Paul Supawanich, a self-described “transportation problem solver” with the San Francisco firm Nelson/Nygaard, was curious about the Google commuter shuttles that stop outside his house in the Alamo Square neighborhood. So on Thursday morning he placed one of those rugged GoPro cameras, more associated with skydivers than urban planners, on a fence and set it to take one photo every two seconds. The camera started working just after 6am. “I let it do its thing for a couple of hours,” Supawanich says. Knit together, the photos produce a soundless time-lapse video that distills one of Silicon Valley’s contentious private transportation networks into its quotidian parts. The buses come. People load on. The buses pull away. All while the sun rises.
The effect verges on mesmerizing:
A few particular elements jump out of the flow. One is how neatly the shuttle riders queue up against a building’s wall until their coach arrives. Supawanich isn’t completely sure why that is, but suggests that the passengers don’t want to wait at a city bus stop and draw the attention of a Muni driver. At they same time, they seem eager to avoid blocking the sidewalk. Harder to figure out is why the first waiter in each cycle appears to stand in the very same spot, even with no signage. Cramming three hours into three minutes reveals these sorts of patterns that the human eye doesn’t catch in real time — part of the time-lapse technique’s appeal for the planner. Beyond that, Supawanich says, “it’s just fascinating to watch people in almost a fishbowl kind of environment.”
And while Supawanich’s neighborhood lies beyond the northern boundary of the Mission, the area at the center of the commuter bus debate, the shuttles here, which will take Googlers to the company’s Mountain View offices 40 miles away, are still crowded. (Scores of tech firms and other institutions shuttle employees down the peninsula, but according to Supawanich these are Google buses. “I just know that from background research,” he says.) Far fewer people hop on the city bus in the video. But Supawanich says that can be misleading. The Google buses draw people from five, six or seven blocks away, while Muni has a stop every block and a half. Still, the shuttles’ popularity suggests to him that the company may be “getting these large double-decker buses not because they’re fancy and luxurious, but because they’re the most efficient way to move that volume of people.”
There are limits to what time-lapse can say on its own. Supawanich points to a study his firm did of a stop on Vancouver’s Skytrain system. Trainfulls of passengers would get backed up trying to transfer to the city bus line. Nelson/Nygaard tried various design techniques to shape the flow of commuters, like marking the sidewalk with yellow tape and moving theater stanchions into place. “It was great,” Supawanich recalls. “We had a captive audience every three or four minutes.” And since the endgame was city policy-making, that video was annotated “basically pop-up video, VH-1 style,” with analytical notes on what the planners saw. (The Vancouver video is not online.) Since his Google bus video was a side project, Supawanich left it alone.
“This is what we do on our free time,” he says of his fellow urban planners, “because we’re all a bunch of nerds.”
One challenge with using time-lapse for urban planning, Supawanich says, is that today’s ultra-high-def cameras are almost too good. Speeding up the video and setting the camera at an angle are necessary to obscure riders’ identities. Otherwise, the footage is meant to be illuminating. The video won’t settle any debates. Indeed, Supawanich says, whether Google buses are making San Francisco a better or worse place is beyond the bounds of his work as transportation planner. “But it’s just a really good way to get a sense of what’s going on,” he says.
Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.