Mini-Buses and uberPool

January 14, 2017 | 2 min read

Last month, I started reading A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. It’s a book about architecture that contains 253 rules for building everything from metropolitan areas (2. The Distribution of Towns) to houses (221. Natural Doors and Windows).

There’s so much to talk about from this book, but one pattern in particular caught my attention: 20. Minibuses. Here’s a quote from the passage:

Buses and trains, which run along lines, are too far from most origins and destinations to be useful. Taxis, which can go from point to point, are too expensive.

To solve the problem, it is necessary to have a kind of vehicle which is half way between the two—half like a bus, half like a taxi—a small bus which can pick up people at any point and take them to any other point, but which may also pick up other passengers on the way, to make the trip less costly than a taxi fare.

The system hinges, to a certain extent, on the development of sophisticated new computer programs. As calls come in, the computer examines the present movements of all the various mini-buses, each with its particular load of passengers, and decides which bus can best afford to pick up the new passenger, with the least detour.

Replace “mini-buses” with “uber cars” and that quote reads like a convincing pitch for uberPool.

I don’t think that anyone could have reasonably predicted when the book was published in 1977 that, while mini-buses would not become widespread, just give the idea a couple of decades until the internet takes hold and Moore’s Law makes it possible to build an iPhone, and then the concept of a mini-bus would be possible.

I think there are two takeaways here:

  1. A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction stands the test of time. Mini-buses didn’t take hold, but the idea was clearly in the right direction. There’s a lot of “I never thought about it that way” moments in this book.

  2. Human ingenuity is a very strong force. I’m generally not overly optimistic on any one specific technology (e.g. A.I., genetic sequencing, renewable energy). But on the whole, I am optimistic that things will be better in a decade than they are today—and I do mean that in the broadest sense. Who knew 40 years ago that mini-buses would become uberPool. I don’t know what’s coming tomorrow. Whatever it is, though, it will probably be better than what we have today.