Bad Navigation

NPR has a really interesting story about the pitfalls of using GPS devices for driving directions. I've always been skeptical of them, and never owned one (though I do have Google Maps on my phone). I certainly understand the value they theoretically provide, but they've completely changed the way a lot of people drive, and it's not necessarily for the better.

(from Jobriga on Flickr)

The first time I experienced GPS was in 2008, while I was living in Dallas. A friend of mine had one, and since I bummed a lot of rides with him, I got a chance to see if it lived up to the hype. 2 out of the first 3 times we tried to use the GPS, it failed to get us to where we needed to go. After that, the GPS stayed in the glove box; we didn't need it to get around the city.

There's a scene in The Office where Michael Scott drives a car into a lake because the GPS gives him bad directions. It's an exaggerated case of someone who's completely reliant on a technological navigation system, but it's not completely unrealistic. I recently heard of two friends, en route to DC, who wound up driving on a two-lane road up and down through the Appalachian Mountains, because the GPS device in the car told them to exit the interstate and take the more "direct" route.

There's really a big difference between using GPS as a backup, in case you get lost, versus using it as your primary navigation, doing anything and everything it tells you to do.

GPS devices don't just give occasional bad directions, they're also distracting. A person staring at a GPS screen or typing in an address is just as guilty of being distracted at a motorist texting, emailing or tweeting on a cell phone. Megabus blamed a crash that killed four people on a driver who was distracted by a GPS.

In my teenage years, I did as much driving as any suburban teen needs to do, but I never had a GPS. It wasn't long ago that you asked for directions when you were going out, and trusted that the person giving you directions had a strong grasp on the area. These days, I sometimes ask people if they need directions to something, they'll say, "no, I have a GPS."

Consumer Ignorance

Until last week, I don't think I knew any Netflix subscriber that didn't love the service. Now, it seems like they haven't got a friend left in the world. Netflix had a good thing going; it offered something for a price that was probably a little too good, and I'm actually not surprised that it's now coming to an end.

(from kristipwrs on Flickr)

In reality, Netflix suffers from a problem that a lot of service companies do. Its customers don't understand how the business actually works, and those customers misdirect anger when they aren't happy about something. For proof, search for any popular TV show on Netflix that isn't currently offered as an "Instant" title. There are tons of people who believe that someone at Netflix only needs to push a magical button and any show can stream to every home in American instantly.

The movie rental market makes sense, when you think about it. Netflix buys DVDs on a market. Movie companies make money selling them on that market. Netflix rents out those DVDs, and the money the earn pays for those discs; anything it earns beyond that is profit.

The streaming business is a completely different ballgame. How do movie studios price these products? What's a fair price for Netflix to pay for them, given that a Netflix customer can hypothetically watch as much content as there are hours in the day? If a company doesn't want Netflix to stream its content, it has ultimate veto power. It can't necessarily stop anyone from buying its DVDs on the market, but it has control over digital products.

Movie studios have it made right now. They saw an opportunity to make a lot of easy money selling to Netflix, and they knew Netflix customers would put the blame on the company they once loved. That seems to be exactly how it's playing out.
After having some not-so-great luck with Megabus last winter, I decided to give the low-cost bus carrier one more chance during a trip to Pittsburgh last weekend. Unfortunately, that experience has led me to write-off Megabus forever.

(from M.V. Jantzen on Flickr)

It doesn't seem like long ago that Megabus was a concept that people were seriously excited about. After all, it was a concept that was supposed to make something as dreary as bus travel hip, what with the free wi-fi and power outlets and guerrilla marketing efforts. Maybe that could have happened, but Megabus is just too damn cheap. It's "cheap" in every sense of the word - cheap fares, cheap service, cheap reliability. Sure, it's an improvement over Greyhound, but that doesn't mean much in reality.

I've heard Megabus described as a 50/50 proposition. On average, half the time the trip will be perfectly acceptable, the rest of the time it won't. If the low fare is worth that gamble, then go for it. If not then it's not worth your time.

I don't want this post to come off as an angry consumer rant in seek of some sort of satisfaction. I accept the poor quality of Megabus. What makes me upset is that I really want there to be a great inter-city bus service that can connect cities and get people where they need to go. I want there to be competition for transportation between cities that are too close to fly and to expensive to travel by train. But the prerequisite is that the service has to be acceptable. It has to be clean, safe and on-time. Megabus fails on at least two, if not all three of these metrics.

I really wish I didn't have to write this post, because I really wanted to like Megabus, and I really tried to give them the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, sometimes things just don't work out the way you want them to.
Richard Layman shares some interesting thoughts on the bicycle network in DC. He presents it in a way that makes very clear that the success of a bicycling network isn't measured by simply summing up the lane miles, but by understanding how infrastructure connects to itself.

(from Jason Pier in DC on Flickr)

When I was living in Arlington and working in downtown DC, my daily commute took me through Georgetown; a pretty awful place to ride a bicycle. During the morning and afternoon rush, M Street NW becomes a six-lane highway, with traffic lights timed to speed as many cars into and out of the city as possible.

By the afternoon it's total gridlock as masses of pedestrians try to maneuver through the neighborhood at the same time that commuters try to flee back to Virginia. From the Key Bridge, there really aren't any good alternatives to M Street, either. I could cut down to K Street, but then I'd have to climb back up as I ride east into downtown, plus deal with the traffic exiting the Whitehurst Freeway. Or I could ride up to N Street, though I've found that it can be just as traffic choked as M.

Georgetown is a major choke point in DC's bicycle network. It's definitely the most efficient way to get from North Arlington to downtown DC, but if you aren't comfortable riding through heavy city traffic, you might not be likely to make the trip.

DC isn't alone in having this problem. When I lived in University Heights and worked in downtown Cleveland, 7.5 miles of my commute were smooth sailing, the half-mile up or down Cedar Hill was treacherous; an that single choke point was probably enough to stop many otherwise interested people from biking into the city.

I know that any meaningful bike infrastructure in Georgetown is likely a pipe dream right now. But it's an interesting thought experiment that helps demonstrate how relatively small choke points can have relatively large impacts on a transportation network.