All posts in “Transportation”

Algorithmic zoning could be the answer to cheaper housing and more equitable cities


Zoning codes are a century old, and the lifeblood of all major U.S. cities (except arguably Houston), determining what can be built where and what activities can take place in a neighborhood. Yet as their complexity has risen, academics are increasingly exploring whether their rule-based systems for rationalizing urban space could be replaced with dynamic systems based on blockchains, machine learning algorithms, and spatial data, potentially revolutionizing urban planning and development for the next one hundred years.

These visions of the future were inspired by my recent chats with Kent Larson and John Clippinger, a dynamic urban thinking duo who have made improving cities and urban governance their current career focus. Larson is a principal research scientist at the MIT Media Lab, where he directs the City Science Group, and Clippinger is a visiting researcher at the Human Dynamics Lab (also part of the Media Lab), as well as the founder of non-profit ID3.

One of the toughest challenges facing major U.S. cities is the price of housing, which has skyrocketed over the past few decades, placing incredible strain on the budget of young and old, singles and families alike. The average one-bedroom apartment is $3,400 in San Francisco, and $3,350 in New York City, making these meccas of innovation increasingly out-of-reach of even well-funded startup founders let alone artists or educators.

Housing is not enough to satiate the modern knowledge economy worker though. There is an expectation that any neighborhood is going to have a laundry list of amenities, from nice and cheap restaurants, open spaces, and cultural institutions to critical human services like grocery stores, dry cleaners, and hair salons.

Today, a zoning board would simply try to demand that various developments include the necessary amenities as part of the permitting process, leading to food deserts and the curious soullessness of some urban neighborhoods. In Larson and Clippinger’s world though, rules-based models would be thrown out for “dynamic, self-regulating systems” based around what might agnostically be called tokens.

Every neighborhood is made up of different types of people with different life goals. Larson explained that “We can model these different scenarios of who we want working here, and what kind of amenities we want, then that can be delineated mathematically as algorithms, and the incentives can be dynamic based on real-time data feeds.”

The idea is to first take datasets like mobility times, unit economics, amenities scores, and health outcomes, among many others and feed that into a machine learning model that is trying to maximize local resident happiness. Tokens would then be a currency to provide signals to the market of what things should be added to the community or removed to improve happiness.

A luxury apartment developer might have to pay tokens, particularly if the building didn’t offer any critical amenities, while another developer who converts their property to open space might be completely subsidized by tokens that had been previously paid into the system. “You don’t have to collapse the signals into a single price mechanism,” Clippinger said. Instead, with “feedback loops, you know that there are dynamic ranges you are trying to keep.”

Compare that systems-based approach to the complexity we have today. As architectural and urban planning tastes have changed and developers have discovered loopholes, city councils have updated the codes, and then updated the updates. New York City’s official zoning book is now 4,257 pages long (warning: 83MB PDF file), the point of which is to rationalize what a beautiful, functional city should look like. That complexity has bred a massive influence and lobbying industry as well as startups like Envelope which try to make sense of it all.

A systems-based approach would throw out the rules while still seeking positive end results. Larson and Clippinger want to go one step further though and integrate tokens into everything in a local neighborhood economy, including the acquisition of an apartment itself. In such a model, “you have a participation right,” Clippinger said. So for instance, a local public school teacher or a popular baker might have access to an apartment unit in a neighborhood without paying the same amount as a banker who doesn’t engage as much with neighbors.

“Wouldn’t it be great to create an alternative where instead of optimizing for financial benefits, we could optimize for social benefits, and cultural benefits, and environmental benefits,” Larson said. Pro-social behavior could be rewarded through the token system, ensuring that the people who made a neighborhood vibrant could remain part of it, while also offering newcomers a chance to get involved. Those tokens could also potentially be fungible across cities, so a participation right token to New York City might also give you access to neighborhoods in Europe or Asia.

Implementation of these sorts of systems is certainly not going to be easy. A few years ago on TechCrunch, Kim-Mai Cutler wrote a deeply-researched analysis of the complexity of these issues, including the permitting process, environmental reviews, community support and opposition, as well as the basic economics of construction that make housing and development one of the most intractable policy problems for municipal leaders.

That said, at least some cities have been excited to trial parts of these algorithmic-based models for urban planning, including Barcelona and several Korean cities according to the two researchers. At the heart of all of these experiments though is a belief that the old models are no longer sufficient for the needs of today’s citizens. “This is a radically different vision … it’s post-smart cities,” Clippinger said.

Featured Image: Nicky Loh/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Somebody finally made motorized Heelys, and they look pretty fun TBH

Razor's Turbo Jetts: cool or dorky?
Razor’s Turbo Jetts: cool or dorky?

Image: Raymond wong/mashable

Remember Heelys, those horrendously unsafe sneakers with the built-in wheels that were popular in the early 2000s?

Yeah, they’re back from the graveyard… sorta. Razor (not to be confused with Razer) has taken the same concept of wheels-on-heels and motorized the whole dang thing.

Their $130 footwear contraption is called Turbo Jetts (with two T’s). On one foot is an 80-watt, gear-driven motor with a battery capable of propelling you up to 10 miles per hour for 30 minutes. Its max weight limit is 176 pounds.

Turbo Jetts, unlike Heelys, fit over your sneakers. This is a big plus because — let’s be real — Heelys were ugly AF. They were big and heavy and just made you look like a total dork (it’s still debatable which was worse: Skechers or Heelys).

Slip the Turbo Jetts over your sneakers and start cruising.

Slip the Turbo Jetts over your sneakers and start cruising.

Image: raymond wong/mashable

Turbo Jetts still look dorky, but at least you can take them off before you get to school or work so nobody sees them. They fit U.S. kid shoes up to size 12 and U.S. adult shoes up to 12 as well.

Like any motorized “rideable,” there’s a learning curve before you can cruise on Turbo Jetts. A company representative told me it should only take a few hours to find your balance and get the hang of how they feel.

Laugh all you want at how silly they look, but they actually seem like fun. Provided you wear a helmet, of course. They could even be practical for short commutes.

With a little practice you can be spinning like a pro:

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They’re back… sorta. Popular foldable scooter maker Razor’s basically made a motorized version called Tuand it looks hella fun. 

Yeah, we’r

Despite being a terrible idea that led to way too many ch

Great, because Razor has basically made a motorized version called Turbo Jetts (yeah, with two T’s). 

Elon Musk gets permission to do a little digging for his Hyperloop

Image: peter parks/AFP/Getty Images

It’s been far easier for Elon Musk to send a rocket to the Mars than move a pebble in Washington, D.C.

That could be changing, according to The Washington Post. The SpaceX entrepreneur’s tunnel digging company, The Boring Company, recently received vague permission to do some exploratory digging at 53 New York Avenue NE.

Musk is hoping to build a high speed hyperloop between New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and D.C. The loop will be capable of moving passengers at very high speeds thanks to depressurized tubes and magnet-levitated pods. 

The digging site could become a hyperloop station, though plans remain mostly theoretical at this point.

“We’re just beginning, in the mayor’s office, our conversation to get an understanding of what the general vision is for Hyperloop,” John Falcicchio, chief of staff to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, told The Washington Post.

Musk’s permit was the only good thing to come out of Trump’s infrastructure week. So. Yay.

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This former Uber (and Lyft) exec just raised $15 million for his controversial e-scooter startup: Bird

Travis VanderZanden. If you’ve been following the fast-changing transportation industry, it’s a name that may sound familiar. Until September 2016, VanderZanden was VP of growth at Uber and before that, COO of its fierce rival Lyft, which had acquired his on-demand car wash company, Cherry, in 2013.

It was a dramatic few years for VanderZanden, once he joined the ride-hailing race. Not only were his employers experiencing growing pains, but Lyft sued him for allegedly breaking a confidentiality agreement when he joined Uber, with the two sides later settling for undisclosed terms. Little wonder that after leaving Uber, VanderZanden wanted to take some time off to decompress with his wife and two daughters.

That was the idea, anyway. The thing is, VanderZanden, whose mother drove a public bus for 30 years, says he couldn’t stop thinking about transportation. Within six months, he was testing out different short-range electric vehicles. By last summer, he’d quietly launched his newest company, Bird.

Now, VanderZanden’s dockless electric scooter company is the talk of Santa Monica, Ca., where it’s based. That’s largely because over the last six months, Bird has plunked roughly 1,000 “Birds” on the streets of the city — and people are riding them: 50,000 people so far have taken 250,000 rides, he says.

But Bird, which just moved into Westwood and is easing its way into San Diego, also has local officials in all three places somewhat flummoxed — and not entirely delighted. A Washington Post piece published earlier this week characterized Santa Monica Mayor Ted Winterer as highly irked that VanderZanden reached out to him — via a LinkedIn message — after putting Bird’s scooters on the streets.

The message reportedly offered to introduce Winterer to Bird’s “exciting new mobility strategy for Santa Monica.”  Winterer says he responded: “If you’re talking about those scooters that are out there already, there are some legal issues we have to discuss.”

Legal issues and other complications, as it turns out. For example, according to that same post story, local police officers issued 97 citations involving Bird scooters in the first six weeks of this year; the city’s fire department has responded to eight related accidents, some including minors and adults; and according to a senior marketing and communications manager for downtown Santa Monica, there have been been numerous complaints of the scooters being left in front of doorways, in the middle of driveways and on wheelchair ramps.

Despite outward appearances, VanderZanden insists he hasn’t stolen from the playbook of his last employer, which under the leadership of longtime CEO Travis Kalanick taught employees to ask forgiveness — not permission.

He paints a rosier picture of that exchange with Winterer, for example, telling TechCrunch that the “first week we put Birds out in the wild [in early September], I emailed the mayor directly about how excited we were and the impact we thought we could have.”

Bird employees have since met with Santa Monica’s director of transportation and mobility and had “a series of really productive conversations,” says VanderZanden, noting that with “any new innovation, you have to work with the city to figure out how you best fit into the regulatory model.”

In Bird’s case, he says there isn’t an existing permit scheme currently, though the city plainly disagrees. It filed a criminal complaint last month, citing Bird’s failure to obtain the same kind of permit it asks food vendors to secure; the two sides meet in court later this month.

Naturally, VanderZanden thinks the focus instead should be on the benefits of Bird’s scooters, which can be used by anyone over the age of 18 who has a valid driver’s license, who agrees to wear a helmet,  and who will stay off the sidewalk (not that Bird can enforce the last two).

For starters, they are cheap to use, he notes. In addition to a driver’s license, new customers need only plug a credit card number into the app. After that, it’s $1 per ride, plus 15 cents per minute, and riders can go as far as the scooter’s electric charge will take them at a top speed of 15 miles per hour. VanderZanden says some have made it to LAX. Others have ridden from Santa Monica into downtown L.A.

VanderZanden says that Bird is willing to share some of the data it’s collecting with cities. “We really want to work with cities and go in early with figure out how Bird best fits in. We realize we’re just one part of the transportation puzzle.”

VanderZanden, who says Bird ships riders free helmets when they request one from the app, also says it does its best to educate riders, including on where to park Birds (near bike racks, ideally), where to ride them (bike lanes), and via stickers that it plasters on the floorboards of the scooters that list safety regulations.

He stresses, too, that Bird employees begin collecting the scooters at 8 p.m. every night, clearing all of them off the street and only returning them to the fronts of coffee shops and other local businesses — at their own request, he says — by 6 a.m. the next day.

As for what happens if someone when injured, we gather that Bird pays if one of its scooters breaks on someone but not if a rider is being reckless. VanderZanden declines to get into specifics, offering instead that, “Every mode of transportation is dangerous . . . but you can’t protect against people not obeying traffic laws.”

At any rate, investors don’t mind at all that Bird is still figuring things out. It just closed on $15 million in Series A funding, including from Tusk Ventures, Valor, Lead Edge Capital, and Goldcrest Capital.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the round was led by Craft Ventures, the new venture fund cofounded by serial entrepreneur David Sacks. Before Cherry (and Lyft and Uber), VanderZanden was VP of revenue at the enterprise software company Yammer, where Sacks was cofounder and CEO. In fact, when VanderZanden left to start Cherry, Sacks wrote him a check for $500,000 — the biggest check Sacks had written to a single company as an angel investor at that point.

Indeed, if the company starts looking for another round of funding very soon, it will be even less surprising. While VanderZanden calls Bird “first to do dockless electric scooters,” competition is springing up around it — fast.

Last week, Spin, a dockless bike-sharing company that brought its wares to South San Francisco last August, announced that it’s working to launch stationless electric-scooter sharing. Two days later, LimeBike, a Spin competitor, similarly revealed plans to build its own dockless electric scooters. Bird’s own scooters are made via an exclusive manufacturing agreement with an unnamed company.

It’s the kind of battle that VanderZanden has seen before and seems prepared to fight — though he takes a far softer tone publicly than the famously combative Kalanick.

“People are taking notice of how quickly Bird is growing and they want to pivot in and clone us,” says VanderZanden. Yes, that could eventually create clutter for cities, he acknowledges. Still, it’s better than all the greenhouse gases being generated by cars and trucks.

“Preventing car ownership is the goal of all these companies,” he says. ” I think if all of us are successful, that’s fine.”

LimeBike is also getting into the e-scooter game


On the heels of LimeBike’s expansion into e-bikes, as well as competitor Spin’s expansion into Razor-like electric scooters, LimeBike is unveiling its own take on e-scooters. LimeBike is also officially deploying its e-bikes in Seattle.

“This is an exciting and competitive landscape,” LimeBike CEO Toby Sun told TechCrunch. “What you are beginning to see is that some players in the bike-share industry will not make it because of a lack of funding and operational excellence.”

Dubbed Lime-S, the scooters cost $1 to unlock and $1 for every 10 minutes of riding. On a single charge, Lime-S can go up to 14.8mph with a maximum range of 37 miles. Unlike Spin, which tapped an outside manufacturer to build their scooters, LimeBike says it built its scooters in-house.

LimeBike is not yet announcing which cities will get scooters, but says it’s in talks with a number of cities. Prior to today, LimeBike tested its fleet as part of a sanctioned pilot program for a couple of months. The goal, Sun says, is to strengthen LimeBike’s position as “the leading smart mobility solution provider.”

He added, “the multi-modal mobility solution also helps to meet the various needs of that first and last mile transportation challenge.”

In December, LimeBike expanded to Europe, with the launch of 500 bikes each in Frankfurt, German, Zurich and Switzerland. In total, LimeBike has deployed 30,000 bikes. To date, people have taken 1 million rides across 33 markets.

Backed by firms like Andreessen Horowitz, Coatue and GGV, LimeBike has raised over $60 million in funding and is valued at $225 million after its most recent $50 million round.

Featured Image: LimeBike