Tag Archives: public transport

A Case Study in Open Government: The Burrard Bridge Trial


On Monday, July 13th the City of Vancouver began the Burrard Bridge lane trial. For those unfamiliar with the trial, the Burrard Bridge is a 6 lane bridge that connects the downtown core of Vancouver with one of the cities major suburban (but still relatively dense) neighbourhoods.

Historically bikers and pedestrians have shared the narrow sidewalks on either side of the bridge. This has resulted in a number of dangerous accidents (the Burrard bridge has more cyclist accidents than any other bridge in the city) and deters cyclists from using the bridge. During the trial the three vehicle lanes headed into downtown have remained unchanged. However, one lane headed out of downtown has been converted to a protected cycling lane.

Pre-trial: cyclists and pedestrians share a narrow sidewalk

Present: Southbound, Northbound cyclists and pedestrians each have their own sidewalk or lane.

A Case Study in Open Government

So what does this have to do with open government?

To access the trial’s impact the city began measuring traffic, cycling, and pedestrian levels 2 weeks prior to the trial started and has continued to measure them ever since. Traditionally, the data generated by a trial like this would kept hidden from the public until a certain date when a report is presented to council to determine if the trial should be made permanent.

Interestingly however, the City of Vancouver has opted to share the raw data on a regularly basis, as well as blog about the trial and give citizens an opportunity to leave comments and feedback. Indeed, the whole Burrard Street Lane Trial website – including twitter account and facebook page – is a well organized affair. Unsurprisingly, the data shows that the number of people cycling over the bridge has increased significantly.

The real story here isn’t about whether the Burrard Bridge Lane Trial becomes permanent or not. It’s about the process. For perhaps the first time in the history of the city citizens and interested groups can conduct their own analysis of the trials significance, in real time, using credible data. Better yet, the analysis won’t be limited to what public servants think. Anyone, in the city, or in the world for that matter, can take this data and mash it up with other data sets or simply analyze as it is. A debate grounded in fact, not emotions or anecdotes, can now take place.

This means cycling advocates or commuter/car advocacy groups can mash the data up with other data sets or take a crack at explaining why the trial is good or bad. I, for example, would love to see if the members of the cycling community who created this website might create a site that measures the reduction in carbon emissions made possible by the trial. Or if anti-cycle lane advocates can mash the data up with traffic reports to show if commuting times have been increased.

Regardless of the outcome however, the process, created by an open government, has ensured that Vancouver’s citizens are better equipped to see what is actually happening, to make suggestions for improvement and to explain to their fellow citizens the significance of the trial. That is the essence of what Open Government allows – it enables anyone who wants to become more engaged in their community by giving them more and better information.

Making it better

As great as the City’s website is, it could be better. To begin with, there is no RSS feed on the blog, so you’ve actually got to go to the website to get updates.

Much more important, there is no way for citizens to subscribe to or download the raw data. An RSS feed or XML feed for the data would allow other websites to automatically get updates. Creating such a feed would cost the city nothing and would vastly enhance the ability of news organizations and interested citizens to re-use, re-mix and re-purpose the data.

A final note. For full disclosure it should be known that I sit on the executive of Vision Vancouver, the political party that proposed and made possible, the Burrard Bridge Lane Trial.

North America and the Auto Sector: The Upside of Down

Anyone else notice how circumscribed the debate over the auto sector has been? Some news outlets have occasionally asked “is the bail out fair?” but the discussion has remained fairly limited. Specifically, pieces on the auto-sector bailouts tends to be restricted to the negative consequences in relation to the costs in jobs: the moral hazard the bailout creates, the (unfair) treatment the bailout affords autoworkers, the concerns over the enormous burden the bailouts imposes on taxpayers, the impact on affected communities. Even within this narrow discourse,few commentators have even been outspoken. Maclean’s has probably been the most interesting. It bluntly outlined the gong show the industry has become  with this set of amazing statistics and its columnist Andrew Coyne published has posted piece after piece where he rightly points out the opportunity cost of bailing out the auto industry.

However, none of the commentary on the North American auto-sector’s dramatic decline has touched on how this change will impact the continent’s political and policy landscape. It interesting because, while it isn’t polite to talk about it, the fact is, there are upsides to the decline of the North American auto sector.

Start wit the fact that we will now only have one or two (smaller) American auto companies and their relative importance to the US economy will be dramatically diminished. It is hard to imagine that the political muscle of this sector will not equally diminish. This is no small matter. Huge swaths of American (and thus, in part, Canadian) public policy is explicitly and/or implicitly focused on ensuring that people either need cars, or that cars are never a burden. (Remember, these are companies that, with political and government acquiescence, bought up public transport companies across the US just so they could tear up the tracks their trams ran on to push people into cars or, if they had to, the buses the car companies built.)

So everything from highways, to urban planning, to emission controls, to business hours… almost everything in our society, is shaped by the fact that cars and the auto-sector were a large and integral part of the North American economy and its social fabric.

And so all these decision, all these debates about how North Americans should structure their society, they are all going to open up again as American auto companies cease to exist or decline in importance. The US congress is much more likely to impose tougher emission restrictions if those restrictions most likely impact foreign companies. If more roads don’t create more American jobs and profits then public transport – not the auto-sector – becomes slightly more appealing to subside.

It is true that Americans (and Canadians) love their cars. But this love didn’t come out of nowhere, it was nursed by decades of social policy and economic planning. Now the incentives that created and sustained that process are potentially irrevocably weakened. The consequences are terrible for those who work in the sector, but they may end up being liberating and renewing for society at large. For cities, citizens and communities the implicit legal, political and policy barriers that have prevented alternatives are already beginning to decay.

At that’s a big upside.

Urban Public Transit Done Right

Metronauts, eat your hearts out. :)

Was back in Vancouver yesterday. It was a glorious day – the kind that you write in your blog about. Anyway, rode the bus downtown for several meetings and noticed this sign:

text a bus sched

In short, you can now text “33333” + the identifying number found on every bus stop in Vancouver and… the arrival times of the next 6 scheduled buses will be texted to you.

Now this schedule is probably static and does not adjust for the fact that specific buses may be running late, caught in traffic, blown a tire, etc… But it is a start.

Anything that gives transit users more information is a good thing, especially if that means it will raise their expectations around the timeliness and predictability of service (as I suspect this will). A traffic that is more demanding of its public transport is more invested in its public transport.

I can already see the logical next step… Imagine a transit user sends a text to find out when the next bus will arrive. When that bus (and possibly the subsequent bus) fails to show up he/she starts looking for a complaints or information line to call. Their expectation is going to be that the person on the other end of the line can answer the question: “Where is my bus.” The obvious conclusion to this scenario – take the GPS emitters that are on every bus and open up their API’s so that we can all see where they are. It is going to rock transit users’ worlds when they can open up google maps on their phones and search “Vancouver, Transit, 22” and see the current location of all the 22 buses.

Translink you’ve opened a pandora’s box of expectations for this user. It is a good first step.

[BTW: Transit geeks in Vancouver should already be reading this blog, which, of course, was on the case long before me. Long live the long tail of blogs.]