Artful Taxis, NYC

For the month of January about 500 taxis in New York City will display art works in place of advertisements atop their yellow hoods. Featuring artists like Shirit Neshan, Yoko Ono and Alex Katz, it's a delightful gesture by the Los Vegas media company Show Media to New Yorkers at large. Interspersed in New York's modern urban media jungle, city-goers can enjoy short glimpses of art instead of ads. To read more about this article, click here.

Recap: Thoughts on Mobility from Dominique Laousse, INTA33, Koahsiung, Taiwan

Dominique Laousse held court at during his master class on perspectives in sustainable transport on the first day of INTA's 4 day conference in Taiwan, unleashing a spirited 90 minute monologue on emotional mobility and intelligent transportation that remains a highpoint of the conference:  an admittedly unscientific poll showed that for many INTA33 attendees, Laousse's ode to transport was among their top three favorite seminars.

With over 15 years under his belt at RATP, Laousse currently serves as one of the chief ideas man for a company that hosts some 75,000 employees globally, 45,000 in France-In the Paris area alone, RATP operates one of the world’s largest multi-nodal systems, which carries 10 million people per day--As such, his whims and considerations become fodder for future initiatives that can affect millions.

In Laousse's company, I think we all felt a little compelled to reconsider the way in which we understand transportation and commuting.  Raised in Chicago riding the old L trains in the loop, public transport for me is about bracing or holding one's breath, getting from point A to point B, and never about the in between.

Laousse, quite convincingly, argues that in order for us to live sustainably, our experience taking public transportation must change.  Taking trains must become tantamount to going to the grocery or sitting down at your desk, it must be comfortable and easy and the time must be spent in an accessibly productive manner.  In some ways, this is nothing new.  We've heard about chronic commuters before.  And, the 21st century is an era of multi-tasking.

Laousse distinguishes his position by lobbying for simple solutions and ubiquitous technologies, fundamentally advocating for affordable modifications and additions that change our everyday experiences.

These solutions can be as simple as signage, or making maps more accessible, conducting mobility workshops for the community and awarding diplomas for graduates.  To the latter, Laousse points out, in a world in which 30% of people in the developed countries are functionally illiterate, it is important to use multiple channels to communicate how transportation systems work.  A commuter that can get to point A, B, and C utilizes multiple nodes in the transportation system and interchanging these nodes, is empowered.  An empowered commuter is probably a happier commuter.

Reader's Note: This is one in a series that looks at more emotional, more intuitively intelligent approaches to public transportation.  Stay tuned for future reports about transportation with the ideas man Dominique Laousse.

Reviving Payphone Footprints, NYC

Public payphones are quickly becoming archaic artefacts, relics of a past-life without mobile telephones [side note: so much so that preservations have digitally organized themselves at the Pay Phone Project, a global initiative to document the dying infrastructure; check out their photo gallery of payphones from all seven continents here.

Walking down the street in NYC this past month, I counted seven defunct payphone kiosks, each booth announcing in wilted signage: broken, out-of-service, dial-tone coming. Really? For whom was this dial-tone coming? In the heyday of fixed-line payphones, Verizon management sent collectors out multiple times each day to high-traffic payphone sites to collect the overflowing coinage. Today, these cashcow payphones of the past are as well as dead: Verizon coin-collectors make monthly trips as opposed to daily trips to the company’s highest-grossing phones, and if Verizon is lucky, it earns 10 dollars in quarters on the head of a highly-used payphone in New York City each month. Hardly a windfall in 2009.

So, for whom are these dial-tones coming? Probably not for me or you.  In a city as densely populated with people as NYC and as littered by advertisements, payphone infrastructure represents a valuable public access-point for ad agencies and product purveyors alike.  In 2007, the New York Times put yearly revenue from payphones at $62 million, 13 million of which goes to the city. [Read the full article here]

As such, payphones represent a dithering relationship between public-service and private-sector utility:  Abandoned or under-used booths become nuisances for pedestrians, eyesores in the cityscape and as is often the case, annoyances to one’s olfactory glands.

Buoyed by my own increasingly cynical perspective on payphone infrastructure,  I met with Tom Touchet from the company City24x7.  City24x7, a start-up based in NYC, is reinvigorating the defunct payphone skeletal system with 26 inch interactive media displays.  Building within the Verizon payphone footprint, the firm delivers  location-specific, time-specific, information to city residents out in the street through their interactive touchscreen installations.

I must admit, I was initially critical of the service: do we really need more interactive signage in the city?  Can’t we confine these kinds of digital barrages to Times Square?  However, after spying two of the beta-installations in Union Square, the utility was instantly apparent.  Passers-by can quickly glimpse the display for real-time traffic or public-transport updates.  Tourists can access a list of restaurants within a 4 block radius.  In an instant, residents can dial 911 for emergencies, or the NYC-specific 311 for municipal queries.    The seamless technology fosters an experience that is neither obnoxious nor disruptive and yet it manages to provide a valuable service to city-dwellers.