Monday, July 14, 2014

What's "The Best" Way to Get from Point A to Point B?

Would you rather take a five-minute walk on crowded sidewalk next to four lanes of honking traffic on a clogged urban artery, or a seven-minute stroll down the leafy neighborhood street two blocks over?

Much of the time, we determine “the best” way to get somewhere as a function of either time or distance – seeking out the fastest drive, the nearest bus stop, or the shortest walk, for example. We ask ourselves if it is quicker to drive or walk, or whether it’s easier to ride or take the subway.

If speed is your thing, then check out the latest installment in the You Are Here series at the MIT Media Lab’s Social Computing Project. The new package, called “Best Mode of Transportation,” still defines “best” as “fastest,” but it offers a data-driven comparison of modes, against which we can check our mental calculations.

The results might surprise you. As Emily Badger writes on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, “Cycling is a much more efficient mode of transportation than many people realize. And transit is startlingly not so. Seldom will it get you farther, faster, than a bike will.”

Behind bicycling, driving is nearly always the second-fastest way to get most places within cities. Transit is, for the most part, a distant third. This does vary by location – the Manhattan model shows the substantial impact of a dense transit network (as well as the effect of an urban corridor that is extremely long and very narrow).

But for most of us, at least sometimes, speed isn’t always the top consideration.

If beauty is your thing, Yahoo Labs in Spain tells us how we can be less concerned with arrival, and more focused on enjoying the trip.

Instead of determining the fastest route, these researchers have found a way to measure the most beautiful (or quietest, or even happiest) paths between destinations. It involves a lot of crowdsourcing, including data-mining Flickr (which is owed by Yahoo) for geotagged photos and then measuring the moods of words those photos have been tagged with. You can read the full paper here, and a less technical description here, but the high-level message is that it is often possible to find a route from where you are to where you want to be that will be significantly more enjoyable to travel, and only slightly longer than the fastest way.

There are other factors in play in choosing how to get from point A to point B, of course. Not only might different people make different choices based on their own tendencies, but given other aspects of the decision (such as cost, safety, personal comfort, reliability, where you have to go next), you might yourself choose different priorities on different days or at different times of day.

We should aspire to give people choices that enable as many of them as possible to have their desired outcome, whether that is a fast arrival, a quiet stroll, a scenic bike ride, or something else altogether. If these two data-driven approaches can be combined, it might just give us the ability to design transportation options that strike the right balance among all the various attributes that travelers are looking for when taking a trip.