bicycling, mobility, technology, Transportation

Finding the best cycle commute in LA

Living in LA is a hoot. It’s even better if you experience as many neighbourhoods as you can. During our second year of living car free, we decided to live in new places to get a better flavour – Highland Park, DTLA, South Pasadena, Hollywood Hills (seriously), Santa Monica, Atwater Village. Yes, hipsters, but fun. In many cases we tried to live near decent transit, but I also took the opportunity to try and use my bike more to commute to work in DTLA.

Cycle commuting is something I’ve shied away from so far, although I do quite a bit of bike riding in my spare time mainly in the mountains, where the traffic is thin and the views are spectacular. Cycling in heavy traffic and pollution really didn’t float my boat.

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Riding Mulholland Drive. A commute route for some, but for me it’s a Sunday buzz. 

 

LA has an ambitious ‘Vision Zero‘ – zero traffic deaths by 2025. Considering that 44% of all deaths and severe injuries in LA involve people walking or bicycling, it has got a lot of work to do. Even crossing the road here in LA is a high risk prospect. Luckily, with the influence of advocacy groups such as the Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition, things seem to be on the move, with a new protected bike lane appearing in Downtown alongside a brand new bikeshare system launched by Metro. In Hollywood there is now a ‘scramble crossing’ that makes it easier for pedestrians to get where they want to go (i.e. in a straight line).

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The new scramble crossing in Hollywood. Part of LA’s Vision Zero to obliterate traffic deaths by 2025

While we wait for a safer city, there are a number of technologies, such as smart trip planners and mapping that can help with recommend bike routes. They will get you away from the badness and give you as pleasant route as possible and connect you, where possible, with physical infrastructure on the ground.

Google Maps worked with Metro to integrate their cycle network data, which means better routing  results for cyclists. I also purchased a handlebar mount for my smartphone which meant I could use GPS to make sure I was on the right path. Strava, the activity logging app, also released a nifty ‘Beacon’ feature which allows your ‘safety contacts’ (i.e. my wife) to track my journey and see where I am. Really handy for a commute.

A cyclist also needs really good lights  so I have a Blaze ‘laserlight’ that not only puts out a bright flashing beam, but also projects a green image of a bike onto the lane in front of me. This light was developed with cyclist safety in mind and it really works, especially at intersections and junctions. It’s also a great conversation starter with other commuters!

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The Blaze laser light in action.

 

So far, South Pasadena wins the prize as the best connected by bike. About 2/3 of the 8.5 mile route I took into DTLA used some form of dedicated cycling infrastructure, apart from one section that connects Lincoln Heights to Chinatown that can get a little dicey, but then you are back on the cycle lane on Spring that takes you to Pershing Square. The journey took me around 30mins (granted I’m a seasoned cyclist) which was quicker than getting to the Gold Line and transferring to the Red Line. I got to use the cycle path that runs along the Arroyo Seco. It’s fast, safe and allows you to miss out some really busy roads. Granted, there are quicker routes, but the extra distance was a trade off for safety and a more pleasant ride.

Did I feel safe on my commute to DTLA? Kind of, but with caveats. I’d been cycling in LA enough to work out what to be aware of at intersections (people blindly turning right or left across my path). You need eagle eyes. But, I used to really look forward to my commute. Where the City had provided decent cycle lanes I felt that I was somewhat in control, but couldn’t help but feel that they were missing a trick with leaving out any form of infrastructure on S Main. It’s absolutely crying out for it – and where you put this type of infrastructure you will get more cyclists. They just need to fill the gaps to give riders more confidence. Without it, they will struggle.

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California does have some empty roads! Onyx Peak – Southern California’s highest paved road. 

After our adventure, we  moved back to Los Feliz, on the north-east side of the City. LF has great connections to Griffith Park, one of LA’s more popular cycling destinations, and also to the LA River Bike Path that connects the north end of the Park with, well, the lovely 5/110 flyover. It doesn’t really go anywhere useful yet which is a massive shame, plus the Army Corps of Civil Engineers have closed the path between 7am and 4pm – drastically reducing the options available to bike commuters.

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Santa Monica bike path. Create for biking, and slinging your hammock!

 

For a commuter you’ve got a number of choices, most of them so-so. You can hit the River Path to avoid traffic completely but are then confronted with what happens when it runs out (you have to do the Main St rat run as described above). This route doesn’t come up in Google Maps, but I know it well enough. You can also take the bike lane on Sunset, which is the obvious choice as it’s pretty direct, but when the schools are back this route can be horrific at rush hour (pollution, noise, traffic). You also have to run the risk of getting doored by drivers not looking where they should. Then there’s the mess of DTLA to deal with. You have to be prepared and ready for anything. It’s not particularly relaxing but is a smidge quicker than transit at around 24mins door to door. There are other options, but to be honest I don’t trust the ‘bicycle friendly’ nature of a road with no cycle lane.

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Where I ride my bike. The redder the road, the more times I’ve ridden it. Most are cycle paths or car-free roads in Griffith Park or along the LA River Path. 

Here’s hoping that Measure M will bring further change in LA, especially for cyclist and pedestrian safety.

 

 

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Transportation

Alt Modes checks out apps for the car-free and car-free curious

One of my previous posts looked at how LA is embracing technology to enable transportation choice, improve the mobility of its citizens and helping them leave the car at home. I recently attended the LiveRideShare conference in Downtown LA and from the buzz it was clear that smartphone technology is opening up a new market place – that of ‘shared’ mobility and personalized modal options for the ‘here and now’. The suggestion is that in the near future, people will be purchasing (via their smartphones and not a smartcard) a transportation service based on their individual needs, situation and network conditions.

There are now a number of user-focused, multi-modal trip planning apps that aim to make getting around a city easier and make people more aware of their travel options that might help them leave the car at home. I was speaking with attendees at the conference about how these apps mean you don’t have to wade through different websites before you visit a new city – you can just use the app once you arrive at the airport. It’s all about confidence with the car-free! I have to confess that Uber has been my main app of choice since I arrived in LA as a stranger, but I’m trying to open up my options further and work out those little short cuts that help me explore LA. Plus, a decent smartphone app will allow you to plan your life around real world conditions – with so much real time information available there’s no need to wait around at a bus stop any more and spend more time doing what you love.

All of these apps have been made possible by the availability of data. End of. Without the data these apps would not exist. The more interesting discussions at LiveRideShare focused on how shared mobility could help fill service gaps – such as a carpool ride to your local Metro station and a bikeshare at the other end – there is huge potential for data sharing amongst service providers to allow for truly real time and multi-modal trip planning. But, let’s focus on some of the main players who are offering innovative ways of accessing mobility information in LA, including shared modes. I spent some time with five free iOS apps that offer this type of functionality, using them for my daily walk/transit commute, planning leisure cycle routes and getting around LA by awesome alt modes. Oh and I purposely avoided Google. Because.

CityMapper (iOS/Android, $Free)

The most recent kid on the LA block is CityMapper, an iOS and Android app that has taken the world by storm – its goal is to make a large city more easy to get around, using real time information to show the user what their best options are for a given journey – be it transit, bike, walk or taxi (inc. Uber). It’s currently available in 17 cities around the world, and it’s just arrived in LA. I used to use CityMapper a great deal in London and it gave me confidence to use the bus network – especially where real time information was available – you didn’t have to rely on timetables, you just scanned the app to see when your bus would arrive and plan accordingly.

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It had its limitations – it often made journeys out to be quicker than they actually were – but it was still the best way to navigate what is a complicated city. At the LiveRideShare conference, Ben Plowden from Transport for London was explaining how the opening up of London’s data led to the development of CityMapper – it just goes to show how important quality data is to apps and their users. In LA, CityMapper is a different beast altogether – whilst the super easy to use user interface is familiar, the results it produces just goes to underline how long it takes to get around LA by transit, and how more attractive it is to take an Uber somewhere, or even jump on your bike. But, things will improve as more transit opens up and bikeshare becomes available – especially in the Downtown area. Oh and it’s super solid when you use it – I’ve never had it crash when I didn’t want it to. It will be interesting to see how CityMapper improves over time in LA.

What Alt Modes liked:Well thought out user interface, good focus on the ‘here and now’ and the best multi-modal options for frequent journeys, results that make you feel confident about jumping on that bus and just giving transit a go (including weather at your destination), fantastic ‘follow me’ feature for cyclists looking to navigate a city by map and directions, super fast customer support response.

What Alt Modes would like to see:  Real time for Metro doesn’t seem hugely accurate – around 3 minutes out in some cases, For some reason it ignored a bike lane route along Sunset to Downtown LA, instead sending me down a busier road – I ended up using Google Maps for cycle routing instead.

Go Metro (iOS/Android, $Free)

This is LA Metro’s own transit app and I have to admit that I gave up with this one. I did used to use the older version, but a recent update has seriously impaired its performance. It took me an age to find any live departures and then noticed that it has no real time for the Red Line (unlike the rest of the apps I tested). It does offer a Live Map showing vehicle progress, but there’s no way of telling which vehicle is approaching the station – eastbound or west bound. Deleted.

RideScout (iOS/Android, $Free)

RideScout is a similar app that shows your available options for navigating a city in a single view. It’s available in many more cities than CityMapper (US only at the moment) and offers some excellent user features such as notifications when you should leave to catch your bus, when there are no bike docks available at a destination rack (London needs this!!) and a way to set your ‘ride preferences’ – so if you don’t really care for biking you can remove it from any results. RideScout also provides information on nearby carsharing services such as car2go (owned by Daimler, who also have a stake in RideScout) and zipcar. Like CityMapper, it also presents all your options for a given journey and you can rank them by depart time, arrive time or cost. Unlike CityMapper, RideScout doesn’t offer Uber rides and instead provides Flywheel, Curb and Sidecar (and other) options – an impressive array I must say (it actually made me aware of shared services that I hadn’t heard of before). Unfortunately, it crashed every time I tried to access transit details, which didn’t give me a huge amount of confidence, but an email to their customer service team resulted in a quick and friendly response, plus a fix.  RideScout tends to be more of an ‘aggregation’ tool than a full-on city navigation app like CityMapper (it kind of reminded me of Expedia or Skyscanner) but I can see its appeal especially when you’re looking to try new services and weigh up costs.

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I spoke to Rachel Charlesworth, VP of Brand at RideScout. I was interested in what makes RideScout unique and where it is heading:

“What makes RideScout unique is that we develop our product with the multimodal user in mind. When the first version of RideScout launched, we brought a lot of different transportation options together in one place and made it easy for the user to retrieve relevant information. We are now going one step further, using predictive analysis to provide information about the transportation option that works best for a particular user right now.”

Rachel Charlesworth, RideScout.

What Alt Modes liked: Clearly shows what ride options are available in your local area, offers up options you might normally would have considered, excellent presentation of options based on departure time, hooks into your calendar to provide ride options to get you to meetings and events (loved this), notifications, super fast customer service response.

What Alt Modes would like to see:  I’d prefer to have live trip planning rather than ‘options’, kept crashing (but I received excellent and rapid response from RideScout customer service and it now works), real time information for nearby transit is tricky to understand, couldn’t find a way to get real time departures for my local Metro station, no way of saving favourite journeys or stops.

Urban Engines (iOS/Android, $Free)

Urban Engines‘ new app has just been released and it uses an innovative ‘map deck’ UI to quickly plan transit journeys to or from your favourite or frequently visited places. Tim Hohman, Urban Engines’ General Sales Manager, sees the UX of the app’s user interface as an evolution similar to the way web browsers have had to adjust to user needs:

“The Deck of Maps is a game-changer for speed, real-time travel estimates, and ease of use for public transit users.  Think back to when all browsers only had one window — it seemed fine at the time but once you added Tabs there was no going back!”.

Tim Hohman, Urban Engines.

The app also has an interesting ‘X Ray’ augmented reality feature that overlays the transit network to your camera view.

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The app’s other USP is dynamic routing, based on real world network conditions – both on or offline. I really like this idea, especially in LA when the network can become congested at any time. Urban Engines’ approach is interesting, as it appears that they are taking things to the next level – especially with providing the user with the most ‘reliable’ transit options based on real world data, which may mean that you’d use a commute option that isn’t necessarily the most familiar. This might mean sending you to a station which, based on historic data, isn’t as busy at your normal commute time and means you will get on a train quicker. Or a route that takes a less direct bus route, but is normally more reliable at peak hours. But, it’s not quite there yet – so if your first train is delayed, the trip planner still recommends getting on a connecting bus that you are likely to miss. It’s this type of insight and functionality that will provide cities like LA with viable options for citizens, especially when roads are busy. You can read more about Urban Engines’ approach to network conditions monitoring in this article.

What Alt Modes liked: Claims to prioritize the ‘best’ route based on network conditions, offline routing and maps, personalization features, builds in local events to alert you about possible delays to the network, ability to feedback on the directions or information you were given.

What Alt Modes would like to see:  No travel costs yet, no other modes apart from transit, the map stack takes getting used to, the trip planner does not take into account real time – , it would be great if it offered cycle routes based on accident rates or road speeds, travel times seem a little optimistic right now.

Transit App (iOS/Android, $Free)

Another app that I’ve started to use is Transit App. None of the other apps do one thing well for me – tell me on my app home screen when my nearby Metro train or bus (inc. the correct direction of travel) is leaving the station or stop. However, the Metro station closest to home does not instantly show up, as it’s out of the map view range. Damn, So the emphasis is on local – with Transit the user is presented with all of the ‘nearby’ services and routes and when they are departing. You can filter to only show particular modes and also show nearby Ubers (including if there is a surge). It’s not multi-modal in that it offers all the world’s options, but it handles and presents real time in a very user-focused fashion – something that is perhaps more useful. Also, and to me this is fantastic, you can tell the app that you don’t mind walking far (or even tell it which modes you don’t want to use).

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You can see that there’s a lot of CityMapper in Transit – not just the green color used across the app, and the little arrow and dot icons (have they seen this??) – they have borrowed quite a lot from the user experience. One to watch.

What Alt Modes liked: Super simple user interface, very easy to grab ‘at a glance’ real time, the feature that allowed me to maximize walking and ignore certain modes, nice inclusion of Ubers

What Alt Modes would like to see:  The option for your favourites view not to be limited by your location, perhaps a multi-modal trip planner with cycling and walking – this might make it a serious CityMapper competitor, transit costs.

Summary

All of these apps have something to offer the car free and could be a very powerful took to convince those who are looking to sell their car and move on to better things. However, I found that the real time and trip planning aspect varied between the apps. Considering they are likely to be using the same data set this is a concern – this raises the question of how much we can trust third party apps? Real time departure information for a station on all of these apps differed by one or two minutes, so you still need to build in a little time to make sure you don’t miss your bus or train. I expect this to improve as relationships between developers and data providers grow and accuracy becomes top priority for busy users looking to get from a to b as quick as possible.

So where is all this heading? Personally, I would like to use a personalized travel assistance that requires limited user interaction. It knows your travel patterns, where you live and work, your regular haunts. It learns as you travel. It recognizes what modes you use, including the ones you are using right now, and provides dynamic multi-modal shared mobility options plus the means to pay for it electronically. It presumes you know your regular journeys and only butts in when things go wrong – during periods of disruption for example (which should be crowd sourced via Twitter where possible). it switches out tickets when you need to change modes. When you arrive in a new city or part of town, it offers up your transport menu and bases it’s recommendations on the ‘here and now’. Then, and this is the kicker, providing all this user generated data back to the city to help improve its network and transportation planning – a truly private/public partnership? Challenge accepted?

Thanks to all those who contributed, including Tim from Urban Engines and Rachel from RideScout. For a good thought piece on shared mobility in North America, check out this article by Susan Shaheen.

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