Friday, October 28, 2011

Witches and Networks

A couple items of note from the Boston Globe today (one pay-walled, one not):

1. This summer, we posted on the well-used but ill-marketed weekend train service to beaches on the MBTA's Newburyport-Rockport line. This past weekend, and this coming weekend, the T is adding several trains on that line. Why? The line goes through (quite literally, in a tunnel) Salem, that of witch trials and general spookiness. Hallowe'en is big business in Salem, with the monthlong "haunted happenings" peaking on the last two weekends of the month. With roads closed and parking limited, the city actively promotes the use of public transportation, and the T obliges. (Oh, and parking gets a lot more expensive. Supply et demand.) With the city backing, the train schedule is more than doubled on weekend afternoons.

Obviously, there's capacity on the line (which handles nearly no freight—the main choke points are Beverly Junction and the aforementioned one-track tunnel through Salem). Why is there no extra service in the summer? There are probably a couple of reasons. Salem wants as many people as to come as possible—at least before Hallowe'en evening when things can get rowdy. More feet on the ground means more dollars in the coffers. The beach towns are not likely pressing the T for more people to crowd the beaches. They'd be glad to charge drivers $25 to park, but only until the lots are full. Otherwise, there's not a lot of money to be made on beach admission. Second, the witch tourism is planned far in advance and not very weather dependent (although it likely drops off in case of rain or—this year, apparently—snow). A rainy day does not see many beach-goers. Still, there's no reason the T shouldn't at least promote the beach service they have in the summer, even if it's not to the extent of doubling spooky service.

2. There was a very interesting event on the T yesterday: a startup meetup in the last car of a midday Red Line train. (The Globe article is paywalled and I can't find a free link. Update: here's a free link) Apparently, a bunch of local startup firms all met on the Red Line, had short speeches between stops, and then networked. Great idea! As one of the top venture sites in the country (although lagging behind Silicon Valley) many of these types are already on the Red Line every day, so what a good way to get people together. Now, if only we could have rational development policies which did not underprice suburban office parks and pull these companies out to Waltham and Burlington, where innovators spend way too much time behind the wheels of their cars.

Which reminds me … this year, I've been tracking my travel. Every day, every mile, every mode. Seriously. I have a spreadsheet, and every month I post a "transport report" for that month. (Here's January; you can click to subsequent months.) At first, I had no idea what I'd use the data for (other than fun charts. hooray fun charts!). But now I have some ideas:

v 0.1: Manual data entered in to a Google Doc, manual charts made in Excel
v 0.2: Once I figure out how to make PHP and JPGraph work (any help would be appreciated, seriously), have the charts update live from a Google Doc / database when the data is entered
v 0.3: Open this to other transportation geeks who want to provide this type of data, and see if it works—and what happens. When you think about every mile you travel and every mode, you tend to drive less.
v 1.0: Track transport and mode using smart phones (doable, I think, based on discussions from Transportation Camp last spring) and gather data, and develop a social network based on where people are and when. What do you do with these data? All sorts of things. Like:

  • Real-time updates about traffic and transit problems sent to people based on their past behavior (i.e., we know you take the Red Line or drive Route 2 between 8:15 and 8:25, but there's a disabled train / traffic accident, so you should consider the #1 bus / going to Alewife instead)
  • Helpful hints to help people drive less. A system could weed out short trips which could be made by foot or bicycle. Or help people link trips together. Or even take shorter routes.
  • Let people meet others with similar commuting patterns. If enough people used the system, it might be able to pair drivers in to car pools ("we've determined that you and another driver have each driven alone from the same neighborhood to the same office park with 15 minutes of each other 23 of the last 27 days—here is a link to send them an email/fb message/tweet to try to form a carpool.") or meet people on the train or bus. To make the solitary confinement of a crowded train less—well—solitary. This would be optional, of course, but could be very powerful
  • Provide really interesting data to planners on who is going where, when and by what modes.
Obviously, some work needs to be done. But it's an idea. If you have any ideas for it, or want to be notified when I get the system off the ground (or even close to that phase) watch this page or email me at ari dot ofsevit at gmail.