February 23, 2019
Category archive


Echo Wall Clock review

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This was the year Amazon went all-in on the Alexa. September saw the announcement of a new Echo Dot, Show and Plus, a subwoofer, an audio input device, an auto dongle and an amplifier. That would have been plenty, but the company also started dipping its toes into the other side of things.

2018 also found Amazon experimenting in the connected device category — namely a microwave and wall clock (oh, and a singing fish, too). It’s a strange move on the face of it. After all, there are countless companies currently vying for a small slice of that mindshare.

But Amazon’s got a few key things going for it. For one, the company stands to gain from building products that exist solely to complement its Echo devices. For another, it’s able to sell products at — or close to — cost.

The Echo Wall Clock benefits quite a bit for both of these factors. It’s $30 device that’s essentially useless without an Alexa device. In fact, Alexa is required to set the time. That’s a downside in the off-chance you happen along one of these products without an Echo nearby. But it’s handy when it comes to set up.

Find a spot within 30 feet of a compatible device (Echo, Dot, Show, Plus, E Spot or Input.). Open the back. Pop in four AA batteries (included). Tell Alexa, “Set up my Echo Wall Clock.” Hold the little blue button on the back until the front light turns a kind of pulsating orange. Alexa will go to work, and when everything’s good to go, that light will turn blue.

I initially attempted to set up the device on my office Wi-Fi. Never a great idea with these sort of connected products. Large enterprise networks are a crapshoot, and the two devices were off again, on again. Assuming you’ve got a similar set-up, you’re going to want to keep the Wall Clock (and, for that matter, most Alexa devices) at home.

Once I switched to a personal network (via a MiFi), things went much more smoothly. Alexa will set the clock to your time zone. Bonus: It will automatically fall back and spring ahead when there’s a time change — certainly a leg up on most wall clocks.

There are a couple of things worth noting here, before we go any deeper. First: the Wall Clock is, for lack of a better term, cheap looking. It’s big and it’s plasticky. There’s no front glass. It is, honestly, the sort of design you’d expect from a wall clock made by Amazon. There’s no razzle dazzle here. It’s a simple-looking clock with a simple design. The upshot is it’s minimalist enough to fit in with most living rooms and kitchens.

That simplicity also extends to its feature set, which is currently mostly limited to timers. The 60 minute markers that line the edge are actually all individual LEDs. Tell Alexa to, say, “set a 10-minute timer” and 10 minute hands will light up and then individually go dark to count down the  time. Once the countdown is over, the full diameter will flash slowly until you tell Alexa to stop.

And that’s it, really. Timers and alarms. The Wall Clock is one of the first passive Alexa devices from Amazon. Your Echo is really doing all of the heavy lifting, including listening and talking. You can’t, say, ask the clock for the time or the weather, which is why you need an Echo close by. It also doesn’t emit a sound when the alarm goes off. Of course, that means a cheaper price — and much longer battery life.

The Echo Wall Clock isn’t a necessary device, but it could prove a handy one. If you cook a lot, for instance, it’s nice having a large visual reference in addition to the Echo’s built-in timers. Beyond that, however, I’m struggling to come up with too many scenarios in which it feels indispensable. And honestly, I’m not holding my breath in expectation that Amazon will be bringing more to the table here.


The device succeeds more as a proof of concept for the ways Alexa and compatible devices can push the boundaries of the smart home. There’s nothing particularly compelling here for most consumers — but at $30, perhaps it doesn’t have to be.

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The Rodecaster Pro is a perfect centerpiece to a home podcasting studio

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My podcasting rig is simple: Two microphones, a Tascam recorder, two XLR cables. I’ve upgraded things a bit in the past year — improved the mics, bought some foam windscreens and bought a pair of tabletop, foldable mic stands. But the principle is the same: take nothing I can’t fit into a laptop sleeve.

It’s served me pretty well in the five years I’ve been doing my show. While friends were building soundproof posting studios in their homes, I went with a rig I could take with me. It’s a lot easier to ask someone to be on your show if you’re able to go to them.

Here’s a picture I took of comedian Hannibal Buress after recording an upcoming episode in my hotel room in Lagos, Nigeria. That’s my setup right there. It’s sitting atop my rolling luggage, which is turned upside down on a small hotel coffee table. Improvisation is key.

There are trade-offs, of course. Sound is a big one. The mics themselves are pretty crisp, but ambient noise is an issue. I’ve recorded a bunch of these in cafes, bars and restaurants. I tell myself it’s part of the charm. And, of course, with a Tascam, you don’t have the same sort of sophisticated control you get with a board.

Perhaps I’ve always secretly fantasized about what a home studio might look like. Cost has always been a factor, of course. These things add up like crazy. Also, the barrier of entry is needlessly complex. A handful of companies have looked to capitalize on the increasingly profitable world of non-professional podcasts. Blue has produced some pretty compelling USB-based stuff. For those who want to record multiple guests in the same room, however, things start to get much trickier.

I jumped at the chance to try out the Rodecaster Pro. From the looks of it, it just might be the ideal product to help home podcasters scratch that itch. The product is essentially a six-channel soundboard with self-contained production capabilities. The idea is to just record everything live to a single track that can be uploaded directly to your podcast server of choice.

That includes everything from live mixing to an octet of sound pads you can use to trigger music beds and sound effects. Better yet, you can patch people in remotely by connecting a smartphone via hardwire or Bluetooth.

It’s a really lovely piece of hardware. I showed it to a few folks during setup, and everyone was impressed by the look of the thing, from the pro knobs to the brightly illuminated sound pads with customizable colors.

There’s a small touchscreen display at the top of the board that serves both as a way to gauge levels and navigate various settings. Essentially it serves as a way to bypass the computer entirely, once you’ve finished the setup process. The Rodecaster operates on a similar principle as much of’s offerings, giving users the path of least resistance to bringing a podcast to life.

It’s an admirable goal, especially in the world of podcasting, where content democratization is supposed to be a guiding principle. And certainly setup is painless, so far as mixing boards go. I had to fine-tune and troubleshoot a few things to get it up and running, but within an hour or two, everything was perfectly set up and running.

The downside to that level of simplicity, however, is that it removes the ability to fine-tune some key parts of the process. The most glaring omission is multi-track recording. Sure, you can record four people on mics and a fifth on a phone call, but it all records to the same track. That’s fine and dandy if you want something quick and dirty (as, granted, some podcasters do), but I’m a proponent of editing.

If you’re trying to make it sound professional, you’re going to want to cut it down. Even as someone whose podcast often runs in excess of an hour, I still find I spend much more time chopping the show up in Audacity than I do actually recording. It sucks, but that’s what you need to do if you want it to sound half decent.

Even if you’re not editing for content, at least cut the “uhms” and “ahs” and all of those bits where everyone talks over each other. That’s a hell of a lot easier to do when you’re operating with multiple tracks. I realize not everyone feels that way, but the option would be nice.

Setup mostly consists of unboxing and plugging in cables. Rode sent up a deluxe edition in a giant backpack that also included a pair of its Podcaster microphones and large, heavy stands. You’ll need to go through a couple of screens to set up odds and ends like time and date and to pair it to your phone, if you plan to go that route.

I tethered the board to my laptop during setup, in order to customize the sounds. It comes preloaded by default with applause, laughter, a rimshot and the like — it’s the Morning Zoo Crew package. I tossed in an intro and outro song and a couple of custom effects for good measure (Reggaeton air horn and Nelson from The Simpsons, naturally).

There’s a total of 512MB of storage, so you can add longer tracks as well, associating them by dropping them onto the corresponding pads on the desktop app. Check the levels, pop in a microSD card for recording and you’re off to the races.

I’ll admit that I ran into a couple of hiccups with things like phone audio through the board. Also, the rear headphone jacks require an adapter if you want everyone to hear themselves and the sound effects. Seems like an odd choice, given the novice target audience. Especially since the front cans use a standard jack size.

Original Content records its weekly episode on Fridays, so the timing worked out perfectly to test the thing out. Anthony and I set up mics across the table from each other and we beamed Jordan in via phone.

I hit record, tapped the intro music and we were off. Somewhat annoyingly, the buttons can only trigger the sounds, but not turn them off. That’s great for something like the air horn (for ironic comedic effect only, I swear), but less great with music. You’ll want to edit that down to the length you need it, otherwise you’ll end up potting down the fader, effectively losing that channel until it’s finished playing. The ability to see how much time is remaining on each track would have been a nice touch, but it’s not crucial here.

Once everything was up and running, we didn’t run into any issues for the hour and change we spent recording (aside from me riding the sound effect board a little too hard, perhaps). We finished recording, popped out the card and transferred the files. Boom, podcast.

The sound quality on the Rode mics is really terrific — borderline studio-quality stuff. The episode will be up in a few days, so you can judge for yourself. The sound on Jordan’s phone connection isn’t great, but you can’t really fault Rode for the poor state of cellphone call quality these days.

The Rodecaster Pro does exactly what is says on the box — and does most of it quite well. As someone who operated a board back in my radio days, I got back into the swing of things almost immediately. I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed going through those motions in the intervening years. And the ability to actually do a show face to face brings a level of energy and understanding you lose when relegated to Skype.

Bottom line: $600 for the board alone is going to be prohibitively expensive for many novice podcasters. But for a select few looking to start down the path to serious podcasting, this will really hit the sweet spot and up your game with the press of a button.

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Google Pixel Slate review

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First, a dirty little secret about product reviews: You’d love to integrate every product into your daily use, but it just isn’t possible. Especially when you’re dealing with the volumes we deal with here. Every so often, however, the stars align. You find yourself days from a two-week trip through Asia, when Google overnights you the Pixel Slate.

That, ultimately, is the best way to put a product through its paces, finding yourself a stranger in a strange land, forced to grapple with an unfamiliar product. Google’s new convertible hitched a ride through two countries and an autonomous territory, from the neon-lit, Mario Kart racing streets of Akihabara to the gadget markets of Shenzhen to the densely packed hostels of Hong Kong’s Chunking Mansions, where the showers are the toilets and the landlord bangs on your door after midnight, demanding payment.

It’s not the sort of experiment for which I would have volunteered to play guinea pig a few short years back. Google’s operating systems are often slow out of the gate, and Chrome OS is certainly no exception. The earliest Chromebooks were, at best, novelties, underpowered machines with little to differentiate themselves from the previous generation’s netbooks. Aside, of course, from an operating system that barely functioned offline.

But even while the mere existence of the category was (rightfully) questioned by pundits, Google kept plugging away. The company continued adding features to Chrome, turning the browser-based OS into something approaching a full desktop operating system. In 2013, the company unveiled the Chromebook Pixel, a premium notebook designed to show what Google, “could do if we really wanted to design the best computer possible at the best price possible,” according to then-SVP Sundar Pichai.

Even while the Chromebook came to dominate the classroom in subsequent years, Google still had something to prove. The company was never content to have its operating system relegated to the bargain bins. All of that came to a head with last year’s Pixelbook. The apex of Chrome features and proprietary design, the device pushed the boundaries of what a Chromebook can do.

Last December, Google quietly retired the Pixel C. Google acknowledged the move and managed to get a plug in for its new device, telling TechCrunch, “Our newly launched Google Pixelbook combines the best parts of a laptop and a tablet for those looking for a versatile device.”

Back in March, however, the company partnered with Acer to launch an education-focused Chrome tablet, just ahead of Apple’s big education event. And then, last month, it launched the Pixel Slate. More than anything, the Slate feels like a sister device to the Pixelbook. In fact, from a pure spec standpoint, you’d be pretty hard pressed to distinguish the devices.

The lack of distinction between the products really stood out during my time with the device. Detachables are great from the standpoint of versatility, but how often do you really end up taking advantage of the feature? After nearly two weeks spent traveling with the Slate, I can’t think of a single occasion that warranted removing it from the keyboard dock. Hell, the dock’s even better for watching videos — I’d much rather use a built-in stand than be forced to hold it for the duration of a film.

It’s just a fact of life that you’re going to sacrifice some features when opting for a convertible instead of a devoted laptop. The gulf between the two does seem to get smaller with each passing generation, but it continues to be the case with the Slate. The Pixelbook is simply the better typing experience of the two devices. That said, the Slate is easily one of the best typing experiences I’ve had on a keyboard case.

As someone whose job is like 90 percent typing, keyboards have long been the largest thing keeping me from seriously considering a hybrid tablet as a daily driver. The Slate case’s round keys are perfectly responsive, and it didn’t take me too long to get into the rhythm. Halfway into my first story, I could fully imagine myself doing all of my filing on the Slate.

Chrome OS has also improved by leaps and bounds in the last few years. Way back in 2016, Google announced a clever fix to Google’s app problem. The company would bring the Play Store to the operating system. At the time, the company told TechCrunch it was a “powerful way of bringing those two worlds together.” More than anything, however, it’s a clever workaround.

I found myself downloading a number of different apps from the Play Store, and in a number of cases ran into the same complaint I had on the Pixelbook. Try downloading and loading a less common app, and it will open with smartphone dimensions on your display. Try making it full size and you’ll see the following pop-up: “This application needs to restart to resize and may not work well when resized.”


Another app gave me the more straightforward (and honest), “Sorry! This device is not supported.”

Double oof.

I’d run into a lot of this the last time I went to China with the Pixelbook in tow. I’d had some grand ambition to edit my podcast on the 14-hour plane ride, but ultimately gave up looking for a decent Audacity replacement after downloading and installing a half dozen or so different apps. These issues are understandable for a new operating system, but Chrome OS has been kicking for around seven years now. It can still feel like a frustrating mix of fully fledged operating system and undercooked user experience.

Like the iPad Pro, the Pixel Slate’s software shortcomings can be particularly frustrating when coupled with premium hardware. I could still do most of what I needed on the Slate, but the inability to fully connect some of the dots left me wondering why I wouldn’t just opt for a full laptop, nine times out of 10.

Price is one factor, certainly. The Slate starts at $599, which puts the 12.3-inch device well below the 11-inch iPad’s $799 entry (though the latter, admittedly, comes with 64GB of storage to the former’s 32GB). That price includes a stunning 3000 x 2000 pixel display, besting the Pixelbook’s 2400 x 1600.

Customization is really the name of the game here. The Slate has more configurations than the Pixelbook, letting you max out the specs at $1,599 for a model with 16GB of RAM, 256GB of storage (half the Pixelbook’s max) and a Core i7 processor. Of course, if you want the keyboard and pen, that’s going to cost you too — $199 and $99, respectively. The keyboard, it should be noted, brings the device’s total weight up to 2.7 pounds — more than both the Pixelbook (2.6 pounds) and 12-inch MacBook (2.03 pounds).

The keyboard is really a must have, snapping the OS into Desktop UI mode as soon as it’s docked. Of course, you also can still swipe up from the bottom to bring up the app tray. As someone who continues to use a Mac as my daily driver, it boggles the mind that Apple hasn’t brought full touchscreen functionality to the desktop. The touch bar is really no replacement for the feature, and having used the Pixel Slate for a few days now, I still find myself reaching out to touch the screen. “Some day,” I whisper softly to myself, before returning to the task at hand.

Other small touches like Split Screen and tabs that can be dragged into their own windows are nice touches, as well, which lend the device a bit more credence as a work machine. The pen is a nice add-on, as well, though I found a lot fewer uses for it during my day to day.

Ultimately, I would probably opt out of that additional $99 — especially with no easy way to store it à la the iPad Pro. Rather than a rechargeable battery, it takes the fairly uncommon AAAA — a shorter, thinner take on the AAA. They’re around if you look — I was actually a bit surprised to see them stocked at my local Walgreen’s.

The Pixel Imprint combo power button/fingerprint reader is a nice touch. The loss of the headphone jack, meanwhile, is a bit of a blow. I found myself all dongled up when using my headphones. It’s just an inevitability in 2018, I suppose. I also appreciate the fact that Google’s gone with one USB-C slot on either side, rather than sticking them both on the same edge like the MacBook Air. That gives you a little more wiggle room on the accessories front.

I don’t regret packing the Pixel Slate. I’ve had far worse travel companions, both human and gadget. Like the Pixelbook, the tablet is intended to be a showcase for what Chrome can do on a solid piece of hardware. And once again, it’s a case of the hardware outshining the software, even as it muddies the waters around Google’s Chromebook strategy. 

As an operating system, Chrome has made leaps and bounds in recent years, and it’s no wonder that it’s become a mainstay in classrooms. When it comes to being a serious desktop operating system for business, however, there’s still some work to be done.

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Google Maps biz reviews can now include hashtags

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Google Maps has quietly rolled out a new feature aimed at helping users discover places others have recommended: it now supports hashtags in reviews. For example, if you’re reviewing a restaurant that would make an excellent #datenight spot, you can simply add the appropriate hashtag. Or if the business is #familyfriendly or #wheelchairaccessible, you can note those sorts of things, too.

Google suggests that users add up to five hashtags per review, and place them at the end of the review to make the text easier to read.

The company confirmed to TechCrunch support for hashtags rolled out globally just over a week ago on Android devices. So far, it had only been announced to members of Google Maps’ Local Guides program – the program that rewards its members for sharing their reviews, photos and knowledge about businesses and other places they visit.

Guides were told they can go back and add hashtags to their old reviews, as well as include them on new ones.

In addition to helping people find restaurants by cuisine or dietary needs (e.g. #vegetarian), hashtags can also highlight local attractions as #goodforselfies or a great place for #sunsetviews, Google suggested. The tags can note the accessibility features offered, too – like if there’s a wheelchair ramp or an audio menu available.

But unlike on Instagram and other social apps, the hashtags in reviews need to be specific to be useful. Google says that general terms like #love or #food won’t be helpful. 

The feature on its own may seem like a minor, if handy, addition to Google Maps. However, it arrives at a time when Google Maps has been getting upgraded to better challenge Facebook’s Pages platform.

For example, Maps in October added a new “follow” feature,, which allows users to track businesses in order to hear about their news, sales, deals, events, and more. This month, Google rolled out a revamped My Business app so business owners could easily update their Maps profile page with new content – including the news they wanted to share with followers. They can also use the app to view and respond to reviews and messages.

With the addition of hashtags in reviews, Google Maps could become a better discovery platform for businesses and other places, and possibly even a social recommendations platform. Google Guides were told to use the hashtag #LetsGuide to point users to their own personal recommendations of favorite places. To what extent they’ll adopt that tag, of course, still remains to be seen.

To use the new hashtags feature, you just tap the blue link when you see one listed in a review to be taken to a list of the other nearby places that have the same tag, Google says. The company didn’t say when the feature would make its way to iOS or the web.

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How issues of microtransit, congestion and parking are closing in on cities

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Earlier this week in a new experimental newsletter I’ve been helping Danny Crichton on, we briefly discussed transit pundit Jarrett Walker’s article in The Atlantic arguing against the view that ridesharing and microtransit will be the future of mass transit. Instead, his thesis is that a properly operated and well-resourced bus system is much more efficient from a coverage, cost, space, and equality perspective.

Consider this an ongoing discussion about Urban Tech, its intersection with regulation, issues of public service, and other complexities that people have full PHDs on.  I’m just a bitter, born-and-bred New Yorker trying to figure out why I’ve been stuck in between subway stops for the last 15 minutes, so please reach out with your take on any of these thoughts:

From an output perspective, Walker argues that by operating along variable routes based on at-your-door pick ups, microtransit actually takes more time to pick up fewer people on average. Walker also gives buses the edge from a cost and input perspective, since labor makes up 70% of transit operating costs in a pre-autonomous world and buses allow you to service more customers for the price of one driver.

“The driver’s time is far more expensive than maintenance, fuel, and all the other costs involved.  In almost every public meeting I attend, citizens complain about seeing buses with empty seats, lecturing me about how smaller vehicles would be less wasteful. But that’s not the case. Because the cost is in the driver, a wise transit agency runs the largest bus it will ever need during the course of a shift. In an outer suburb, that empty big bus makes perfect sense if it will be mobbed by schoolchildren or commuters twice a day.”

But transit is not solely an issue of volume and unit economics, but one of managing public space. Walker explains that to ensure citizens don’t use more than their fair share of space, cities can either provide vehicles that are only marginally bigger than a human body, i.e. bikes and scooters, or have many people share large-scale vehicles, i.e. mass transit. Doing the latter through a mass fleet of on-demand microtransit solutions, Walker argues, increases congestion and makes it harder to manage scheduling and allocate infrastructure.

While the article offers an effective comparison of unit economics and acts as a useful primer on the various considerations for city transit agencies, some of the conclusions are a bit binary.  The discussion is a bit singular in its focus of microtransit as a replacement of public transit rather than an additive service and doesn’t give much credit to the trip planning and space management capabilities of many microtransit services, nor changes in consumer expectations towards transportation.

But despite some of the gaps in the piece, Walker highlights two ideas that spill over to some broad areas that have caught my interest lately: Tolls and Parking.


Photo by Michael H via Getty Images

“To succeed, microtransit would have to help people get around cities better, not just make them feel good about hailing a ride on a phone. Full automation of vehicles, if indeed it ever arrives, might solve the labor problem—although it would put thousands of drivers out of work. But the congestion problem will remain.”

Like many, Walker argues that ridesharing aggravates city traffic rather than alleviates it.  Even though ridesharing’s long-term impact on traffic is widely contested, nearly everyone agrees that a solution to urban congestion is desperately needed.

What’s interesting is that regardless of the discourse that surrounds them, trends in US tolling mechanisms seem to suggest American cities may be moving closer to congestion pricing methods.

As an example, solutions to congestion are top of mind behind the New York state election that saw Democrats taking control of both state legislative houses. Though it seems like the argument resurfaces every few years, the elections have brought renewed debate over the possible implementation of congestion pricing in New York City.  In essence, congestion pricing is a system where drivers would pay higher prices for using high-traffic streets or entering high-traffic zones, allowing cities to better dictate the flow of drivers and reduce congestion.   

Outside of the obvious political tension created by effectively implementing a new tax, some lawmakers have pushed back on the effectiveness of a congestion pricing policy, with some arguing that it can aggravate income inequality or that a policy addressing construction and pedestrians, rather than vehicles, would have a bigger impact on traffic.

However, over the past year or so, an increasing number of states have been rolling out highway tolls that are priced dynamically, instead of using traditional fixed-price tolls. The exact drivers behind the toll prices vary, with some cities charging prices based on traffic conditions and others charging varying prices for the use of express and HOV lanes.

Several new technologies and companies have also made it easier for local governments to implement more sophisticated, adjustable toll pricing or congestion fees at a much lower cost. In the past, congestion pricing systems around the world have required physical detection systems that can be extremely costly to implement.

Now, companies like ClearRoad are helping governments use a wide range of connected vehicle technologies to establish and collect road usage pricing from any location without the need for physical infrastructure. Oregon is one geography working with ClearRoad to manage its new opt-in road usage program where the state is able to calculate drivers’ usage of certain roads and their gas consumption, and then reimburse them for gas taxes they’re paying.

So even though people are still screaming at each other in state capitols, it seems like we may be closer to seeing congestion pricing in major cities than we think. And while executing these programs can be difficult and painfully slow (often needing to satisfy city regulations and tax laws forty layers deep), if these smaller-scale programs we’re seeing in the US are actually effective, congestion pricing may be a solution to plug chunky budget gaps, better finance infrastructure projects and replace lost gas tax revenue in an electric vehicle future.


In his piece, Walker goes back to some basic principles of urban design, highlighting that at their core, functioning cities come down to how millions of people share a comparatively tiny amount of space.  

Walker explains that city dwellers that travel with cars and solo rideshare trips rather than with large-scale shared transit are effectively taking up more than their fair share of public space.  While the argument is made in the context of ridesharing and congestion, the same idea applies to the less-discussed impact mass-transit ridesharing can have on city parking.

At least in the near-term, certain cities have seen ridesharing actually increase vehicle usage rather than reduce it (a claim rideshare companies dispute), resulting in an even wider gap between the supply and demand for available parking spots.  And if people are using ridesharing but still choosing to own cars regardless, in an indirect fashion, they are similarly reducing the stock of available parking space by more than their fair share.

And while it makes sense that rideshare vehicles should receive a larger portion of the parking stock, given that it serves more passengers, the use of available parking by these vehicles can and has caused tension with local residents that have to store their cars further away.

There are companies like the mobility-focused data platform, Coord, that are working on tools geared towards helping cities and citizens more effectively allocate and plan parking strategies for the future multi-modal transportation network. And theoretically, ridesharing should reduce the number of vehicles in search of parking in the long-term. But at least for now, the impact on parking congestion is just another unintended consequence that weakens the argument for ridesharing as mass transit.

And lastly, some reading while in transit:

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