Monday, June 1, 2015

Getting the Public into the Policy Act

The other morning I met a disgruntled woman at my bus stop. She had been waiting more than 20 minutes for a bus to come along, after which three buses showed up in rapid succession. While we stood on the curb, she fumed: Rather than getting three buses at 30-minute intervals, couldn’t the transit agency send one bus every 10 minutes?

It turns out, though, that there are reasons for “bus bunching,” and one of the best ways to learn about the problem – and identify possible solutions – is to play a simple game created by engineering student Lewis Lehe and designer Dennys Hess (h/t CityLab). Through the game interface, you can try out your ideas for how to reduce or prevent bus bunching, with system responses that match the academic literature on the subject.

Game interfaces have the potential to be great tools for democratic engagement in policy making. They make complicated concepts understandable to a wide range of people, and enable ordinary citizens (and policy-makers) to test out potential scenarios for improvements.

I first did this in SimCity, the brilliant Maxis game series I played during middle and high school on my dad’s PC. I could create a city with no roads and only rail, or just subways. I could eliminate bus service and watch how my city thrived or collapsed into ruin. SimCity addressed many policy areas beyond transportation, including taxes, pollution from electricity generation, mixed-use land planning, police and fire coverage, and educational access.

SimCity and its ilk have allowed me and countless others to engage with these issues and experiment with solutions. Games don’t have to be complicated to be effective communicators. Among the many options are these simpler highlights that still give enough nuance to be fascinating:
Information doesn’t even have to be playable: Just looking like a game can make it more accessible, as in this video about subway delays from the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority.

The wider the range of options – as SimCity had, and Cities: Skylines, a just-out game that’s touted as its intellectual heir – the greater the potential for mass public involvement, and creative solution experimentation.

This can create a more informed public, which is essential to good government – if the rules of the game accurately represent reality. If games have the power to educate and engage, they also have the power to mislead.

But gamification of public policy choices and dilemmas isn’t just for recreation. Getting large numbers of people to play such games can enable us to crowd-source solutions to real-world problems, educate the public about critical policy choices and dilemmas, gain critical information about public concerns and preferences, and support richer, more informed, and more diverse participation in public policy debates.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Revamping Urban Bus Routes: Data Analysis Tools Show the Way

As cities across the country wrestle to reconcile increasing demand for transit services with budget challenges, optimizing transit service can be a key tool for squeezing maximum value out of every available transportation dollar. Data-powered evaluations offer the potential of making those decisions easier and provide better outcomes.

The transit agency serving Houston just revamped its entire route structure and schedule in search of improved efficiency.

Like in many cities, Houston’s previous route plan was 30 years old, and was based on residential and employment centers at that time. And as in most cities, what updates have occurred were modifications based on the old system, making only incremental attempts at accommodating the major shifts in urban living and working patterns over the decades.

Now there are tools that can help policymakers and the public understand what those shifts mean, offer ways to respond effectively, and potentially even keep pace with changes in future years.

Houston’s new plan, scrapping a downtown-centric hub-and-spoke layout in favor of a citywide grid system, is slated to take effect in August; anyone interested in urban transit systems should watch how the transition goes there, to learn what to do as well as, perhaps, some pitfalls to avoid.

Regardless of how Houston’s effort fares, cities across the country are going to need to transition their 20th century transportation systems to ones ready for the 21st century. Fortunately, there are new tools that can help policymakers and residents alike better understand the systems that exist now, and model the potential results of proposed changes.

For inventorying the service potential of existing systems, there are several examples:
For imagining how transit systems could work better overall, and for testing potential results of changes, Transitmix, an online system allowing people to create their own bus lines on data-filled maps of the real world has transitioned from game to tool used by professionals. The Oregon Department of Transportation is the first to sign up to use Transitmix to assess service statewide; the modeling potential is significant.

With these new data-powered tools, planning transportation for the city of the future can involve more people, more perspectives and more potential options.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Water, Pollution, Electricity Problems? Sewage Could Be the Solution

Earlier this month, Bill Gates made headlines around the world by drinking a glass of water. Five minutes beforehand, it had been human sewage.

The water was made by the OmniProcessor, a self-contained unit supported by the Gates Foundation that is targeted at helping the billions of people in the developing world who have no access to sewage sanitation, and who need clean potable water, electricity, and agricultural fertilizer.

For us in the developed world, it is a great example of how viewing issues as interrelated can turn a whole set of problems into solutions.

Thinking about sewage not as waste but as a resource shifts thinking about four vitally important areas of public concern:
  • How to supply enough clean potable water for people to use
  • How to generate enough electricity to meet rising demand
  • How to handle human sewage as population grows and becomes more dense
  • How to reduce pollution from fertilizer and chemical runoff from agricultural facilities
Right now, each of these is a very expensive proposition. But inventors and entrepreneurs are discovering that if addressed together, these problems can help solve each other, dramatically reducing costs, potentially paying for themselves, and possibly even generating a profit.

Producing safe drinking water and treating sewage costs about $7.5 billion a year in the U.S. alone, and the processes requires as much as 2 percent of total national electricity consumption, according to a June 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Energy [PDF].

Many of these treatment systems are wearing out, and need investment to be able to continue handle their existing workloads, much less accommodate future growth. The total cost estimate is nearly $700 billion over the next 20 years, according to that U.S. DOE report, which calls for combining elements of national energy and water policy efforts to promote self-sustaining wastewater treatment plants.

The water in sewage can be separated and purified. Bacteria that digest the waste produce methane that often qualifies as a renewable fuel, and can be burned to produce electricity or replace natural gas from deep underground. Left behind are nutrient-rich solids.

Several companies are trying various methods to do this:
These approaches don’t solve every problem relating to sewage, water or fertilizer. For example, the issue of latent toxics and pharmaceuticals in sewage solid waste remains, as does the potential for sewage-generated fertilizer to be applied in quantities that run off and pollute waterways.

But they make strong starts – and more importantly, encourage people to shift their thinking away from trying to solve individual problems, and toward thinking of the world as an interdependent system. Undoubtedly, new policy tools will be needed to help tap the potential of these silo-busting solutions.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Technology Can Help Solve Parking Problems

A Boston Globe investigation last week revealed two important reasons behind the city’s legendary parking woes.

The first, and the main subject of the article, is the city’s failure to manage demand for parking. There is, the Globe revealed, no limit on, nor any fee for, the number of permits a resident can get for on-street parking. One man reportedly “has residential parking permits for 10 cars, including two Ferraris, a Mercedes, and a Porsche” – a surprisingly valuable stable of vehicles to risk on the famously narrow streets of Boston.

More surprising to me, though, was this quote: “‘It's frustrating when you come home from work and have to drive . . . for an hour to find a space,’ said Ryan Kenny, who chairs the North End Waterfront Neighborhood Council’s parking committee.”

This is the second reason the article reveals underlying Boston’s parking woes: There is also a supply-management problem.

The North End is one of the most walkable and transit-accessible communities in the country, so its residents are less likely to need to drive than people who live elsewhere.

For those North Enders who do need to drive, they no doubt encounter a limited supply of parking, but that’s a feature, not a bug, of the dense development that makes the neighborhood a cherished destination for tourists and increasingly prized location for young professionals.

The city, however, is not managing the supply well. It can be done.

In nearby Dedham, changes to the parking fee structure – without adding any more spaces – have dramatically improved the situation in the town’s center.

Technological tools – analogous to those that are revolutionizing other aspects of transportation – are also available to help make parking more efficient.

In San Francisco, for example, real-time monitoring from the SFpark system allows people to see which areas of the city have parking garages with lots of available spots, as well as where on-street parking is priced at different rates.

That allows drivers to minimize the time they spend cruising for a space [PDF]. Instead, they can drive directly to a place with plenty of available parking, or know in advance they will need to spend more to secure a spot in a high-demand area.

In fact, Boston itself has made a start along this line in the South End, using similar technology, powered by the Parker app. The app not only knows where available spots are in rea time, but can give a driver turn-by-turn directions to get there.

Solving parking problems takes attention to all three aspects of the problem: limiting demand by either capping the number of permits issued to each resident, charging for permits, or some combination of both; expanding the use of technological tools to better manage the supply of spaces that do exist; and reducing individuals’ need to drive by developing transportation options that reduce the need for individuals to own (and therefore park) cars. Next week we’ll have a new report out exploring the latter issue – watch this space.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

In Search of True Energy Independence

Published on Huffington Post

Americans are thanking their lucky stars that gas prices are falling to levels not seensince July 2010.
The root causes of the fall in oil prices are many: increasing production from sources such as U.S. shale, and declining consumption, due to improved vehicle fuel economyhere at home and stagnating economies abroad. At the same time, OPEC nations have agreed -- for the time being at least -- to allow oil prices to fall in an effort to drive high-cost oil producers such as U.S. shale operations bankrupt.
At the moment, though, everything is coming up roses: consumers are happy, OPEC is nervous, and America is producing a greater share of the oil we consume than at any time in the last 30 years. Could it be that the United States is on the verge of energy independence?
Not hardly, and here's why: as long as the United States remains dependent on the global market for oil -- even if an increasing share of that oil is produced domestically -- we remain subject to wild swings in price for a fossil fuel that is becomingincreasingly expensive to produce.
Oil price volatility hurts the economy, lowering consumer confidence and making businesses less willing to invest. For fear of future price fluctuations, everyone slows their spending. That decreases consumer demand, which has ripples throughout the economy.
Increasing domestic oil production does not solve the problem. Oil produced in America does not necessarily stay in America; rather, oil is a globalized commodity, which is why revolution or war in far-off lands has a rapid impact on gas prices here at home. While increasing production at home adds to global supply, the effect on prices is no different than if production were to increase in Saudi Arabia or Venezuela.
And a "drill baby drill" approach to maximizing oil production brings its own risks, including that of environmental damage that threatens precious natural places and warms the planet. Oil booms also have the potential to create big economic problems when they go bust, as U.S. shale oil producers may find out soon and as world leaders such as Vladimir Putin are becoming keenly aware.
There is only one true path to energy independence, one that frees our economy of its ties to volatile world oil markets and our environment of the damage and risk that comes from oil production: cutting our dependence on oil entirely.
America is actually making good progress in cutting our reliance on oil. This stunningBloomberg News data visualization shows that the U.S. is "shaking off its addiction to oil," with America using about a third less oil per dollar of GDP than we did in the mid-1970s. Americans are driving less, and what driving we do is in cars that are more fuel-efficient than in the past. New technologies -- such as electric vehicles -- areshowing strong promise for displacing oil use in the transportation sector.
In the 1980s and 1990s, America responded to lower oil prices by slacking off on efforts to reduce our consumption of oil -- fuel economy standards for cars stagnated, SUVs proliferated, progress toward alternative-fuel vehicles stalled and auto-dependent sprawl spread across the land, leaving us all, and the American economy, to pay the piper in higher fuel prices over the last decade.
Let's not make the same mistake again. By using oil more efficiently and continuing progress toward electric vehicles, Americans can finally enjoy the lasting economic, environmental and health benefits of true energy independence.