Category: Place Making

#210 Transport users as inventors of value and meaning

Every time a someone reaches out to a transport provider, they are inventing something 

WHO CARES?- Bloubergstrand, Cape Town. Don’t keep customers guessing. Let them know you wonder about their needs. Tell them what you’ve learnt from them, and how you’ve applied the lessons. Don’t stare as they struggle to cross the street to reach your terminal, do something. Don’t be surprised when they are wet from rain when your facility has no shelter. Listen, and listen loudly.

What exactly are “public” transportation services for? Should it be about orchestrating the symphony behind eradicating poverty through spatial organisation? That is to enable easy and convenient access to opportunities, ideas and purposeful places that people can act upon. Simply getting them there affordably is not enough. Simply providing affordable housing is not enough. Quite frankly, it is politically alluring, quick and easy— but produces difficult socio-economic problems, that are time consuming and hard to solve. I remember once the South African Cities Network (SACN) reported that we were stuck in a perpetual loop, reinforcing “apartheid spatial planning”, in colloquial terms. 

There are limits to this type of narrative. It makes operational sense to reduce the unit cost of mobility through regulating property prices along a bid-rent curve— while ensuring that some people are better off, and none are worse off. This is the welfare argument behind public interventions in any market worth regulating. The forthcoming changes to the Road Traffic Act, should improve the welfare gains in society; in the same artery, the Road Accident Beneficiary Scheme Bill should also produce an improvement in how government funds are used, and distribute welfare fairly. And yet, these are not directly related to the unit cost or land-use dynamics of transport operations at face value— and that’s the issue. Where we have high densities for instance, there are lots of people roaming streets, this should justify sidewalks, and shelter for pedestrians and at least infrastructure for cyclists. This is for the sake of pedestrians, and cyclists— keeping them safe from road hazards and reducing the likelihood of an accident. It’s the cost of prevention that practically vanishes. We can’t see the value of what we prevent because its impact doesn’t materialise. Which leads me to a question I’ve asked before: is the positive externality of services part of our language, and measurements of value? 

Are we what we measure?

Consider what we prefer to measure: time, reliability, form, place, and the tactile. However, there is an embedded economy of value systems and an appreciation for novelty. Discussed in Tibor Scitovsky’s work on The Joyless Economy, there seems to be three types of services underlying value: (a) novelty; (b) comfort and pleasure; (c) and unmeasured contributions. His book reveals the importance of advancements, and the grip growth has on consumer behaviour. Yet, today we are for the first time confronted with a consumer that pursues to not only consume products, but to create, or at least contribute to the creation process. Furthermore, whether they are on YouTube describe new products, or driving an advertorial campaign, #hashtagging, and continuously in contact with the transport entity in a reciprocal pattern. Most people with access to the internet and smartphones are prosumers in some respect. Which entity could we talk to if the side-walk has never existed? Or if there’s something wrong with the bikeway somewhere, do we talk to the municipal authority? Where does a customer go if something goes missing in a bus or taxi, the terminal office, does it exist? How much value is derived from a commute while reading a book, listening to a podcast, or virtually attending a meeting or webinar along the journey? Oh, hey, how much are the health benefits of being active while travelling really worth? Wait, can the average user of these services truly engage with the opportunities and value systems embedded in them, or are they compelled to disembark with a growing aspiration to travel another way for simple trips? Just asking, really. 

I recently “stole” a copy of the Journal of Consumer Behaviour from someone else’s address, it was just an incredible find. In this particular issue, they introduce the idea of prosumer behaviour. Which they describe as these collaborators, or individuals who range from expecting 3D modelling capabilities when custom designing shoes from Nike. As experience matters more and more, households will host a salivation for 4D type materials, great lifestyles, and technologies integrated in the act of monitoring this greatness. These are perhaps more severe cases of prosumption, but actually, even the mild interaction can spark a new domain for discussion, it is the value of this additional unit of information that could make a huge service difference. David Hensher, the Australian Professor in transport economics once argued about this at length in his work around service quality. One point that still stands tall is that sometimes service quality improvements don’t need massive investment, it might just need a minor change in perception and experience and the next thing service quality has improved. If transport companies are serious about their interactions with customers on social media, complaint cards (‘thank you for your message, you are case #…) and helplines, then they would know exactly how to serve their client base. At least for me, filtering value is a skill, it’s a question of having ears on the ground and a warm palm on a client’s heart. Measure that.

Customers don’t participate and communicate for the sake of it. They believe you genuinely want to do something with the value they share with you. Quite frankly, transport users are experts at how they experience a service— their input is novel. Following Tibor, the novelty of invention pushes curious technological, social and behavioural advances. This is a great new idea of how we can improve, how can we make it happen? Can we do it well, without a steep price-tag? 

Taking actions through truths and tactics

Consumer decisions flutter between maintaining a certain level of comfort while reaching out to grasp higher pleasures. This is evident through the variety of applications, solutions, companies, and personalities in the digital landscape— all trying the same thing, catching a customer’s attention-wings. How high can we go with our client? Can we serve them individually or as a collective? What is the best way to flatter our passengers? Could we make pedestrians smile through the way we design space? Here two major movements come to mind: Transport Truths and Tactical Urbanism. 

Transport Truths is in my view a thought-archive movement, that provokes accountable actions from people and organisations that care. In a discussion with Nahungu and Rozina, it is quite clear that the spirit that motivates this pursuit is much more than collecting commuter’s experiences. Instead, they collect and archive these experiences in intriguing ways, and aim to sensitise decision makers. The emotive experience may well unlock an important dialogue for people and organisations who care about their customers and employees: people. Their inputs have been shared in various settings, including the Railway Safety Regulator here in South Africa. 

Tactical Urbanism touches the spatial experience that residents and communities have with their local area. Attending a webinar about the subject organised by the Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative (TUMI), I was rather intrigued by what ‘tactical urbanism’ meant. Mike Lydon defines it as as an “approach to community building that is uses short-term low cost, and scalable projects that are intended to catalyse long-term change”. It basically fills the gap in the urgent need for intervention, and the long-term nature of spatial change by intentionally reforming space and land-uses through iterative, replicable and scalable intervention. Inherently, this is a form of using pilots and experiments as the basis of introducing spatial interventions bit-by-bit— keeping what works by “learning from the user experience” and then “invest and design around how people are using space”. 

An interesting term here is ‘iterative design’, which describes the perpetual nature of small-scale reforms and improvements that are focused on customers, passengers, users of roadway spaces, including car users by the way. The whole point is that there are hidden values embedded in the policy decisions that need to be made, but it is practically possible to make things work, even at a small scale. This is how customers interact with the services they are exposed to, in drips and drabs, and #hashtags. Big data, advanced simulation techniques, smaller sensors and machine learning could enable analysis of some of the harder indicators, but what really matters is the harmony between voices of value that sing over the instruments in a band. The voices of users, producers, designers and planners, organisations, labour, officials and regulators are all on the same boat— severely interdependent. Only the algorithm of human touch and connection can salvage the rifts between them. 


I suspect that the once intangible notions of value, principle, meaning, and well-being may become much easier to measure, influence and reformulate. While this is already happening in direct and indirect ways, what matters is the data-centres, copper cables, chip and circuit boards, energy networks and other industrial demands. These could constitute a new dimension to economies. Transport service economies seem to have distinctly unique externalities and a special service characteristic underlying them. In some popular culture circles, transit might reveal a sense of altruism against the backdrop of hyper-individualistic societies. This could mean anything from a service design perspective. Anything from a political statement, to a liberating rush to one’s destination, free and fluid, with your favourite music in the background. What matters is that it is public and shared— even if for some it is a private experience, the value remains distributed. Can it be done fairly? It depends on who is asking.

An essay. Thank you for reading this note, the Just Transport Podcast is quite an interesting space. Do tune in on the website, iTunes or SoundCloud.