Bristol loves cereal, Tokyo hates doing the dishes, and other lessons from "Hello Lamp Post"

When lamp posts talk back. Image: PAN Studios.

If you were mayor of your city, what would you change? What’s your city’s claim to fame? And what did you have for breakfast? 

Over the last 18 months Pan Studio, the design studio I founded, has been making street furniture ask exactly these questions of their citizens, in three very different cities – Tokyo, Bristol and Austin.

Hello Lamp Post is our playful, citywide installation inviting people to strike up conversations with familiar street furniture using the text message function of their mobile phones. Most street furniture anywhere in the world has a unique code for maintenance purposes. Hello Lamp Post repurposes these, allowing passers-by to identify an object and “wake it up”, prompting it to ask its caller a few questions. By giving specific personalities to specific objects, we are asking citizens to reflect on where they live and what they feel about the other inhabitants of the city.


We originally developed Hello Lamp Post for Watershed’s inaugural Playable City Award in Bristol in 2013, and have since rolled it out elsewhere. We designed it so that about half the questions are unique to a city, creating a sort of comfortable familiarity, designed to elicit conversational responses. The other series of questions are the same everywhere, allowing us to start to look at how the cities differ in language, perception and values.

Some people have recounted their childhood memories (“Watching jeopardy with my grandma and papa while drinking coke out of a styrofoam cup and eating peppermint patties”). Others have tried to explain their city to someone else (“It is a very, very strange place. Lots of big creatures called cars and giant buildings. A whole lot of people”).

Still others have described what they would do if they were mayor (“I would implement a government leadership training program to engage and train tomorrow's leaders”).

The questions asked in many cities have allowed us to see patterns in how people talk about or to the place they live. Below we have visualised some of these, looking for commonalities and differences across the three cities. Typically the data is drawn from a pool of around 25,000 user responses per city, although the sample size in Tokyo is smaller, as the scheme is only half way through its run.

Across the three cities, stereotypes are perhaps most confounded by answers the question, “Do you have a hobby?” In Austin, the city of music, no one identifies it as a hobby. Perhaps, this just  emphasises how much a part of local culture music is. (After all, Bristolians don’t mentions talking about the weather as a hobby either.)

The question of daily activity was skewed a bit in Tokyo by the fact we launched at a cultural event, but is an interesting reflection of where people engaged with the project, nonetheless. In Austin, where the project was promoted more heavily outside of the city centre, people were less likely to talk about culture and socialising, and more likely to talk about daily routine stuff, like working and heading home. Perhaps it’s a reflection that there is just more going on downtown.

 

On the subject of culture, some of the nicest bits of analysis we can do are on how people perceive their city. Both in terms of the memories they carry of it…

…and in terms of what they don’t like. Austin had just rejected a transport bond on a proposed light rail system: a lot of people were angry. Meanwhile, Bristol had a recent hike in bus fares and parking costs.

 

There is some correlation between Austin and Tokyo on chores that you would rather robots did. Going to work and doing the dishes, it seems, are universally loathed. Isn’t there already a robot that does the dishes in most homes? No, it turns out that in Tokyo, with space at a premium, most people don’t have dishwashers. But what’s going on in Austin?

If it’s not robots then it’s super powers. Will we ever really know why the people of Austin want to be able to teleport, but people in Bristol are much more interested in controlling time?

 

Sting got a whole song out of the transatlantic differences in breakfasting habits. Toast and cereal are the overwhelming favourites in Bristol; while in Austin it’s tacos and eggs.

The portrait that Hello Lamp Post paints of a city is often charming, sometimes mundane, occasional profound, but rarely definite. Perhaps one of its most important traits is its lack of tangibility, an idea of a place that is somehow all the more human.

Now if we could just figure out where those people in Austin want to teleport to.

You can find more examples of what people have been saying to street furniture in the three Hello Lamp Post cities at the following links:

Thanks to British Council for their role as cultural broker for the latest incarnation of Hello Lamp Post; watch out for more Playable City opportunities to be announced soon.

Ben Barker is an experience designer and founder of design practice PAN Studio. PAN produces interactive objects for installations and immersive theatre, and creates experimental objects designed to find new ways of enriching everyday living.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.