Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Early Indications February 2008: Bicycles

Anyone who has been to Paris in the last six months has seen a major change to the iconic city's landscape: a plan to deploy over 20,000 rental bicycles at 1400 stations is well underway. It's a complex story, with some interesting tech angles, that points to even bigger changes that are not limited to either The City of Light or two-wheeled locomotion.

Paris's mayor, a socialist named Betrand Delanoe (with an umlaut), has aimed to decrease car traffic and congestion ever since his election in 2001. The mass transit systems are also near saturation, so he has been building bike paths and otherwise reconfiguring roadways to favor foot and bike traffic - a move that has not been universally appreciated.

Last July marked the launch of Velib' (the name of which is a play on "free bicycles" or, more poetically, "bicycle freedom"). It's quite ambitious:

-The custom-made bikes are free for the first 30 minutes, based on research into the average commuting times and distances. Rental stations are springing up all over town (often displacing precious parking spaces), near mass transit where possible. At one's destination, the bike locks into a networked pedestal.

-Compared to other bicycle programs elsewhere - some run by Clear Channel communications - Velib' is much bigger: Copenhagen's program offers only 1,300 cycles, and Amsterdam and Toronto have both shut down their efforts.

-The funding is in an odd way related to Google's model. The outdoor advertising firm JCDecaux is building the technology (including the custom-designed heavy-duty cycles, the locking infrastructure, and the billing system) and a maintenance infrastructure that includes 400 new hires. In return, the firm gets free use of Paris's 1600 city billboards and kiosks.

-A deposit of 150 Euros is intended to focus riders' minds on either dropping the cycle into a pedestal at the end of a ride, or using the attached cable lock during trips inside a building. Even if the bike is stolen, the rider still forfeits 35 Euros.

-There's ample evidence the system is working: spot-checks of rental stations in both the fall and winter have showed many to be empty. While city residents are a primary target, Paris's many tourists are catching on.

(For a comprehensive description en Anglais, see here.)

The system has its critics, of course. One substantive issue relates to traffic: where do all these armies of riders go? In many places, the answer is "in the bus lane," which is also used by taxis. And while they are not as terrifying as, say, Rome's, Paris's motorbikes are not kind or gentle lane-mates. Many streets are made of cobblestone, which can challenge even the professionals in the Tour de France's ceremonial final ride.

It's early, but I would be surprised to see the bike stations gone after five years. Paris is in many ways (scale, layout, and
culturally) favorable to cycling, people like the freedom, and after several experiments around the world in the past decade, many
practical lessons have been learned and incorporated into this implementation.

Travel to a different global destination, as of 2003 the most-visited museum in the world (the title is now held, post-Dan Brown, by the Louvre). That would be the Air and Space museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The two most famous bicyclists in human history are celebrated there for launching the era of powered flight. What the Wright Brothers accomplished remains dazzling, for they did not just invent the airplane.

In fact, the Wrights had to solve, from the mechanical side, three related problems, all of which are formidable. The craft had to
travel fast enough on land to create sufficient lift, then maintain speed while in the air. The craft had to maintain lift, obviously,
and the pilot had to be able to steer and land the device. The combination of these three - thrust, lift, and control - is common
sense after the fact, but even breaking the problem into those logical domains was an achievement.

Here is where the bicycle heritage comes in: the Wrights had to invent the processes whereby a human could fly a plane. Having made their living in a business that was not "natural," they recognized that people could learn to control mechanical forces through muscle-driven inputs. In a broad sense comparable to a child's conquest of dynamic balance riding his or her first two-wheeler, the invention of the method of flying itself counts as yet another accomplishment for Wilbur and Orville. (Even more daunting, Igor Sikorski did the same for the far more complicated and finicky helicopter and managed not to die devising the control protocols, difficult even today, on prototypes.)

I think we're at a cultural moment in which similar dynamics are at work as people "learn to fly" in a new domain. Rather than automate the brochure with a webpage, or the paper memo with e-mail, social computing is giving individuals and groups new things to say and new ways to say them. The unease many feel with Facebook and Twitter's modes of expression might be compared to the Wrights' parallel accomplishments of inventing both a step-function technical innovation and a method for getting comfortable using it. Those in the midst of a demographic cleavage historically have a hard time analyzing what's happening. Instead, there are often resigned sighs of "you just don't get it" from the young and "what a waste of time" from their elders. That these are emerging as two prominent reactions to social computing may be a sign of a deeper split. At the same time, college students seem in general to be anything but alienated from their parents, so I expect the relationships enabled by social software to include some degree of familial, if not workplace, generational inclusion. Informally, I would assert that texting appears to be doing this, at least in the U.S., but that's a two-way rather than n-way exchange - a crucial distinction.

Just as running doesn't help people learn to cycle and flapping our arms doesn't allow people to mimic birds, facility with old modes of online interaction may not prepare folks for Tweets, Super Walls, or Seesmic. I don't have 1200 friends (by the former definition) any more than my students do, but they do maintain social networks of contacts they call "friends" at a truly impressive scale -- and the fact that we still don't have a word for recognized but not proximate Facebook contacts is an important clue as to the disruption underway. I'll avoid the obvious metaphors about skinned knees, but confess to feeling older than I have in a while: 40 years after 1968, a powerful stream of which unfolded in Paris, we may be seeing another youth-driven upheaval that will be felt for decades after.

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