Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Map is Out!

The first version of our printed transit map launched on Monday. It's a limited paper release, with the hope that we can get feedback on the design, correct errors, and add missing routes. For more information and a downloadable copy of the PDF, check out:

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Back in Amman

I'm back in Amman after a few months of being in Boston. In the meantime, things have been progressing. We've had volunteers ride new routes (we're up to 90 now), and Syntax has been doing a great job on the design of the first version of the printed, 2-D map.

On this most recent trip, I've been having meetings to set up a new use of the data we've been collecting, an accessibility map. I've also been riding a few buses to connect more neighborhoods to our map. I'll post a few thoughts and stories from those rides over the next few days.

Since Google is shuttering its My Maps service, we're migrating over to CartoDB. The new data, pretty roughly thrown up on CartoDB with minimal styling, is viewable here.

Friday, May 1, 2015

William Phelps Eno and the "Rules for Driving"

I just finished reading William Phelps Eno's The Story of Highway Traffic Control. Eno was one of the pioneers of traffic management in the early 1900s. This book, which covers 1899-1939, is filled with wonderful stories about his contributions to traffic flow both in New York and beyond. Eno designed the first modern pedestrian crosswalk, the first stop sign, and wrote the first police traffic code. When the Police Commissioner said he didn't have the budget to print it, Eno self-published the pamphlet, distributing 100,000 copies to regular New Yorkers and policemen for enforcement.

Eno's "Rules for Driving" (1903)

When the Police Commissioner wrote to Eno in 1903 about the daily accidents at Columbus Circle, Eno's suggestion was: "Why not go around the Circle in one direction instead of two?" and thus was born rotary traffic-circle, which Eno quickly publicized, getting Paris to become an early adopter. Several degrees of separation later, the traffic circle is the main intersection form here in Amman.

Eno's "Rules for Driving" made me remember a wonderful blog post from a few years back by an Irish/Egyptian writer living in Alexandria who offers her advice on how to drive in Egypt. In contrast to precepts (e.g. "No vehicle shall stop in any public street or highway of this except, except near the right-hand curb") the rules that she gives for driving in Egypt paint a much more every-person-for-themself picture. A couple highlights include:

  • "Don't worry about traffic signs the majority of the population doesn't now what they mean and if they do, they don't abide by them."
  • "If the road is a three lane road, you can squeeze between the cars and make it a 5 lane road. The objective is to be at the head of the pack."
  • "If you want the person in front of you to move out of your way, you get as close to their bumper as possible, while flashing your head lights and honking your horn simultaneously. Scare the driver, so he will move to the next lane so that you can pass."
  • "Honk at a STOP sign or any intersection. If you don't hear a honk back then no one is coming and it's safe to pass. You don't even have to look to check!"
  • "Park any way you like. Diagonally, horizontally be creative! (you could get a ticket on your window, but if the cop with the pocket-book and no stars is writing it give him 5Le and it will be forgotten)."
There are different driving conventions in Egypt and Jordan, and certainly Cairo is a much more dangerous city for drivers and pedestrians than Amman. but nonetheless, a lot of those rules certainly resonate here. In both cities, I'm sure William Phelps Eno would go to town on how to fix driving rules and transportation flow more generally.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Finding the "Qawi" Routes

Rich, who's one of the founding members of this project, told me this story the other day of how he was talking with a friend of his who rides a lot of buses. Rich was asking him about what buses he takes to get different places, and the friend, who has a very good understanding of the bus system, paused and asked Rich: "Do you want me to tell you about buses that just go places, or do you want me to tell you about the qawi buses?"

Qawi means strong in Arabic, and for this purpose, it's one of those general words that ends up hitting the nail on the head. We've been trying to come up with different survey questions to ask passengers, like is this bus reliable, is it fast, does it come frequently, etc. All of those questions are trying to get at that more fundamental idea of is this bus qawi. Two buses that I rode on Sunday may help illustrate the difference between the qawi and the not-so-qawi buses.

Rich's friend told me that if he wants to go from the main bus station through downtown, he doesn't take the downtown shuttle bus that was created for that route. Instead, he takes the Kuliyyat Hateen bus that leaves from the bus station, goes through downtown, but then continues on to south Amman. As he explained, the Kuliyyat Hateen bus runs more frequently and the lines are shorter for it.

I rode it on Thursday, and sure enough, it was qawi. It departed with little wait, quickly got us into south Amman territory, and with the exception of downtown, traveled along fast roads that ran by important neighborhoods and buildings that people would want to go to. Even the driver, 'Ala Al Deen was qawi. I sat next to him, and he would point out to me the names of different stops and where people could transfer to other buses.

I didn't get a chance to take a picture of it, but I did on the next bus I took, the Pavilion Mall bus to Abdoun.

The bus went from the main bus station to the affluent neighborhood of Abdoun. When I told a friend later that I took the bus to Abdoun, her response was: "They even run buses to Abdoun?" It's the height of Amman's wealthy car culture. There are a lot of Mercedes and big SUVs driven by a family's personal driver. At the same time though, there are a lot of house maids, security guards, janitors and others who work in Abdoun, and they depend on the buses like this one to get there.

Unfortunately, this bus was not qawi. It took a ton of tiny backstreets, doubled back on itself a few times, and then when we made it to the western edge of Abdoun, the driver parked the bus and took a 15 minute break where he was eating seeds from a plastic bag and staring off into space. Finally a few riders yelled that we had been waiting for more than 10 minutes and he started the bus up again.

This is the kind of bus that you take only if you have to. And often times, there may be an alternative bus or combination of buses that can get you somewhere much faster. Since our group has limited resources, our goal over the next few months is to focus on finding those qawi routes, and using those as the basis for a first-draft map.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Petition from Ma'an Nasel

Ma'an Nasel is in the middle of a campaign to get signatures on a petition to pressure the government to enact a series of impactful, quick reforms to Amman's public transportation system. There are a lot of very good, necessary steps that include having a unified electronic payment system, and a map of the bus system. Read the full list of demands, and sign the petition, by going to Ma'an Nasel's website here.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Amman's Growth

I've been trying to learn more about the history of public transportation in Amman. One of the incredible things about the city is how much growth its seen in the last sixty years. That short time-span means that there are Ammanis who remember a time when you knew everyone in the city. The idea of knowing everyone in a city seems like an exaggerated claim, but not too-long ago Amman was the size of a small town.

 Shared-taxis were the first major form of public transportation. In the 50s and early 60s, shared-taxis were all that were needed, as much of the population of Amman was centered around just a few hills in what is now considered the center of a much larger city. The valleys between the hills form a natural place for meeting and bazaars, and a cheap, shared taxi ride was, and still is, a great way of getting back up those hills rather than putting in the leg-work to hoof it back up the hill.

Amman has seen massive increase in the number of people who live in the city or commute in. While many countries have high birth rates, Jordan adds to that its history of being a haven for people fleeing conflict. The major waves of of Palestinian refugees who came in '48 and '67 more than doubled the size of the country, and the successive influxes of Iraqis in the First and Second Gulf Wars and now Syrians have done its part to grow the city into the burgeoning metropolis that it is today.

This population growth is one of the reasons that city planners and officials point towards as an excuse for why city services like public transportation have lagged behind where they should be for a city this size. Bracketing the question of whether or not it serves as an excuse, the huge, immigration-fueled population boom presents a host of challenges. I wish a could delve more into the topic, but I don't think I have the time or knowledge to do it justice at the moment. Instead, here is an image showing the growth of Amman from 1918-2002. I couldn't find a good visualization of Amman's growth up until the present, so we'll have to make a visual guess as to how much more the city's grown in the last 13 years.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Access Maps

I was in San Francisco a few weeks ago and took a combination of trains, buses and cars to get around the city. One of the things I found when taking the BART, the subway that serves the Bay Area, was that it was often very hard for me to predict how long it would take me to get somewhere. Granted, I've only been in San Francisco twice, but going into the trip I thought I would have a better grasp of how much time I needed to get different places. Instead, I found myself underestimating how long it would take to walk to or from a station, or the time I would need to wait for the train.

What I really should have been using is an access map like the one created by Dan Howard and Chris Pangilinan. Their interacting map allows you to pick a particular point in San Francisco, and then see what parts of the city you can reach in 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, and so on using just walking and public transportation.

So, for example, when I click on Market St and Van Ness Ave, which is right on the BART line, I get a map that looks like this:

Using the legend in the upper left, you can see the parts of the city I can expect to reach in 15 minutes (the blue), in 30 minutes (the green), or 45 minutes (the yellow).

The intersection of Van Ness and Market is right on the BART, and so access to the rest of the city is pretty great. You can also try somewhere close by, but off the main train lines, like 20th and Mississippi to see the changes in access:

It's really interesting to see the bands of color that come out of this tool. On the map above, you can see that the yellow band (reachable in 45 minutes) hugs a couple major train lines and roadways, particularly in the south east. The two maps I did above are what you can expect on an "average day", based on data from 60,000 trips. There are also modes where you can see what's reachable on a bad day (bottom 15% of trips), and on a great day (top 15% of trips).

I first came across this project in an article from The Atlantic's City Lab. They have some great links to access maps that are in the works in other cities. For example, a Washington Post article shows a new New York access map done by the Regional Plan Association that puts a spin on a traditional time-access map by combining the time it takes to get places in New York City, with what kinds of jobs are available.

So, in the example the Post uses, if you live in a certain point in mid-town, and want to commute a maximum of half an hour a day using public transportation, here are the places with manufacturing jobs that you can reach:

If instead you decide you can put up with an hour commute, and you buy a car, their access map shows by how much your possibilities expand:

I would absolutely love to do an access map here in Amman. One of the things I hear a lot is how variable commute times are day-to-day, which is absolutely true. But using Howard and Pangilinan's method of separating access maps into an average day, a great day, and a bad day, one could still get a much better sense of how long a given commute might take.

Of course the real power is as a tool for planners. As Pangilinian notes in the City Lab article, by tracking how access changes over time, you can have a metric for evaluating public transportation improvement projects.

So what might we need to get this done here in Amman? The Post article breaks down what went into the Regional Plan Association's access maps:

These latest maps were built with Census data on job statistics by industry and location, local traffic modeling data, public transit feeds and open-source mapping information from OpenStreetMap that enables route planning by foot, by bike, by car or by transit. Add all of that together, and it's possible to pinpoint any spot in the city -- theoretically in any city with available data -- and measure its accessibility to jobs or good public schools or hospitals.
We're still far away from having that kind of data here in Amman---after all, we're still working on a basic transit map at the moment. But nonetheless, it's great to see what kinds of informational tools are underway in places where the city is better understood, and is another spur to getting some good data here in Jordan.