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Idea of the Day: Bus Bunching

12 Jul

Flickr photo by skew-t

If you’d come out of Buckhead Station’s north exit around 6:00 p.m. Tuesday you would have noticed two things: first, that there were far more people waiting for the route 110 bus than normal; second, that traffic was sitting absolutely still on Peachtree as far as you could see in both directions.
At 6:15, with the traffic creeping forward a few feet every few minutes and the bus scheduled to arrive at 6:13 nowhere in sight, you would have probably calculated that walking to the gym about a mile south of the station would be the quicker way to get there. But after walking south for about 10 minutes, around the time you were crossing Maple Drive, you would have noticed a route 110 bus heading north, toward the station you just left. You would have then noticed another one – directly behind the first. The first bus was very, very late. The second was almost on schedule.
What you would have seen is called bus bunching.
Bus bunching occurs when traffic or another delay slows down a bus’ progress along its route so much that the amount of the delay, as it’s compounded by the time required to stop and pick up passengers, exceeds the scheduled time between that bus and the one behind it. As the first bus continues along the route, it falls farther and farther behind schedule, as it has to keep stopping to pick up passengers. The second bus rarely has to stop, as there are very few or no passengers at all to pick up. Eventually the second bus is moving along the route so quickly that it catches up to the first one.  The shorter the headway, the more risk there is for bunching.
WABE and CNN recently posted stories about scientists at Georgia Tech who have developed an anti-bunching technique that relies less on schedules and more on calculated, adjustable delays coordinated by GPS. The system will be fully rolled out for the university’s Stinger Shuttle Tech Trolley system this fall and the developers say they’ve already been contacted by transit authorities here and abroad who are interested in implementing something similar.

Idea of the Day: Pre-walking

28 Feb

For all of its advantages, transit doesn’t offer much in the way of shortcuts. A missed train is a missed train and there’s no shortening the time that you’ll spend watching the arrival board cycle through the Zipcar and Picadilly ads until the next one pulls in. But after taking the same trains at the same stations for a while,  some riders develop a menu of minute-shaving strategies known as pre-walking.


Pre-walking involves standing at a certain place on the platform in order to board a specific car through a specific door when the train arrives. The chosen boarding point is usually one that puts the rider as close as possible to a preferred exit at the destination. These strategies aren’t always about finding the exit closest to the street or building you want. Sometimes it’s faster to go out of  your way so fewer people are in your way.


Some examples:

  • The last door of the last car on a southbound train puts you closest to the less-crowded escalator at the north end of the platform (or maybe it just seems less crowded when you’re the first person to get to it) when arriving at Five Points.
  •  The last door of the last car on a North Springs train puts you right at the exit at the south end of the platform at Buckhead Station – especially important since it’s still the only exit. Also, if you’re running late for the 110 bus, not having to walk the entire length of the station to get out can easily make the difference between catching it and either having to wait for the next one or walk to your destination.
  • The back of the first car or the front of the last car on a train in either direction is closest to to an exit at Civic Center Station.
  • The middle or last door of the last car of a Indian Creek train puts you right at the stairs on the west end of the platform at Inman Park-Reynoldstown Station. Oddly, that set of stairs is much less popular than the set at the east end of the platform, which is farther away from the exit.

To read about it, you might get the idea that pre-walking is some esoteric, expert-level transit users’ skill. Phrases like “super-secret” and “something only New Yorkers know” crop up a lot.  A bit of impatience or a tendency toward tardiness are really the only requirements, though. Besides, nothing’s a secret any more once there are apps and charts for it.

 H/T to The Atlantic Cities

Idea of the Day: Brasilia Syndrome

28 Nov

Meet Danish architect and urban designer Jan Gehl. If you have about 30 minutes, he can explain why the parts of a city that look so appealing on the approach from an expressway are often so boring to be in. He calls it the Brasilia Syndrome. If you don’t have that long, it works something like this:

Around 1960, Gehl says, architects and planners began designing streets and developments as compositions of landmark buildings, or with an eye toward how they could best accommodate the movement of cars. Other uses were given little consideration, if any.

Density was moved from horizontal to vertical as free-standing towers replaced smaller buildings  placed close together. Buildings were pushed back from the street. Banks, food courts, dry cleaners and post offices were added inside so that people could go the entire day without ever being in the surrounding neighborhood.

Planning cities “to make cars happy,” as Gehl describes it, resulted in a landscape meant to be viewed at about 40 miles per hour (think of an office park or strip mall – large signs, little detail, buildings seen best from a distance) instead of a pedestrian’s pace of around 3 miles per hour.

In extreme cases this type of planning produced the “helicopter urbanism” of cities planned entirely from the air, like Brasilia, or more recently, Dubai.

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Study: American mobility leads to architectural monotony

28 Sep

One of the most frequent complaints about single-use, low-density suburban development is its tendency toward sameness.  But the same predictability of housing forms and commercial establishments crops up in new mixed-use and transit-oriented developments in the city. Why is that, and what does it mean about us?

A group of social scientists looked into that phenomenon, and a report on their findings is getting a lot of attention this week.

Americans’ tendency to relocate frequently, the scientists said, generates a desire to seek out familiar things in new surroundings.

From the report’s abstract:

 “We propose that this paradox can be explained by American mobility: Residential mobility fosters familiarity-seeking and familiarity-liking, while allowing individuals to pursue their personal goals and desires. We reason that people are drawn to familiar objects (e.g., familiar, national chain stores) when they move.”

In a Washington Post op-ed, University of Maryland’s Roger Lewis wrote that the people who plan and finance new development count on that impulse when they decide what to put where and how it should look. “Familiarity-seeking is no surprise to retailers, nor to commercial and residential real estate developers, investors and lenders. Like those who build, consumers instinctively feel most comfortable embracing the known, the predictable, the tried and true,” Lewis said.

Hardcore urbanists tend to reflexively look askance at the inclusion of national chains and sometimes have little patience with people who are drawn to them (the word “sheep” seems to pop up a lot). But Kaid Benfield at the National Resources Defense Council suggests a more pragmatic approach. “National franchises and chain stores can and do change their standard building design to ‘fit in’ with the local character of the surrounding community,” he wrote. “But they only do this in communities savvy enough to insist on something better than off-the-shelf, ‘cookie cutter’ architecture.”

One example of making retail functions fit into the form of the neighborhood is the “DC USA” retail development across the street from the Columbia Heights Metro station in D.C. It wedges a Target, Marshall’s, Best Buy, Bed Bath and Beyond, Lane Bryant, GNC, Staples, Radio Shack, Bank of America, a gym, a children’s clothing store and parking deck into a multi-level space with on-street access and a smaller footprint than some downtown Atlanta parking lots. (Does the name “DC USA” remind anyone else of “Buckhead Atlanta?”)

The Edgewood Retail District on Moreland Avenue, on the other hand, is sometimes criticised for the suburban-style surface parking that partially cuts it off from the street and makes it difficult for pedestrians to navigate the area around the largest stores. 

As for the theory of familiarity-seeking itself, some commentors at The Atlantic Cities were skeptical and offered more mundane explanations.

“So let’s make this real simple: chains tend to be cheaper, they’re in convenient locations (near highway interchanges and other thoroughfares), and they offer uniform levels of quality on a national basis. Not that complicated … unless you’re a social scientist in need of grant money,” wrote commenter “Adam Minter.”

“Celeidth” agreed that the only longing chain stores fulfill is the longing to hurrying up and finish shopping, and wrote “I don’t get any particular emotional pleasure from visiting Target, but I sure get pleasure from getting my errands done as quickly as possible in the chain store that’s closest to my house. I know that they are likely to have what I need when I need it.”

Here’s a link to the report abstract. Alas, access to a PDF of the full text is $11.95 unless you have a way around the paywall through a university.

H/T to Planetizen

Idea of the Day: Desire Lines

27 Jul
Desire line between Lindbergh Station and Lindbergh Drive

A five-year-old desire line cuts diagonally across the empty lot next to the Garson Drive parking deck at Lindbergh City Center

Desire Lines – also known as “intention lines, ” “paths of desire” or “desire paths” – are the paths worn into grass (or sometimes, snow) by pedestrians in places where sidewalks are unavailable or found to be inconvenient.

One of Atlanta’s most extensive collections of desire lines runs along both sides of Buford Highway, but college campuses, office parks and areas adjacent to transit stations are also prime locations for DIY pedestrian paths.

Pedestrian desire line on Oak Valley Road near Lenox Station

Pedestrians on the south end of Oak Valley Road, near Lenox Station, utilize the established desire lines or walk in the street where there's no sidewalk.

Idea of the Day: Pedestrian Propulsion

12 May

Have you ever noticed how a long walk feels much shorter when you’re in a densely-built urban area with a lot of other people on the street? Festivals or other events that create novel and rapidly-changing scenery around you can have the same effect. There’s a name for that: “Pedestrian propulsion.”

Areas that rank highly in pedestrian propulsion also have high rates of “compensation” – the visual and social payoff received in exchange for the time and energy required to walk.

That’s why it seems to take weeks to walk past a strip mall or just a block or two like this:

while walking somewhere interesting seems to take less time than it really does.

Speaking of pedestrian experiences, the vision for the “Midtown Mile” is being revamped. The idea of replicating a place like Chicago’s Miracle Mile is out the window, with planners now aiming for a area of shopping and restaurants that’s more everyday than special occasion. They hope to make it a constant draw for residents in and around midtown as well as the thousands office workers who come and go daily instead of a place mostly catering to tourists and the very well-off.

A similar re-think is afoot at the Streets of Buckhead project. The “Rodeo Drive of the South” concept, with high-dollar hotels, restaurants and boutiques intended to draw people from all over the region, is being toned down and will eventually even have a different name.

Idea of the Day: Mobility versus access

11 Feb

Red line train at Civic Center Station

Among the un-read content languishing on my RSS feed was this examination of the two overlapping services that users expect from transit, why they aren’t interchangeable, and how more of one reduces the need for the other.

Jarrett Walker at Human Transit proposes that by providing or increasing mobility – in this context, the ability to travel a certain distance quickly and easily- transit makes more of a city accessible to more people. But, Walker says, by stimulating increased commercial and residential density, well-executed transit encourages increased access – in this context, the ease with which a person can arrive at a desired destination.

That’s where things get interesting.

From the post:

Mobility is how far you can go in a given time.  Access is how many useful or valuable things you can do.  If a new grocery store opens near your house, that doesn’t improve your mobility but it does improve your access.  You can now get your groceries closer to home, so you don’t need as much mobility as you did before.  You can also improve your access by working at home instead of commuting, downloading music instead of going to a CD store, and moving in with your romantic partner.  In other words, a lot of the work of access is simply about eliminating the need to move your body around the city in order to complete the economic and personal transactions that make up a happy life.

Juxtaposing mobility and access brings to mind Atlanta’s several far-flung patches of “drive-to urbanism.” These developments sometimes skip right over the step in which transit generates increased density, instead introducing ready-made density in areas with sparse transit coverage. In another city or another economic climate, transit coverage might be expected to eventually catch up and complete the picture. Right now, though, the result is often lively, pleasant, somewhat isolated places that are only easily accessible to people who live nearby or who can drive there.

But as more of these islands of increased density appear throughout the city, access to them will increase for more people. That will, as Walker said, reduce the need to move bodies around the city to get to what those developments offer.

Atlanta has seen significant mixed-use and transit-oriented development in the last ten years. It has also seen not only the absence of development of transit itself, but a significant reduction in service. Will car-banism continue to reign or is it just step on the way to something better?

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