Friday 9 September 2016

The connected world

There was a time when we all lived in villages. There was no privacy and no secrets: each villager over the age of six knew where everyone was at any hour of the day and what they were doing and with whom. It's still like that where we are despite living 500 m from the nearest inhabited dwelling. If a tree falls in the forest or a sheep dies in the field, our neighbours know it before we do. But most people now live anonymous lives in cities big and small, passing in the street without greeting each other and not knowing their neighbours names despite hearing them bonking the weekend away just the other side of a party wall. When I was caught carless 20km from home after a snow-storm, it would have been handy to know that one of my friends was also in town and just about to set out to drive past the bottom of our lane. If only we'd been foursquare-enabled. It all worked out but I discovered later that, as I was thumbing at the edge of town, another neighbour was shopping in Lidl 300 m away.

Our glorious capital Dublin is in the throes of a two-day bus strike and a proportion of their 400,000 daily customers are snookered by the lack of buses. They live too far from work to walk and they don't own a bicycle or a car and there's no nearby train, DART or Luas line AND they have to be in work - nurses, chefs, teachers can't pull a sickie without making a mess of other people's lives. Three Longford lads, graduates of Dublin City University, have a launched a web-platform called CitySwifter to match travellers with transport. The way I heard about it on Newstalk radio, if enough people from Clondalkin want to get to the city centre for 0900hrs, then a private bus operator will seize the opportunity to make some honest cash.  Clearly there are customers because Dublin Bus, when they are not on strike, runs a number of routes (13, 51d, 51x, 68, 68a, 69, 69n, 76a,76) through Clondalkin. The key question for the profitability of the company - both the app and the bus - is whether enough of those customers are hip young people forever restlessly swiping at their devices.

In big cities, especially those with peculiar controls on traffic, critical mass for sharing transport has been working for decades. In Washington DC, you may use fast lanes on the expressways and/or  reduce your tolls if you are carrying passengers. Because you live in a city and know nobody, you cannot easily source people who want to go the same direction as you do. This collision of circumstances led to the birth of slugging. If you want to get to the Pentagon, you go stand in a known-to-those-in-the-know spot and wait to be scooped up by a driver in a hurry. This has been going on in DC and North Virginia for the best part of 40 years and an unwritten code of etiquette has grown up:
  • driver chooses the radio station
  • nobody eats or applies make-up
  • no cell phones
  • driver decides if the windows are open
  • don't leave a lone woman in the slug-line
  • no money exchanged
  • all parties say thank you at the end of the journey
It's super cool, I think. Apart from anything else it serves as an antidote to the belief that all hitch-hikers, and the drivers who pick them up, are axe-murderers [prevprevlier].

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