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What if we applied UX thinking to urban planning problems?
Congestion problems in Sandton, Johannesburg has become a bigger headache than usual because of various companies re-locating to the hub, which brings with it an influx of thousands of cars. As reported recently, the average travel time to get into Sandton is one hour and 10 minutes. This means two hours and 20 minutes of an average day that could be spent more productively. For those of us that work in Sandton, this time is set to increase with many new companies moving in. So considering the current situation, what if we applied user experience (UX) thinking and principles to this issue?
Typically, UX designers start with understanding all the facets of a problem: business requirements, technical systems, limitations and most importantly, user needs and behaviours. Here's a summary of my very high level look at the different issues at play here:
Many companies are based in Sandton because it is so central, meaning you are relatively close to clients and to where your employees live. The value then lies in the perceived equidistance to and from everything and everyone. A contributing factor is that Sandton is the financial and business hub of South Africa. It is also close to hotels, conference centres and other corporate amenities. In addition, there seems to be a certain prestige associated with being in the heart of business in the city.
There are different ways you can get in and out of Sandton: the road and highway networks used by cars as well as taxis and buses, as well as the Gautrain and bus routes linked to it. But more often than not, the vehicles are not filled to capacity. In contrast, the Gautrain and its accompanying buses are regularly filled to the brim with commuters.
Regarding the infrastructure, it's clear that the roads cannot be widened as there is just no room. Train routes are still rather limited and the proposed Rea Vaya bus routes haven't yet been developed.
So far it has been suggested that people carpool, use public transport or start riding bicycles to work. This is not always realistic, as there are many reasons why private transport - especially cars carrying only one person - is the most convenient option for commuters. If we focus on these reasons, a solution designed around commuters' underlying behaviour will be far more effective. Consider the following user groups:
Fixed Employees - these are people with the type of jobs that require them to be at the office all day and not do any travelling. They only commute to and from home during peak hour traffic and therefore might conceivably have the least reason to be the only person in their car. Such commuters could then be persuaded to join a carpool, or commute via buses or trains. 'Means of commute' is therefore going to factor into the solution for them.
Nomad Employees - these are people such as sales reps whose jobs require them to be out on the road most of the time. They have the greatest need for a car, and derive the least value from public transport as they need freedom of movement. This could possible be addressed by looking at the 'time of their commute.' Perhaps they could avoid commuting to the office during peak hours and rather schedule external meetings during these congested hours, and go to the office after 09:00.
Flexible Employees - a large chunk of commuters fall into this category of people that on some days need to be at meetings away from the office, or at least require some freedom of movement for other reasons. To address this we need to look at the 'efficiency of commute', which can be separated from or include both 'means' and 'time of their commute.' One might look at what in their schedule is fixed, either in or out of the office, and then consider the best way to give them freedom without wasting energy. A viable solution might be to pair flexible employees with fixed employees for carpooling, or exploring an approach that encompasses public and private transport on different days.
Commuting isn't just about destination
However if we only looked at what people do, how they travel and what impacts them during their commute in and during work hours, no solution would suffice. We also need to consider what people do before work (such as dropping children off at school, or stopping for fuel) and what they do on their way home (picking up groceries, social events or picking children up.) Parents are particularly difficult to cater for because of their duties regarding children on the way to and from work, as well as the need for freedom of movement in case their child falls ill or has an accident at school.
The conclusion then is that the problem is a network problem. The challenge therein is to create or amend the network to allow for efficient movement that addresses needs both for work and beyond.
What will the solution look like?
To design a viable solution, a lot more research will have to be done. We would need to map out the journeys, obstacles and behaviours of all these user groups, considering the journey as a whole, not just getting to work. Businesses might even have to consider tailoring employees' 'office hours' around the type of positions they employ. There might even be ways of connecting fixed employees with flexible employees. In addition there could be initiatives between businesses situated close together to partner up and connect employees.
Furthermore government bodies will have to extend the public transport networks so that it is actually a viable alternative. That could mean more train stations, buses running more frequently and doing an audit of traffic light timers.
But the solution will not be a 'one-fits-all' solution as there are various commuter archetypes that will need to be catered for. Yet if it is addressed, business will have their employees in the office (or out) quicker, leaving more time for productivity. The environment will benefit because of fewer wasted car trips. But commuters, above all, would benefit from saving money, getting to work quicker and experiencing less stress and frustration, which makes for happier employees.
About Thandi Guilherme
User Experience Designer at NATIVE VML. She spends most of her days working out how to give customers the best experience possible from her client's products. This includes the process and system flows, interaction design and information architecture. Her bigger clients include the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, Pick 'n Pay and General Motors. She has a background in Philosophy and secretly dreams of brewing her own beer.
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