The Internet of Transportation

“What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.”

-William H. Whyte (Whyte, p.19)

The phenomenon of traffic has confounded urban planners for as long as it has been studied. Jane Jacobs noted “that the sight of people attracts still other people, is something that city planners… seem to find incomprehensible.” (Jacobs, p.37)

John Urry explained that in early pedestrian systems, paths were literally laid as collective imprints of those who traversed them (Urry, p.63). More traffic furnished a more reliable path, and indicated a more probable destination- a successful feedback loop. In Paris, the Haussmann plan tore boulevards and arcades through the medieval city, establishing the notion of vistas (Urry, p.68); travelers could see where they had gone and where they were going, aligning their movements conceptually and physically. In 19th century Vienna, though the streets didn’t change, published guide books progressed from describing individual sights to composing routes from sight to sight for travelers to follow (Urry, p.70). It seems that whether by natural impression, visual and verbal composition or physical force, traffic is an historical function of the self-organization of transportation systems and fundamental to the marking (and making) of social gathering places.

Most great cities can be found along natural flows of traffic, having settled where multiple paths converged, or could not go any further (Papanek, p.13). Places of concentration depend on places of emptiness (Mikoleft & Pulrckhauer, p.31), however, and medieval pedestrian cities had places of sparsity outside their walls (Castagnoli, p.28) while 19th century cities grew streetcar suburbs and satellite towns. It should be only expected then, that the intensification of the city would drive further polarization- places of extreme concentration and extreme emptiness- and that there would remain traffic between the two.

As cities grew in magnitude, so too did their pathways. Pedestrians found themselves unable to leave footprints, as the paths had long since been paved (Urry, p.67). In the first transportation revolution, street railways were tasked with the place-making duties once held by pedestrians. Streetcars did not make paths- their rails worn into the ground were far more immediate and permanent- but proved effective at making and maintaining places for human activity. Inherent to the mode, rail vehicles required shallow grades and gentle curves (Rodrigue & Slack), lending themselves to the types of sweeping views that are naturally desired (Papanek, p.8). Like the pathways before them, rails reveled in traffic; pedestrian and transit infrastructure shared a functionally unlimited capacity- that it would be nearly impossible for travel demand to outstrip the supply of road space and passenger miles, as noted by E.W. Bannister his early plans for Los Angeles (Bannister, p.76). As a direct result, street railways that were well-traveled were more likely to be permanent- Toronto’s King Street cars have maintained the exact same route since 1923, two years after the founding of the transit commission (Bow, 2015), while New Orleans’ St. Charles streetcars have plied theirs since 1835 (Tulane University). Even when demand did outgrow the right of way, a higher-order system could be built within the road allowance- the Tremont Street streetcar subway allowed for faster circulation of streetcars through a popular shopping district in 19th century Boston without widening the roadway (Young, 2015). Where foot traffic physically made paths, passengers sustained streetcar routes and frequent car service in turn sustained corridors and communities with a sense of implied permanence.

It is often supposed that the automobile capitalized on innate human desires for individuality and autonomy, and equally often are these traits conflated with seclusion and desolation as inevitable consequences. The seclusion of individuals, as seen by the rise of single-occupant-vehicle commuting, and the desolation of cities as evidenced by the explosion of sprawl. Yet even the mighty auto-mobility system (not to be confused with automobility) could not disaffect its users from their trafficked gathering places.

Cars certainly did obsolete the traditional commons, giving rise to new nodes of concentration- the shopping plaza- independent of traditional “high street” corridors. This could be interpreted as a collective abandonment of path-making, but there may be a far more mundane explanation.

The bypass is a central plot device- the small town of Fairvale in Psycho, or Radiator Springs in the more recent Cars series- both fictional but drawing heavily on the narrative of the small town on the American mid-west route long since bypassed by the interstate. The impact on place-making tendencies is profound; successful places create and feed on traffic, and increasing orders of magnitude of private vehicle speed and traffic volume required more space than could be found beneath existing roadways (Bannister, p.4). This led to either the destruction of property and space when older rights of-way were widened, or the relocation of entire corridors when bypasses were built. The result is both the compartmentalization of traffic and an aura of impermanence lent to automotive travel corridors where (hierarchically and geographically) will they be decades later?

Nathan Thrift argued in Driving in the City that driving, too, can be as highly emotive and expressive an experience as walking (Thrift, p.44). He points to the work of Jack Katz, who noted that drivers often see their cars as physical and intangible extensions of self (Thrift, p.47). Indeed in California, “Cars and Coffee” events often take over parking lots at some of these plazas before commercial hours (Lam). If cars can be seen as true extensions of one’s personality and self, then these events can be cast as self-organizing social gatherings and the parking lots as public squares. Yet these places, too, are fleeting; the gatherings dissipate before shopping hours, so as not to compete for parking space. Compared to the evolution of pedestrian and transit spaces, they seem to have either missed or failed a critical step. Unlike in previous systems, traffic did not establish paths as permanent, vibrant places, and even the places that did arise tended to be temporary. Why were the results of mass automotive adoption so wildly different than those of the pedestrian and streetcar eras?

In a 2013 interview, SimCity lead designer Stone Librande revealed something curious about the city-building simulator: it has virtually no parking allotments. He explained that if parking allotments were representative the game would seem boring and its streets uninteresting (Manaugh & Twilley); they would be incongruent with its players’ expectations of real life. Rather than social, could the catalyst of the consequences of the automotive era be simply geometric? In the second of his seminal texts, A Pattern Language, Chris Alexander offers a theory as to how and why cars so changed their surroundings. While a man may take up around 10 square feet of space while walking, in his automobile he occupies nearly a hundred (Alexander, p.65). Where it is often accepted that automobiles induced sprawl, it may simply be that they necessitated it. Paths are a product of traffic, but in automotive systems traffic led to congestion. Noted planner and author Jarrett Walker often says that technology never changes geometry (Walker) echoing what Alexander poignantly stated in 1974:

“It may be that cars cause the breakdown of society, simply because of their geometry.”

(Alexander, p.66)

At the start of the third revolution, something has changed. Whereas in the origin of places traffic was a (literally) constructive force, mass auto-mobility has transfigured it as a public enemy. Congestion indices are hailed in the press as measures of failure (Nelson), where traffic ought to be a sign of place-making success. Enter the protagonist- the growing coalition of just-in-time mobility services. The movement spans ride-hailing, car-sharing, and others but just-in-time captures the conceptual similarity between these modes. In each case, journeys become discrete A-B trips instead of linked segments, and transportation networks respond reactively to trip requests instead of affording spontaneous mobility. The just-in-time mobility system does not have paths- they are formed responsively to each trip- nor does it have vehicles in the traditional sense, as users do not own anything. Yet these are the factors that allowed pedestrian, transit and automotive systems respectively to attempt to respond to their users’ eminent desire for place-making. This movement claims to revolutionize transportation (The Economist) by putting all its means at the fingertips of its users. Proponents say it is the internet of transportation (Rogers) and therein lay bare its intent. The internet, as we know it, is a network of networks- the means by which the crucial data that fuels modern society and commerce transits from point to point.

Figure 1- map of available connections through a slice in time of the global internet (Ornes) 

Figure 1- map of available connections through a slice in time of the global internet (Ornes) 

But what does it look like to be the internet? Take a look at a graphic representation of a slice through time in the data internet from 2015, showing the connections that were made by packets of data. Now take a look at the following map, compiled by Uber, showing the parts of Los Angeles where one can generalize the availability of a ride within 10 minutes. Both show a virtually limitless array of discrete connections to the user, or their data, needing to get from A to B where both points lie somewhere within the map.

Figure 2- map showing generalized Uber availability in Los Angeles (Uber)

Figure 2- map showing generalized Uber availability in Los Angeles (Uber)

So what does it look like to use the internet? To use the internet, to the average consumer, is to access one of its colossal aggregators. On any given day, over 60% of all internet traffic may go through one of Google’s servers (Kerr) and in 2014 Facebook accounted for nearly a quarter of all website referrals (Wong)., representing over 400 media clients including The Atlantic and Reuters, claimed that Facebook and Google accounted for over 80% of its 1 billion unique visitors every month last year (Ingram). These companies specialize in collecting useful resources and content and serving as a touchpoint for non-expert users to meaningfully access the internet.

Take another look at the map produced by Uber, and compare it to the stylized network map of Los Angeles’ extensive freeway network produced by Peter Dunn’s Stonebrown Designs shown below.

Figure 3- Los Angeles stylized freeway map, by Peter Dunn (Stonebrown Designs)

Figure 3- Los Angeles stylized freeway map, by Peter Dunn (Stonebrown Designs)

There is a lot of information stored in a simple corridor map of any region’s primary transportation infrastructure. For example, a dense cluster of highway intersections is a likely sign of regional importance- downtown LA, San Pedro/Long Beach, Pasadena and Irvine all show prominently in this metric. Looking for an important node, like an airport or shopping mall? Try a highway intersection. Likewise, a lack of freeways may mean that there is simply nothing there, as in one of Los Angeles’ many mountain ranges, or one of its many wealthy, sparsely populated enclaves like San Marino or Beverly Hills. One map shows possible destinations, another shows likely, desirable and meaningful ones- a feedback loop reminiscent of physical path-making.

To the user who doesn’t have a discrete destination or the user who is looking to the map for some information about where to go, in the data internet virtual aggregators are able to sort content into listings and feeds that can respond to queries from individual users with the information they are looking for. Any particular user may experience only a small fraction of the available connections yet will likely come away from the interaction with the content they were looking for. They may even seek out places where they are likely to find an array of information that is both fractional and representative. This isn’t new; in the physical realm, transportation networks have long served this function, aggregating their users’ needs along identifiable, consumable corridors. One glance at a subway map of Paris, London or New York shows exactly where the city center is. Successful aggregators don’t just manage traffic, they create it.

In the data internet, there is an observable rush hour phenomenon (Verizon) that causes traffic to slow down in the evening when more users are active. People want to be in the same place at the same time- even digital places. When Apple released the first iPhone they pushed mobile carriers, the telecom companies largely responsible for building and maintaining the infrastructure that perpetuates the internet to mobile device, to offer unlimited data plans to consumers (Chen). The ensuing mass adoption of smartphones led to an explosion of traffic volumes with some carriers beginning to selectively throttle (slow down) heavy users (Nazarian). An ensuing battle coined the principle of net neutrality- that all traffic ought to be treated equally on the data internet (The White House). This is the democratization of transportation- for data, at least. Given the natural human propensity for traffic, it is especially important to know how the mobility internet would react to the same dilemma.

Uber maintains fairly tight control of their data, but in an attempt to dispel the notion that they were engaged in predatory behavior against public transit they released aggregated usage data in Los Angeles. Take a look at the figure below, from Uber, and you’ll note that weekday Uber traffic does not have peaks.

Figure 4- Los Angeles Uber pickups vs. scheduled LA Metro trips (Uber) 

Figure 4- Los Angeles Uber pickups vs. scheduled LA Metro trips (Uber) 

This is not how a transportation system behaves, as evidenced by the very different shape of the LA Metro usage trendline (notably, the chart compares the two on a per-vehicle basis despite the fact that a Metro bus seats at least 10 times as many passengers as a typical Uber vehicle.) On its own, this is an anomaly, but take a look at the next figure. Uber Pickups Saturday in Los Angeles Midnight Surge Multiplier Noon Midnight Ridesharing is not scalable with data from Uber, American Public Transit Association

Figure 4- Uber pickup volume vs. surge index (my own work, data from APTA (Feigon & Murphy) & Uber)

Figure 4- Uber pickup volume vs. surge index (my own work, data from APTA (Feigon & Murphy) & Uber)

This chart compares Uber’s Saturday trendline to an aggregated surge pricing index mapped by the American Public Transit Association for Los Angeles. While Uber claims that surge pricing is intended to increase the number of vehicles on the road during periods of high demand by enticing drivers with a higher potential income (Kedmey) the figures here show a different pattern of events. Both Friday and Saturday nights show nearly identical surge and pickup trends, so the graph can be taken as cyclical. Surge pricing seems to kick in when demand reaches a peak, and steadily rises while pickup volumes fall back to the typical level at which point the surge ends. It would seem that Uber is using pricing to mediate incidences of peak traffic. When AT&T was caught throttling the speed of data plans that consumers had been told were unlimited, they were assessed a $100 million penalty by the FCC (Nazarian).

The internet did not in itself revolutionize communication and interaction for the average user; that push was led by content aggregators that made it understandable and accessible, facilitated by the democratization of data transportation pushed by the manufacturers and users of devices that facilitated increased consumption. Look at any city laid on a concession grid and you’ll find an interconnected web of pathways, with nearly infinite possibilities. Still physical, human mobility has slid back the scale of equitability with each progressive revolution. We made traffic the enemy, and now may be poised to eliminate it altogether. The internet of transportation advocates diffusion over traffic and vehicle optimization instead of place-making with little regard for the desires and behaviors of its citizens. It is not the democratization of transportation that happened in the data internet- any mode, any where, any time, but at a price. It affords discrete, reactive transportation where its predecessors used transportation to interactively build cities and places for people.

Just-in-time mobility truly is the internet of transportation.

 No more and no less.