Friday, July 30, 2010

Smartphone apps - a thing of the past?

I have to admit, when I first started using my Apple iPhone I was caught by the “app craze” myself. Trying different apps on my phone became a social experience. It was not uncommon to see people passing their phones around at a restaurant to show off some new app. Coincidentally I was in the process of releasing my first custom-built application (www.munetrix.com) utilizing an “in the cloud” platform. It occurred to me, “why, when the rest of the software world is moving away from client-side installed software would the emerging Smartphone market embrace this fading methodology?”

To paraphrase the Buddhist maxim, When the student is ready the teacher appears—such was the case this time as well. A timely call from a Swedish colleague directed my attention to the first “in the cloud” content managements system (CMS) I had seen for Smartphones (www.Fourstream.com). Now I could develop a single web-based application, hosted on a content management server, and deliver that site to virtually any web-browsing Smartphone in the world. No longer did the user need to download and install a client-side app. No more browsing app exchanges. No more commissioning the development of client-side apps. Most importantly, no longer did the need exist to develop multiple versions of the same app just to meet the seemingly daily introduction of new Smartphone platforms. The CMS backend handled the integration of phone platforms for me.

Consider this quote from Google’s Eric Schmidt, “Mobile phones are cheaper then PCs, there are 3 times as many, growth is twice as high, more and more people have access.” The potential was mind boggling to me—so mind boggling that I signed up with Fourstream and am looking forward to pushing the limits of this cloud platform as I did with the less-mobile versions of web development solutions.

Friday, April 30, 2010

European-style Neighborhood Transit Centers

European-style Neighborhood Transit Centers:
An enhancement to the
Southeast Michigan Regional Transportation Plan

Regional Transit Plan

In November 2008, The Regional Transit Coordinating Council (RTCC) published a Comprehensive Regional Transit Service Plan. This plan is a twenty-five year roadmap for improving existing transit services for Southeast Michigan and recommending the construction of a multimodal network of transit services. It has been recognized that this plan has not received widespread support particularly from local units of government. Ironically many of these same local units of government are desperately trying to develop urbanized town centers to capitalize on the trend for this life style. It will be argued that the promotion of European-style Neighborhood Transit Centers (ESTC) is a way to engage local units of government in the regional plan, facilitate their interest in developing town centers, and encourage adoption of transit oriented development projects (TOD). The premise of this proposal is to acknowledge communities that invest in public transit and transit center plans by including the community in the regional transit plan.

Defining a European-style Neighborhood Transit Center

A European-style Neighborhood Transit Center (ESTC) is an American version of small transit centers common in countries historically transit friendly. The ESCT is a single structure identified by its small public space for waiting and socializing. For sustainability, the ESTC is funded through commercial and, in some cases, residential leases. ESTCs are located in areas that typically cannot support a high-volume mass transit facility so prevalent in the RTCC plan.

A European-style Neighborhood Transit Center (ESTC) can stimulate the development of a fledgling town center (like the City of Keego Harbor) or a drivable-suburban community wishing to develop a town center (like the intersection of Maple Road and Orchard Lake Road in West Bloomfield Township).

What’s in it for me?

Although the RTCC regional plan addresses the expansion of existing transit services, much of the plan focuses on dedicated transit solutions including light rail (LRT) and bus rapid transit (BRT). Due to the infrastructure expense of these solutions and the requirement of significant existing ridership volumes, only key locations have been included in the printed maps. For this reason, local units of government with the “what’s in it for me” attitude can arguably fail to see any benefit to them.

Local Units of Government

Most communities in Southeast Michigan have been built on the drivable suburban model that requires an automobile for even the most trivial of trips. A good example is the City of Rochester Hills, Michigan. The community is predominantly made up of cul-de-sac neighborhoods with few sidewalks, major roads nearly impossible to cross as a pedestrian, and the community has opted-out of the public transportation system. The type of family for whom this model was built is no longer the American norm.  In a recent Oakland County glossy promotional magazine the City of Rochester Hills depicted itself as a quaint, walkable town center life style.  The ESTC can certainly help communities turn these isolated islands of walkability into connected centers for a more urban life style that the community is trying to achieve.

Public Space

The ESTC’s public space can be as small as 1,000 – 2,000 square feet immediately adjacent and connected to commercial tenants. The public space can serve as a waiting area for public transit as well as a stop for private coaches to casinos, tours and the airport. Digital display signage of real-time transit information should be included in the public space as well as self-serve kiosks for ticket purchases. The design of the ESTC should celebrate the heritage of the community in which it is located by utilizing the public space for display of the community’s artifacts.

Tenants

The choice of tenant needs to create a win-win relationship between the public space and commercial space. Commercial tenants will need to be selected on their interest in having access to the public space and the traffic, both pedestrian and vehicle, that TODs tend to generate. In addition, tenants need an interest in the extended hours that transit centers need to operate. An emphasis must be placed on restaurants (like Denny’s Classic Diner) and coffee shops (like Tim Horton’s) that benefit from the additional public space and extended hours.

Another tenant opportunity is the local community post office. The US Post Office has gone through a transition that emphasizes self-service kiosks for selling mailing supplies and access to post office boxes during extended hours outside the normal operating ours of the office itself. The ESTC public space satisfies these requirements and positions the post office in a traditional town center public space environment. Additionally, small community bank tenants would also benefit from the extended hours of public space for ATM machines and night deposit boxes.

Conclusion

It has been proposed that the Metro-Detroit area could support as many as 17 walkable urban “places” but currently supports four (Downtown, Midtown, Royal Oak and Birmingham). The ESTC can become the stimulus for deciding where those additional urban places can germinate. Local communities that develop neighborhood transit centers should be rewarded with inclusion in the regional plan and offered support services for development of TOD plans. The RTCC should work with local units of government to promote the benefit of ESTCs and facilitate the development of these TOD plans.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Michigan’s Future: It’s all about life styles


Consider these threads from recent Michigan headlines:
  • “Pure Michigan” advertising campaign works wonders
  • Tens of thousands of college educated youth leave Michigan for “cooler” destinations
  • Is happiness still that new car smell?
  • Oakland County Board of Commissioners deadlocked on county-wide public transit

Lure of the Lakes

Can you spot a common theme among these stories? I can. It’s all about life style. When visitors tour our Orchard Lake Museum they see the Life Styles Timeline showing the four types of residents that have lived in our lakes area: Native Americans, Farmers, Vacationers and Suburbanites. Each of these groups was lured to the area by the lakes and the life style the area provided. Ease of transportation provided the means to make the area accessible.

The Native Americans found the area an ideal place to live and counsel. The watersheds for three rivers converging near Orchard Lake made for easy access by canoe. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 brought thousands of European farmers to the area in search of a better life. The opening of the Grand Trunk Railroad and the Interurban trolley brought vacationers in the early 1900s. The automobile made suburban commuting possible. Many of these same vacationers merged with new arrivals and established our current suburbanite life style.

What’s the next life style?

As our visitors grasp the Life Styles Timeline, we like to pose the question “What will be the next life style in the lakes area?” It is particularly interesting to hear the answers from elementary students. Their response includes everything from Martians to circulating back to the beginning with a Native American way of living (it is interesting to note that in its first week, moviegoers have spent $1 billion worldwide to watch the movie Avatar – based on a fictional story where technologically-advanced human heroes choose the Native American looking Na'vi lifestyle). Is it possible that we are beginning to see the symptoms of a life style change in our area?

The Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan, has been tracking the trends showing that “half of Michigan's college grads now leave the state within a year of graduation.”  I know, you think it’s about jobs and weather. Not so. Lou Glazer at Michigan Future, Inc. studied the data and found that Michigan graduates move to a place they see as “cool” and then look for a job. A recent New York Times article tells us that more and more Americans are reassessing their views about automobiles. “Empty nesters are moving back into cities and shedding their cars,” younger consumers “don’t view the car the way their parents did,” and “car owners who remained in the suburbs were downsizing from three cars or more to one or two.”

Glazer studied the major cities of the Midwest and found the big winners in the migration of highly-educated youth to central cities are Madison, Wisconsin; Minneapolis, and Chicago in that order. It seems the farther north we go the more attractive it becomes – so much for the weather argument.

It’s all about life styles. Our youth are looking for regions that have a vibrant city center for their early professional careers and then a move to suburbia when they start a family. The problem is they don’t come back to Michigan. They choose suburbs near the city center to which they have migrated. There have been cases where the lure of jobs has created population migrations. Henry Ford’s $5-a-day in the early 1900s and more recently Silicon Valley are examples. It took all of 20 years before the life styles in Oregon and Idaho started luring the jobs from Silicon Valley and its life style. Are we seeing the same trend in Michigan 100 years after Ford’s pay raise?

Department of life style development

Economies that rely on heavy manufacturing require the workforce to be located near the manufacturing center—whether the workers want to live there or not. The State of Michigan and our own Oakland County have decided that to be competitive we need to foster a knowledge-based economy. History has shown however those workers in a knowledge-based economy have far more flexibility in their choice of location. They can choose the life style they prefer and work from that location.

What made our state’s recent “Pure Michigan” advertising campaign so successful worldwide was that it highlighted the life style elements of Michigan that attracted our predecessors, the Native Americans, the farmers and the vacationers. What appears to be happening is that our cul-de-sac neighborhoods, as they are collectively called, with no city center or public transportation, are no longer seen as attractive to the very types of workers we are trying to attract. Some local governments have gone as far as banning the development of future cul-de-sac neighborhoods (The Washington Post).

From a recent Oakland Press article let me add one more headline to the collection presented in the opening paragraph. “I think I just got fired” was the exclamation uttered by West Bloomfield Township’s director of economic development when the position was eliminated on the grounds it did not produce any results.  Why should this surprise anyone? If we truly want to develop a knowledge-based economy than we better develop the life style preferred by the workers who thrive in that economy. Maybe West Bloomfield Township created the wrong department. How about the Department of Life Style Development?

A final note: our state legislators voted to dramatically reduce and eventually scrap the “Pure Michigan” advertising campaign. Maybe our state needs a Department of Life Style Development.

About the GWBHS
The Greater West Bloomfield Historical Society (GWBHS) is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization. It serves the Michigan communities of Keego Harbor, Orchard Lake, Sylvan Lake and West Bloomfield. The Society's goal is to provide a vital museum to familiarize residents with our area's history. For more information, please visit www.gwbhs.com

Complete paper with references: Michigan's Future: Life Stlyes