Wanted: An App for Commuting

I’m on a lot of emailing lists that I don’t remember signing up for. This problem has plagued us all since the mid-90s when emailing from work was first invented. Like everybody else, I quickly learned how to not get sucked into the email marketing scam. I said no to everything, changed my subscriptions regularly, and declined all invitations. I ran a pretty clean ship for a while, but lately I’ve become lax. Sure, sign me up, I say. Yeah, what the heck, I like you, I’ll take your newsletter. How hard is it to delete email?

As a result I’ve been seeing some pretty weird stuff in my in-box. The most annoying comes from the company I work for. There’s one notification some entity in this outfit regularly sends out. Whoever it is won’t let you opt out of it, either. Required reading or something. Comes to me once a week with the subject “If you’re wondering where your paycheck is…”

I ignore it. At my own peril, sure, but some things are better left unknown. My paycheck is hooked directly to my bank account which is hooked directly to the bank accounts of my creditors. I have no idea how much money I make or how much I spend. Someday I will declare bankruptcy, but I won’t know about that either. My accountant and my lawyer are in regular contact with each other and I trust both of them with the handling of my estate. They’re good guys and both play a mean round of golf. Or so I’m told. I play racquetball and never meet up with them on the playing field. Good. Ignorance is bliss. I trust somebody at some point will tell me when I need to stop making all those shopping trips to Philly.

Getting back to the email newsletters. I think everyone should follow my example. Keep the weird stuff coming. Don’t get off those mailing lists somebody else probably signed you up for. It’s fun and great entertainment. You’ll see junk you’ll never find in your micro-managed Twitterfeed. You can’t imagine the corners of the world I’m now privy to just because I don’t opt out of email newsletters. Places I don’t really belong, but now are a big part of.

For instance, a couple of weeks ago, I got a press release from some entity called Latitude. This group “provides creative research and unexpected knowledge for leaders in content, technology and learning.” I don’t know what unexpected knowledge is. Further, I would never, under normal circumstances, be invited to the places leaders of content, technology, and learning hang out. But here I am receiving Latitude’s spam as if I was on the porch with the big dogs. The democracy of the Internet in action.

The press release Latitude sent me was about their recent study entitled “Tech for Transit: Designing a Future System.” Basically they wanted to see how mobile phone apps can help solve the global warming/energy crisis. I might be paraphrasing. In essence, they asked 10 volunteers to not drive their cars for one week. After that week the volunteers filled out questionnaires with questions like: “How can information access encourage people to make more sustainable transit choices?” and “Can tech help transit make us feel more connected to each other—and what lessons can businesses in other industries apply?”

Apparently they only needed 10 random people to answer these questions and thus solve our little greenhouse faux pas. Efficient.

Yes, I jest. What I think they were actually tracking was how cellular communication contributes to finding a ride to work. And shopping, of course.

I’m not overly familiar with social research. I look at the covers of Psychology Today, that’s about it. I don’t know what makes for a good study, but somehow this one seemed a little devoid of substance. I downloaded their PR material to get some details to make sure I was getting it right. Somewhere in the middle of the details, I found this interesting quote from volunteer, Keren S, from Boston: “I’d want to see a Web site or app that allows you to compare options for getting to different places, and maybe adds information like carbon emissions, calories burned, and so on, for each option. If you have a lot of places to go, it could also offer to ’plot your route,’ which would offer the most time-efficient way to do it.”

I like this Keren S. Yes, this would be an app I might consider downloading. At some point I’m going to get out and kick some ‘droid butt (i.e. turn my cell phone on). I’m going to need an app or two if I intend to stay in the mainstream of our current cultural revolution. Keren S.’ idea would be a good one for me to start with.

The Latitude study got me thinking. We should seriously start coming up with a plan to stop driving so much. We need something beyond a mere app, though. We need a radical new idea. I have one. It’s totally off the wall and I’m sure when people hear about it they’ll question my higher brain function, but I’m going to lay it on you anyway: mass transit. I know, sounds about as helpful as 10 people arranging a commute via texting, but hang on. Contrary to what a small group of wealthy people that used to headquarter in Detroit would have you believe, train travel is not bad for you. I used to do it every day and look at me I’m still here despite my lack of higher brain function.

This past weekend, I was inspired by a mashup of Latitude’s PR materials and the details of my radical new idea. I decided to take the train. Now, in spite of the fact that I live in Reading, PA which has its own rail system in Monopoly, there is no working train in my town. It’s not far from Reading to Baltimore, Philly, DC, New York, Pittsburgh, or Cleveland. Yet there is no rail system from Reading to anywhere. You can’t get to Park Place, Boardwalk, or Marvin Gardens on the Reading Railroad.

Since it was time for a shopping trip to New York City, the center of rail transportation in the U.S., that’s where I headed. I had to drive an hour to the Somerville station on the Raritan line of NJ Transit just to get to the train, but once I got there, I relaxed into the eye-glazing comfort only the passing swamps of New Jersey can provide. I joke, only because I know people don’t like swamps. I happen to like them. Even the ones in Jersey that aren’t part of any nature preserve as far as I can tell. Most of the wildlife you see in Jersey is in the form of old telegraph poles listing tragically while their electrical lines to dip into the water. It looks in places like Godzilla had recently been through. But I love it. Someday I’m going to rent a canoe and paddle through the area. Kick up a few dead tires or something.

The point is, train ride is fabulous. You don’t have to drive and more importantly, you don’t have to park. In Manhattan that is no small matter.

The train dropped me at 34th Street. From there it was a 20 minute walk down to 14th Street where I finally hit my stride. Fabulous lunch, trees in bloom, great matinee performance (Laurie Metcalf of Rosie fame doing an outstanding, practically one woman show, at the Lucille Lortel Theater). Ah, New York in the springtime.

If you want to go somewhere more exotic than Chelsea or the Village, say East New York, Bed Stuy, Far Rockaway, or The Bronx, there’s more mass transit to take you. It’s just so easy. And you never have to find a parking spot.

How I miss that mass transit experience. The morning commute was annoying, sure. The closer you live to Manhattan the less chance you’ll have of getting a seat, but then your ride is shorter so you don’t really mind that much. And more important, you don’t have to park when you get there.

These are the things I’m sure the Latitude people are working day and night to effect. They’re connecting up the commuters who have silly ideas and outrageous opinions to the decision-makers, those with power and money that can do something about those silly ideas. If there’s one thing the Latitude people can pass on for me to the big dogs at their cocktail parties and soirees it’s this: The U.S. has had hot and cold running water, indoor plumbing, and central heating for how long? A few years anyway. When are we going to get our high-speed rail?

Sue Lange
Get more of Sue Lange’s silly ideas and outrageous opinions in her collection of short stories right here at Book View Café.




Wanted: An App for Commuting — 4 Comments

  1. Oh, yes, high speed rail, the perfect commuter app. Especially if you combine it with telecommuting and more people living within walking distance of work and train stations. Then you wouldn’t really need an app per se, but just GPS directions to the nearest stations. Though GPS needs to be modified to show best walking routes, too. And sidewalks would be another nice app. I get tired of dodging cars and buses on my walks.

  2. People keep asking where their jetpacks are. I’d way rather have the high-speed train, but according to the House of Representatives, we’re so poor that we have to let our roads and bridges deteriorate and the social safety net dissolve, never mind anything new and, like, you know, high-tech-y and _science-y_.

    Jetpacks work in 3-D and trains work in 1-D. Given the way most people drive in 2-D, I’m not that enthusiastic about their being able to crash into me from the Z axis as well as from the X and Y axes.


  3. My mail lists think I buy expensive clothing and go on long cruises, so I don’t find them nearly as inspiring as yours. Now my spam folder…there I can meet FBI agents just wanting to tell me my bank account has been raided and wealthy Africans who want to exchange some money. Much more interesting.

    And if middle America had any mass transportation at all, I could read that fun spam on my nonexistent iphone while enjoying the train ride. But right now, I have no good reason to go to Chicago or Kansas City, which may be why mass transportation is lacking out here.