Archive of urbantech

Will the U.S. Adopt Scooters

Scoot army via Scoot Networks

Scoot army via Scoot Networks

While Americans are still entrenched in this idea of make the car great again with autonomous systems, there’s another urban transport mode people have overlooked, the scooter.   The scooter or motor bike is ubiquitous in Asia because of historically narrow and uneven roads.  Match that with limited parking and hilly terrain and you have a good argument for scooters as practical mobility.

Bikeshare of Scooters

My first exposure to scootershare as urbantech was with Scoot Networks in San Francisco.  Launched in October 2012, they offer on-demand electric scooters at designated parking areas throughout the City.   Your phone app unlocks the bike key and off you go.   TechCrunch called it “Zipcar for Scooters” but it’s more like bikeshare for scooters since you can take it to your destination and park it for the next person.

There’s no need to have a special driver’s license but you will have to attend mandatory driver training.  This makes sense since few Americans are familiar with these bikes.  It was a breeze to use these in the hilly terrain of San Francisco, jetting up steep streets with ease. These were particularly useful for traversing north-south corridors which are brain-numbingly slow on Muni or rideshare.  The Scoots stow a helmet and have surprisingly nimble maneuvering.

Scoot launched with Chinese manufactured bikes as the bulk of their fleet (I suspect they are made by Luyuan).  They were smart to go with a Vespa inspired model and a red color scheme (instead of the originally proposed black).  Munich-based Govecs provides the recent Scoot “cargo” fleet.  These German Go T1.4s are very BMW in design.  They recently announced a partnership with GenZe for the next generation of Scoots.

Tesla of Scooters

On the other side of the Pacific, Gogoro launched in 2014 in Taipei.   As the “Tesla of electric bikes,” Gogoro designs, manufactures, and sells sleek electric bikes that run exclusively on their own battery swapping network.  Instead of gas stations, you go to recharging kiosks where you swap batteries like exchanging water jugs.  You can charge at home too.

Gogoro’s bikes may look like traditional Vespas but the details are futuristic, with smoothed molded panels and a Star Trek-like command center.  Following Tesla’s model, they own the vehicle production and the recharging network, so it makes it easy to innovative and scale up fast.  Gogoro bikes have become practical transport on a regional level.

Will the U.S. Scoot

It’s unclear whether residents of an equally dense U.S. city will prefer sharing or owning electric bikes.  Gogoro’s plug and play battery eliminates a lot of the logistical issues Scoot users face.  For charging, scoot relies on users bringing low-energy bikes to charging garages throughout San Francisco, and leaving it there to slowly recharge.  For travel, users have to be aware of the current battery level of the Scoot which equates to available travel distance.

On the flip side, curiously Gogoro has does not include 3G in its bikes, so you can’t rent out your bike in an easy way.   Tesla software has always been intimately reliant on internet connection.  Elon imagines a world where people will leverage their idle Model 3s as on-demand self-driving Ubers in his latest master plan.  But I imagine Gogoro’s founder is following Elon’s plan of building an expensive product to gain money to build a less expensive product and so forth.  Sharing bikes would definitely eat into sales. The starting price in Taipei is US $4,000 which is twice an entry-level Vespa at any local moto shop.

Scoot’s pricing is very affordable.  Without a $20/monthly plan, it’s usually $4 for one trip. It’s about what you would expect between the choice of a bikeshare (time) and transit (cost and maybe time too).   But in San Francisco, everything is cheaper and faster than a car.   Uber is always surging and often gets stuck in the same traffic.   In other sprawl cities, an electric bike fits a narrower portion of residents, and weather of course plays a role.  So it will be interesting to see where Scoot expands.

In Minneapolis, I once worked with a young father who Vespa’d from the city to an adjacent inner ring suburb.  His direct path was mostly residential and tree-lined, the travel time equated a car, and he saved on gas.  For typical U.S. cities with lower densities, these short-medium distances (< 10 miles) may prove in-demand for electric bikes.

Transit Tech Startups Part 1: Intercity Travel

Caltrain is the traditional intercity transport method.

Caltrain is the traditional intercity transport method.

Shaun Abrahamson of Urban.us detailed a list of “Pop-up Mass Transit” startups operating now.  From a VC perspective, he’s concerned about how game theory will make or break their mobility promises.  Can shuttle startup A beat out carshare startup B on price and retain users when the true cost of providing these services becomes reality.

I couldn’t help but think maybe transit-like startups should be concerned about their actual role in transportation and urban planning.  What niche do they serve in the transit ecosystem, not necessarily that one can get from point A to B.   A city is inherently multi-modal, with different ways of getting places and the messy synergy between these paths.

Transportation startup’s should aim to merge into the existing transit fabric, not simply create an overlay or new “platform.”   Lyft boldly pushed it’s “Friend’s with Transit” stats out there to show that between 20-33% of all rides start or begin at a transit station in DC, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, and New York.   If a third of your business is generated by other transit, that’s not just economics, it’s good urban planning.

Here’s Part 1 of my take on Shaun’s list:

Intercity Travel

Greyhound was the original startup in this category, providing low cost bus service between cities especially as Amtrak dismantled itself through the ’80s-’90s.  Megabus jumped in before iPhones were even a thing and now we have plenty of similar “coach” services especially in Midwest and Northeast corridors.   Tech startups of course want to give you the power to provide or at least discover these services instead of running the buses themselves.

  • Skedaddle (https://www.letskedaddle.com/) is taking the age-old Craigslist (shady) rideshare age and putting it on steroids.   Instead of just “hey please get into my car cuz I wanna split gas cost kthxbai” they’re encouraging fun trips to festivals and Tiesto, although it’s role as commuter A to B is the majority of routes.  It gamifies the process by only offering the ride when a minimum number of people sign up (like Kickstarter), and increasing the per head price as the number of users sign up (like Ticketmaster).  It appears to me that most offered rides were existing trips that would have happened anyway, so hopefully Skedaddle may improve the efficiency of vehicle usage, especially for leisure trips which accounts for a quarter of our driving.
  • Buster (https://www.buster.com/) matches groups to rides instead of individuals.  I imagine they approach coach companies and say, “Give us an idea of where you’d be willing to serve, how many people you can serve (vehicles), your rates and we’ll plug you into Buster.”   I asked it to take 15 people from Penn Station to Woodstock, New York, and it gave me a bunch of options from school buses to limos.  From an efficiency point of view, it better utilizes existing fleets that only have occasional use.  For example the local church’s Sunday school bus sit idle most of the week.  And for planners, we’d prefer one vehicle than 15 people splitting up into many vehicles and needing to park them everywhere on a single weekend.
  • Rallybus (http://rallybus.net/) combines Buster (hiring local providers) and Skedaddle (crowd sourcing events).  It differs in looking at long-distance intercity travel by having a provider offer multiple “rally” pick-up spots along pre-selected routes to a particular destination.  The website is rather confusing, but appears to be focused on special events.  I selected a Fallout Boy concert in New York and I’m presented a map of routes from various cities around New York getting to the event in March.  I picked a marker in Philadelphia for $55 and it indicated it needed 25 more people to actually confirm this ride. Fortunately another ride to a Dixie Chicks concert from Dupont Circle had the minimum.  It’s like Buster but instead of customized trips, it’s offering pre-planned trips based on potential special-event demand (sounds like an airline!).  To me, Rallybus exemplifies trip efficiency by both placing minimums on what the trip is, and how many people are going.   It knows people are going to a concert or conference already so it wants to encourage them to group ride.

The true difference between these tech startups and a typical coach service is that the coach services are focused on capturing riders in specific transportation corridors.   Rallybus and Buster require complex itineraries, compared to BestBus or Wanderu. These itinerary costs are also a little opaque and it’s hard to quickly search a route or the routes are customized.  So they succeed in very unique travel situations while Skedaddle lets one discover and compare costs more quickly.  Contrary to that, apps that are essentially rideshare boards have a hard road ahead because coach services are already fairly low cost, guaranteed rides with more amenities than someone’s car.  And even luxury car drivers will be hard to compete with the highly booked Royal Sprinter.

Intercity travelers must inherently spend more time to plan and consequently more time to compare, that is something startups will need to address.

More in Planning: The Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development studies Intercity Bus Travel.

Ride Sharing and the Future Urban Fabric

SF Chinatown, a place that really shouldn't have cars.

SF Chinatown, a place that really shouldn’t have cars.

I felt this TechCrunch article “Ride Sharing Will Give Us Back Our Cities” jumped the gun for me on issues of land use equity.  Planners have to be skeptical about how technology will change the landscape.  Our own foray into technology, the freeway, created an unforeseen sprawl landscape and car-centric culture.   Currently, the decoupling of home, work, and play is making it difficult to predict successful fixed-route transit.   Ride sharing as a permanent altering of transportation habits and infrastructure?  Let’s think about it.

Our cities, our cars?

The article is a bit confusing, because it advocates that residents give up their cars and then states those residents must adopt car-share.  This quandary reflects the assumptions made:

  • People still need cars, just cars that are not their own.
    • This is a highly loaded topic with geographical and racial implications.  TechCrunch’s audience, white, smart and well-to-do, needs to ditch their spoils, but then who are the ones offering their cars as tribute to the carless?  The cited studies suggest merely mode shift to other people’s cars, not giving up ownership.  It seems to me that we’re merely shifting car usage to another group of people, the rideshare chaffeurs.
  • Concentrating on helping urban residents.
    • Minneapolis I-94 during rush hour, most likely not city drivers.

      Minneapolis I-94 during rush hour, most likely not city drivers.

      Traffic is primarily an intercity (suburban to urban), not intracity problem.  Too many people in large machines wish to move between two somewhat distant locations and are funneled into one corridor.  It is not the same to state that 50,000 residents in the nearby suburb can easily give up their cars. Existing “urban” residents (likely the author means those living in pre-war city blocks) are probably not the ones causing headaches for state transportation planners.
  • Cars as intracity (neighborhood to neighborhood) problem.

    • The hidden assumption is that car-use is inherently an inner city problem, that of a driver going from the Sunset District to SOMA, or Columbia Heights to McPherson Square, or Highland Park to the U of M.  Inefficiencies are abound when city residents literally drive the route of a bus or rail line.  These people can avoid freeways, people in Menlo Park, Manassas, and Maple Grove will not.  We’ve gotten urbanites onboard rideshare, but we still have increasing number of cars on city streets.
  • The urban fabric will change.
    • The article suggests when people travel, they visit pedestrian-friendly places.  About 40 million people each visit Las Vegas and Los Angeles annually, both of which are hardly Jane Jacob’s favorite places.  New York gets 56 million.  Tourism is not a good gauge of transportation-land use policy.  Public Works departments are reinventing roads for the people they serve, not for visitors.
  • Millennials want experiences, not things.
    • This millennial is planning his awesome experience at the Northern Spark art party, but he secretly wishes he had things too.

      This millennial is planning his awesome experience at the Northern Spark art party, but he secretly wishes he had things too.

      I’m a millennial, this is not true, and the surveyors agree. Millennials would love to own their car and own their house.  They just can’t.  Things also enable experiences, like spontaneously driving your car on a road trip and not worrying about when to return it.  Millennials want detachment from responsibility, and car-share is like driving your parent’s car.  Lastly, why is this unique to millennials, shouldn’t everyone in a healthy city want great experiences in life.

City Policy vs Startup Hacking

The article does get it right in declaring the problem at hand:

Considering the inefficient use of the personal automobile, its exorbitant cost, the sheer volume of urban land devoted to serving that inefficient use and the material efficiencies achieved through ride-sharing and ride-hailing services, we just might have a chance to radically redesign our cities. If the 20th century was devoted to building the infrastructure to service the personal automobile, then perhaps the 21st century will be devoted to undoing most of it.

Fulton Street road diet.

Fulton Street road diet.

Public Works officials have already begun road diets for its “inclusive” mode design (see Fresno, CA, Louisville, KY).  It’s design is intentionally to slow vehicle traffic.  With AirBnb having defeated a major city’s ordinance, how will ride-share startups respond to future infrastructure policies (see Los Angeles’ Highland Park).

The article suggest road diets could be an outcome of ridesharing.  Arguably road diets have actually emerged from Vision Zero to eliminate pedestrian-vehicle deaths. How will rideshare companies respond when parking/stopping lanes are removed along money-making corridors, or when travel times are slowed across important thoroughfares which could affect their algorithms.  Local startup Split caters to this point of friction and curates required pick-up and drop-off locations near addresses.

Glen Park's BART streetscape redesign eliminated a coveted stopping lane in favor of an extended pedestrian waiting area.

Glen Park’s BART streetscape redesign eliminated a coveted stopping lane in favor of an extended pedestrian waiting area.

So the article speaks for a car-less future with cars.  It would be like suggest e-cigarettes (vaping) will herald the end of smoking. In actuality the future urban fabric may be fully to eliminate the car itself.   Currently, it would be more important to see rideshare’s effect upon transit, if it’s complementary or in actuality duplicative.  In 2012 TCRP wrote a 72 page report on ridesharing only to conclude:

Evidence that ridesharing complements public transit is limited, according to this examination of the state of the practice. Even though ridesharing has been around for decades as a travel mode and despite the benefits that a number of agencies have experienced a good deal of skepticism about combining ridesharing and public transit still exists.

Full Stack Analogy for Dummies

I was discussing web programming with a bunch of urban planners only to find blank stares. To laypersons, the web is like a magical television feed that pipes into their computer screens from far away.  In reality, a web is a simple set of instructions telling your computer to create something fun and interesting.  In explaining the process of how entire technology departments create effective and maintainable websites, I had to describe the “stack” which like a layered cake allowed multiple people to seamlessly develop a website.  I stumbled in connecting each role to more relatable jobs, until recently I realized a fun analogy could be a restaurant.

The Ingredients – Code

All life began with the computer and a plethora of languages available to create the web with.  HTML is just the seasoning and plate presentation of a server-side steak dinner, which could be built of Python and php.  Sometimes these languages come pre-packaged into libraries, like pre-made sauces that help speed up the process.   Or if it’s good and you can’t tell the difference, we’ll serve you a WordPress frozen soup we’ve heated up (a content management system with our own spices). 

The Back Kitchen – Dev-Ops

Those who play with Linux servers sit in the dark back room making sure we can keep up with the booming web traffic of our hardcore ninja app.  Servers are the stoves that keep things cooking and feeding the masses.  Someone in the back has to know how to fix the deployment blender.  Purging logs like washing dishes.

The Cooks – Back-End Programmers

These people are wizards with server-side code.  They know exactly how long to prep and cook the steak.  They’ll slice zucchini the way you need it.  Server-side languages manipulate and produce the expected data, like measuring the ingredients exactly for a perfect souffle.  They execute recipes with precision so they’re not always concerned with how pretty things look once on the plate.

The Sous Chef – Front-End Programmers

In past days there were webmasters who tinkered with plain text.  Today front-end web languages like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript support the ability to have fully interactive and visually pleasurable websites.  They turn that raw server information into beautiful plate presentations that excite and challenge the eye and palate.  The back-end hands over the useful data, the grilled steak, and the front-end positions the steak on the plate, assembles the side dishes, and puts finishing touches.

The Head Chef – User Experience Designers

The head chef creates the plates and recipes everyone is busily cooking and perfecting. They set the look, the standard, the expectation.  A web designer today is designing user experience and providing visual guides to websites in addition to pixel perfect templates. Granted, a designer doesn’t necessarily drive the show come table service, they certainly set the way things will be done when they’re not there.

The House Manager and Host – CTO & Support

The chef doesn’t call all the shots, the ultimate decisions end up with the restaurant owner.  A development team is guided by a Chief Technology Officer who permeates all processes and layers.  Along with support people, they also solve client-facing problems and emergencies — the confused or disgruntled patrons.  Their steak is undercooked, there’s a hair in the soup, the waiter is rude, the web can “break” at many points in the process and so they come in to address these administrative issues.

The Wait Staff – Sales and Marketing

The business development and “growth” people will jab me in the side for calling them the wait staff.  In reality their role is very similar, they are selling the product and standing by it.  They’re delivering a promise to patrons that the menu is going to give them that great experience, for a price.  And any good salesperson will keep the client or diner happy.   These people also in turn inform and drive the development of new features or changes to the code base, like a waitress sharing dining feedback, and so are important parts in a successful code base.

So there you go, that’s a restaurant version of the web “stack.”  Each person and layer is integral to the process that creates a good website that evolves to meet its market and demand.  Now, I’m starving for food, there’s an app for that right.