Transit's New Tools: Avon Ladies, Tech, and Texting


Avon advertisement via theotherwayworks via flickr and Creative Commons license.

There's nothing like a quick trip to Disneyland to lighten the wallet, and reinforce the dominance of our car-centric culture. The entire fun complex in Anaheim is surrounded by 12-lane...well, super streets. It is intimidating to pedestrian tourists, who are willing to wait a while for buses to avoid walking the blocks to the magic kingdom as steady stream cars roll by. And bicyclists...well I only saw one in a two-and-one-half day trip. A recent article at The Atlantic by Lisa Margonelli suggests that making public transit cooler and cars less so just needs the help of a few humans catering to transit takers' needs.It is more Avon ladies (or men), Margonelli implies. Those friendly doorbell ringers of an earlier era were selling toiletries and cosmetics. They made sales by their perkiness and total dedication to soaps-on-a-rope and toilet water in strange-shaped glasses, as well as the fact that they came to you.

And in San Ramon, California at a business park called Bishop Ranch, a woman named Marci McGuire with a complete dedication to thousands of transit commuters under her care is serving as the Avon lady of transit. She'll deliver passes, and help out with taxi vouchers for snafus, and generally tell you all the reasons - not just money saving, but the eco, health and stress reduction benefits - that accrue to those that convert to transit.

Bishop Ranch, back when it started, had no choice but to put transit front and center, as San Ramon didn't have the infrastructure it needed - now all the effort is being touted as a competitive advantage for the business park. Margonelli's pointing out that a little more milk of human kindness would make transit cooler and more competitive is also underscored in a recent report from Latitude, though in the report's case, the kindness comes via personlized technology.

In that study 18 regular car users went auto-free for one week. The study's authors concluded that "autonomy" is nearly as important to car owners as the car itself. If autonomy can be replicated in a feel-good way, they say, people will start loving transit.

What was critical to car-deprived participants was realtime, and personalized information from smart phone and web apps to help them make on-the-spot decisions about which forms of transit were available to them where they were at the moment.

Texting could play a much bigger role in enabling citizens to get the most benefit out of all forms of transit. Sometimes, correct change or the right pass are the simple barriers to people using available transit when they want to. But pilot programs in Sweden have shown that using texting to buy tickets (you receive a unique text that serves as your ticket) for public trams, light rail, and trains is convenient (and saves paper for tickets, too).

Transit and human-powered transport have suffered for years from lack of cool - let's hope the next time gas prices rise there will more tools in place to show people car commuting can be exchanged.

Read more on the future of transit:
The Future of Transit: Everyone Gets A Life, Even Pigeons
The Amazing High-Tech Crosswalk Makes Pedestrians Safer
Taking Back the City: Toronto Transit Camps

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