Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How the new Apple iPad (and other mobile tech) changes the commuting equation

Apple's much anticipated iPad tablet computer was announced today, albeit to some mixed reviews. While the iPad itself may or may not succeed, the overall technology trend line is clear: increasingly rich mobile access to the Internet and email. Oddly, this Business Week columnist thinks the iPad may lead to more telecommuting, when what it really favors is tipping the balance for commuters from driving to transit, where the usually "dead" commuting time can become really productive. Most people are already spending more than two hours a day on email and the Internet - why not put those hours at the beginning and end of the day while commuting so you can spend less time in the office and more time with your family?

A decade ago, the workplace was much more call and voice-mail driven, which matched up just fine with long driving commutes and cell phones. But the shift has moved strongly towards email and other data-driven communications (texting, Twitter, Facebook, collaboration applications, etc.). Most messages have multiple recipients and can expect to have a string of replies - something voice mail simply can't handle. People are trying to do this data-driven communication while driving, with very bad effects that are leading rapidly to a comprehensive legal ban.

As more people realize the productivity advantage of a transit commute, I think there could be a substantial shift. But it might not be quite what you'd expect. Mobile productivity favors one long ride in a comfortable seat - no transfers, no standing 'strap-hanging' (like on a subway or full light rail or local bus), and minimal walking (which is not only incompatible with mobile productivity, but also has weather risk and is especially hard on women in heels). That argues for express buses over trains. I recently met with a friend that lives in Manhattan but works in Connecticut. Does he take the subway and then ride the train? Nope - a luxury shuttle bus with wi-fi picks him (and the other Manhattan employees) up right near his apartment and drops him at the front door of work. Point-to-point express buses are the future of commuting. All you need are a couple dozen people that need to get from the same neighborhood to the same job cluster on roughly a similar schedule to justify a daily round trip - and they can all be productive the whole way, whether through individual 3G data connections on their devices or wi-fi on the bus (by far the cheapest option).

While the climate-concerned may cheer increased transit use, an ironic side effect may actually be increased sprawl. When commuting is truly unproductive time, as driving is, people really hesitate for it to be more than an hour a day, which puts a pretty hard limit on how far home can be from work. But if you can be productive on a bus doing work you'd have to do anyway, you might consider two or more hours a day commuting (as my Manhattan friend does) and look at exurban communities you wouldn't have even considered before, especially if they have more affordable or newer houses with better amenities and public schools.

This is the commute of the future, and cities that offer it conveniently, affordably, and comprehensively (all neighborhoods to all job centers) through some combination of public transit, private buses, and HOT lanes will continue to grow and thrive in the coming decades, while those that don't, won't.

Update: They picked this one up over at New Geography.
Update 2: A NYT story on Google's commuter buses.
Update 3: The Human Transit blog has thoughts, and the comment stream is excellent.

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At 1:52 AM, January 28, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Buses that stop have a distinct disadvantage for high-income commuters - they veer to the sides to take extra riders, and they don't always have seats. The express buses running nonstop don't have this problem, but they have to have large destinations at both ends to succeed. They can't serve uniform sprawl, the edgeless cities that are already replacing the well-defined edge cities. They can serve Silicon Valley and Greenwich and Tysons and Uptown Houston, but not the lower-density suburban satellite employment centers.

At 8:20 AM, January 28, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think they can serve those centers (like Westchase, the Energy Corridor, Greenspoint, NASA, etc. - but not general low-rise jobs stretched along arterials or freeways), they may just have to do it less frequently, or with smaller vehicles, or, most likely, with larger draw zones at the suburban park-and-rides.

As an example, maybe there's a large church or strip mall/grocery parking lot near your neighborhood that could offer several options to the major job centers, but infrequent or none to the minor ones. But if you drive a bit farther, maybe to the more regional mall or park-and-ride lot, you can find more frequent service to the secondary job centers.

And with the more dispersed jobs, people could take the express to the nearest major job center, then connect to local bus transit. It still would be much faster than trying to get to those jobs using any sort of commuter rail system with multiple transfers.

At 10:16 AM, January 28, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

It depends on how said rail is done, honestly. If it's done with timed cross-platform transfers, it can be competitive. Connecting buses can be timed, too. They usually aren't in the US because of planner inertia, but they can be.

Express buses might still be useful, but I haven't seen them work reliably in developed countries, with one exception, Brisbane. And the Brisbane Quickway is only for express trips from the suburbs to downtown. The total Brisbane transit mode share is low, 8% as of 2006, but it's increased since the first busway was implemented in 2001.

At 11:42 AM, January 28, 2010, Anonymous Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...


Brisbane also has a pretty extensive rail network as well, correct?

Express buses are fine to connect major offices with park and rides. There are express buses, for example, linking parts of the Seattle area with the Microsoft campus in Redmond. But they should be used in connection with a larger transit system including rail, roads, etc. This is because transit is not just used by commuters.

And by the way cities where many people walk to work and take transit, women wear sneakers and carry their heels with them in their bags. During winter I would wear LL Bean boots to work with my suit and carry my wingtips to the office in my briefcase. Better on the snow and ice.

At 4:07 AM, January 29, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Yes, Brisbane has an extensive rail system. However, since the busways were built, bus ridership has grown to eclipse rail ridership (link).

At 12:02 AM, February 02, 2010, Anonymous RedScare said...

The iPad doesn't do anything that a netbook can't do. And many of us have phones that allow one to either entertain themselves, or be productive.

As for fancy buses? We've had commuter vans for 30 years. While not as luxurious as the bus, it achieves the same goal. So, if we've had vans for 30 years, and netbooks and PDAs for several, I don't see iPads and luxury buses as any big least not so much as to garner a bolded quote of "the commute of the future", with a corresponding threat that those cities that do not adopt this will die.

At 8:14 AM, February 02, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

You're correct, but the big differences are that 1) 3G data connectivity is becoming much more common (and affordable), and 2) more widespread adoption by the public. The form factor of the new devices is also better for web surfing, and even email, than a phone.

I like commuter vans, but they don't tend to do well in this scenario because of a lack of space or trays for laptops.


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