not easy to rebuild from scratch, without incurring a major service interruption, or alienating a significant group of users. While the existence of software is relatively new, cities have been around for much of human history. For most places, it’s likely that the original city founders are now dead. Even if they were alive, society has changed so much that the founders wouldn’t understand today’s version of their city even if they found a way to exist in it. Even for current residents, making drastic changes is painful. Consider how young Facebook is, but how much its users complain when the service gets a new feature (or kills an old one). What if we re-routed a major highway around a city? What if taxes disappeared…or doubled? What if food trucks show up? What if we un-bury a river through downtown?
My hope for improving the user experience of cities lies on making small changes, rather than big ones. The pilot projects that Janette Sadik-Khan and Mayor Blumberg run in NYC seem very similar to the iteration and experiments advocated by Eric Ries’ Lean Startup movement. I’m also curious to observe a few technologists try their hands at designing cities, as the new Apple campus comes to fruition, designed in part by the late Steve Jobs. Online shoe mogul Tony Hsieh is knee-deep in recreating downtown Las Vegas, taking a gamble that he can transform a part of Sin City into a self-contained oasis for Zappos and its creative class friends.
I’m excited to be part of OpenLexington, a group of volunteers who work on open-data projects in Lexington, KY. Right now, I wouldn’t rate our city as very user-friendly. The roads are organized in an uncommon way, to get things done you often have to “know someone“, and our tight-knit social circles make it difficult for outsiders (eg UK graduate students) to integrate. With OpenLexington, we have the opportunity to greatly improve the UX of the relatively new digital infrastructure that co-exists with our city’s much older physical infrastructure. We’re starting with some small projects, like making it easier to find bicycle parking around town, and creating a web-accessible version of local restaurant health ratings. But someday, as our small actions accumulate, perhaps we can have a big impact, like making it easier for relocating families to feel at home in Lexington, or breaking down the artificial borders among our diverse population. Groups like us around the world are always looking for help, so if you grok this stuff, join in!
Bike lanes are not for cyclists. Bike lanes are for motorists.*
I realized this following a discussion about shared-use roadways (ie the majority of non-Interstate highways and roads in America). I have quite a few friends who don’t understand my choice to ride a bike on the road, partly because the see it as a choice. Where I live, it’s often not a choice, it’s the law. With the exception of bicycle police, cyclists are not allowed to ride on sidewalks. That’s why they’re called sideWALKs, they’re meant for pedestrians. Thus, when I ride my bike on the road, I’m riding it where I’m supposed to be riding it. And, by law, I have the same privilege (yes, “privilege”, not “right”) to operate my human-powered vehicle on the road as those who choose to operate motorized vehicles.
When I’m riding my bike, I view myself as a person who happens to be on a bike. When I’m driving my car, I view myself as a person, who happens to be in a car. Between those two states, I view my life, my sense of urgency, and the importance of my travel to be equal. And I view the lives, deadlines, and importance of everyone around me, in cars, on busses, on bikes, and on foot to be equal.
Unfortunately, I don’t think this is the currently prevailing viewpoint.
When talking with friends who are motorists, but not cyclists, they consider their trips in cars to be more important than the simultaneous trips taken by cyclists. One argument is that cycling is multi-functional: while some cyclists are in the act of commuting, others are on their bikes for the purpose of exercise. And in this argument, commuting is considered to be more important than exercising.** While I disagree with that particular assertion, a more relevant disagreement is that the associated assumption that all trips in cars are for the singly important purpose of getting to work. Do these motorists hold the same disdain for fellow motorists transporting themselves in search of entertainment? Likely, yes. It wouldn’t surprise me if they also became upset when their potentially fluid rides are stalled by farm implements, and then show up to the ever-important work and eat a few corn chips, never making the connection.
I would assert that there are 3 reasons for which the journey of a particular vehicle on the road would be more important that that of other vehicles. First, emergency vehicles. There’s a reason they get flashing lights, and permission to blow through stop signs: they are operating in potentially life-or-death situations. Second, commercial vehicles (particularly, tractor-trailers). Think of something that you use in your daily life. Vacuum cleaner. iPhone. Banana. Socks. To quote a friend, “Almost everything you use in a day was on a truck at some point.” Often, those trucks are not just carrying Timmy’s stuff, or Susie’s stuff, but hundreds of people’s stuff. That’s important. Finally, buses. Sorry dude-in-a-Porshe, those 20 people on the city bus may not seem as stylish as you, but I’d like for you to convince me that their twenty lives have less collective influence on their world than your one. As you may have noticed, the importance I assigned here was not due not to some personified needs of the vehicle, but to the needs of the people that the vehicle was serving.
But maybe it’s not their fault. Maybe their frustration is misdirected at non-conforming cyclists, when in fact the true source of their frustration is an incorrect assumption about the predictability of our transportation system. I am guilty of this as well. When I am trying to drive from my house to a destination that is 30 miles away (separated mostly by rural highways), I mistakenly expect that this journey will take me only 30 minutes. But I am wrong. There are all sorts of factors, like stoplights, detours, accidents, and…traffic that can make my trip unpredictable. In fact, this unpredictability is the norm, although I tend to fool myself into thinking that it is the exception.
Which brings me to traffic. Traffic moves according to what I like to call the slowest common denominator (SCD). In my definition, this means that the slowest vehicles in a traffic flow determine the average speed of the traffic flow. This defies the assumption that aggressive, fast drivers are in control of the road. I have yet to see one of these vehicles successfully push traffic forward, bulldozer-style. Yet, I’ve been caught behind many an meandering, elderly motorist who has taken complete control of the rate of traffic on a two-lane road.
And this is where Bike Lanes come in. Bike Lanes are not for the benefit of cyclists. Bike Lanes are for the benefit of motorists. If sharing the road with cars were not a factor, a cyclist presented with the choice of riding in the normal lane or in the bike lane would be unlikely to choose the inferior, shoulder-esque mini-pathway. They would choose the main lane! The reason that bike lanes matter is because of cars. Bike lanes make it so that automotive traffic can continue with minimal impediment from cyclists. That’s right, bike lanes are a means of making it more fair for motorists, who wish to travel at a rate faster than the SCD of a bicycle. So, from someone who, whether I’m hypermiling or riding a bike, is often the SCD, you’re welcome 😉
* To avoid any unnecessary personal banter, I’d like to clarify that I distinguish the difference between a cyclist and motorist as the present (thus, temporary) selection of mode of transportation. Personally, there are different occasions on which I choose to be a cyclist, motorist, pedestrian, and transit rider. Regardless of this choice, I retain my own unique identity, not one assigned to me by my mode of transport. Sure, there are differentiating personality characteristics that people choose to associate with their preferred form of transportation, but we’re all just a flat tire away from being united as pedestrians 🙂
** I understand the economically-minded intent of the argument that commuting (to work) is more valuable to society than exercising. Yet, with the disproportionately high costs of healthcare, especially the reactive medicine needed to compensate for generally sedentary lives in America, I think I could make a case that the economically logical choice is that we all exercise for 30 minutes in the morning, and show up late for work.
This is what remains of my toothpaste: 0.8 ounces. I started the day with a full-size (4.8 ounce) bottle of toothpaste, which exceeds the TSA’s limit of 3.4 ounces of liquid per container. The thought behind this regulation is that the possession of certain types of liquid in sufficient quantities can be used to make a bomb. While I am glad that someone is looking out for my wellbeing as an air traveler, a few of the security measures simply don’t make sense.
What if I froze my toothpaste? The TSA’s restriction is not on toothpaste, but on liquids. If I initiated a state change and turned my toothpaste into a solid, would it suddenly be permissible?
This doesn’t make sense.
Also, how effective are those full-body backscatter scanners? The thought is that these machines help TSA personnel quickly detect dangerous objects with increased sensitivity over other methods. I noticed the machines were only in about half the lines at the Denver Airport. Half the passengers are invasively scanned, while the rest simply pass through metal detectors.
What if someone with malicious intent simply chooses to bypass the more thorough scanner?
This doesn’t make sense.
These experiences remind me of an aspect of conversations I’ve had recently with entrepreneurs about their startups: it’s vital that your story makes sense. There are two pieces of this:
1. Actually have a logical story
2. Communicate your story clearly & concisely
In the case of the TSA, their story actually has a very simple logic (however flawed their “product” is under the surface): you want to feel safe, so our systems filter out dangerous stuff and make it safer for you to travel. ZipCar is also great: you don’t need a car, just the service of using a car when you need it. We make that process really easy, and while you pay us for that convenience, you still save money over owning or traditional car rental. Boom. Logical. Everybody wins.
Does your startup’s story make sense like this? Do you solve a human need in a clear, logical way? Or, like the toothpaste regulation, is it easy to poke holes in your logic? Mastering your story can certainly be an iterative process, but you should always be trending toward a simple, logical, easily understandable series of thoughts. This will make your conversations with users, customers, partners, and investors much more productive (and likely, more successful). And to accomplish this, your product team and marketing team (likely the same people in an early-stage startup) need to work together. As form follows function, it’s much easier to convince your audience that a hammer can do the job of driving nails than, say, convincing them that a feather could.
Lesson learned: nail your product, then tell a clear story about it.
Note 1: TSA liquid regulations http://www.tsa.gov/311/index.shtm
Note2: way to go, L3 Communications on selling those backscatter machines and apparently making loads of money by reducing people’s fears! Killer combination of powerful technology, and an even more powerful marketing campaign.
While I had heard about the debate that erupted in the comments of this article was rather heated, I am somewhat impressed at the generally logical discourse between those who favor motoring or cycling. There has definitely been some bantering back and forth, but there was a high frequency of open-minded comments that blamed neither (or both) the driver and cyclist involved in Monday’s collision.
A few great points were made:
- Riding bikes on sidewalks is generally a bad idea. See Ken’s thoughts.
- In a collision between bike and cyclist, no matter who is at fault, the cyclist will lose. #Physics
- Cyclists: your bike is a vehicle. Operating it demands the same responsibilities as for a car.
- Motorists: bicycles are vehicles. Treat them as such.
Still, my favorite comment is the one that follows:
dklane wrote on 08/30/2010 04:23:16 PM:
“As a person who has used cars, tractors, and bicycles on Lexington roads, I find it odd that people wait patiently when I drive a tractor at 12mph but act like race car drivers when I ride a bicycle on the same road at 24mph.”
When I look out at a street, my mind strips away all the vehicles, and all I see are people. Some strutting along the sidewalk. Some on two-wheelers with wind in their hair. Others enjoying a few minutes of steering-wheel karaoke. Yet we all have two things in common: a soul, and a layer of rubber insulating us from the omniscient road. Maybe if we removed the layers of insulation that divide us into vehicular factions, then we might see more clearly that we are all people. People with a destination worthy of the journey.
Life is not static, it is in motion. That is why I chose to become a mechanical engineer. I really like stuff that moves. I am going to ride my mechanical bicycle home shortly. While doing so, my lungs will exchange oxygen with the atmosphere and my heart will move blood throughout my body through pressure differentials. My great mission in life is to improve the way people move about the world. Just like horses, carriages, and steam engines, cars have seen their time come, and now it is quickly departing. With the advent of ‘internet everywhere‘, my commute is no longer about getting to where I am going so that I can start work. I can start work on the way. Heck, for must stuff I don’t even need to be in a communal, or even static, location. The downfall of the reliance on personal automobiles in suburban America, however, is that I cannot safely and legally do my work (or have my fun, for that matter) while transporting myself. My time in the car is lost time, and soon others will realize that their commutes are nothing but a frustrating waste of their most valuable resource.
My friend and roommate Phillip realizes how valuable his time is. But he is stuck in a rut when it comes to finding a good alternative to his commute. In July, Phillip will marry his high-school sweetheart and move to Louisville, where his fiancée has a nice job as an actuary. The problem, however, is that Phildo is just starting the second year of his PhD program in Materials Science and Engineering…in Lexington. Each day, he will give up three hours of his productive time in order to move his body from Louisville to Lexington and back. While PhD’s are sometimes mocked for viewing their bodies solely as transport mechanisms for their brains, these intellectuals are a vital part of our society. Without people like Phillip who push the boundaries of modern science and technology, America would not be the country that it is today. This is why I am so bothered that Phillip’s only viable option to commute between Kentucky’s two largest cities is to drive his personal automobile. How will America reclaim its title as the world’s economic superpower when our brightest citizens must trade several hours each day of productive life for a monotonous stint behind a steering wheel?
This is a the problem I want to solve in my lifetime.
Inspired by a similar shirt I found in NYC, I’ve wanted a good way to proclaim to the world that I love riding my bike in KY. What’s not to love about forests full of cross-country MTB trails and an abundance of rolling hills navigable by horse farm-lined roads? While our state’s marketers often proclaim the merits of Kentucky’s equine heritage, Bourbon, and Bluegrass music, cycling may be our best-kept secret. Well, time to let the cat out of the bag:
The shirts go on sale Friday, May 14th for $15. Let me know if you want one!
While I’m excited to wear these shirts, and see them on other cyclists in KY, what really moves me is the opportunity to use this to benefit less fortunate cyclists in the area. While many commuter cyclists (like myself) choose their mode of transport based on preference, for others, it is the only viable option. The latter group is well-represented by men at Lexington’s Hope Center. Walking into the building on Loudon Ave, the dozens of bikes overflowing from racks make it obvious that residents rely on two-wheeled, self-propelled vehicles. Unfortunately, many of the bikes are in disrepair, inhibiting residents from effectively transporting themselves around Lexington.
While at a BPAC meeting on May 7th, I learned about an initiative to help the residents of the Hope Center overcome this challenge. By providing bicycle repair equipment and lessons, residents will be able to maintain their own bicycles to ensure a reliable, sustainable transportation option. Think teach-a-man-to-fish (we just need a few fishing poles). With help from a few of the local bike shops, all that’s needed to make this a reality is $300. That’s where you come in. By helping me sell 60 t-shirts, we can raise enough money to accomplish this first goal. Then, phase 2: lighting systems for all the Hope Center’s commuter cyclists!
Here are a few ways you can help: