Smartphone apps may be the key to getting people out of their cars and onto mass transit.
An interesting study of commuters in Boston and San Francisco found people are more willing to ride the bus or train when they have tools to manage their commutes effectively. The study asked 18 people to surrender their cars for one week. The participants found that any autonomy lost by handing over their keys could be regained through apps providing real-time information about transit schedules, delays and shops and services along the routes.
Though the sample size is small, the researchers dug deep into participants' reactions. The results could have a dramatic effect on public transportation planning, and certainly will catch the attention of planners and programmers alike. By encouraging the development of apps that make commuting easier, transit agencies can drastically, and at little cost, improve the ridership experience and make riding mass transit more attractive.
Putting Riders In Control
The point is for transit agencies to provide enough information to put riders in control of their experience and have greater choice in when and where to ride. People don't want to feel they are at the mercy of paper schedules, even if they are, and there's nothing worse than waiting for buses that may or may not be on time.
"You still haven't made the train change its route or made it (run) on my schedule, because that's impossible," said Neela Sakaria, a senior vice president at Latitude Research, the consulting firm that designed the deprivation study. "But you can give enough information that they have control."
Transit agencies are catching on. A growing number offer real-time schedule information and updates on delays at stations, online and via smartphone apps, said Tom Radulovich. He sits on the board of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system that serves the Bay Area, and he is the CEO of Livable City, a sustainable transit advocacy group.
Although loads of data is no substitute for frequent, and punctual, service, smartphone apps will be essential for attracting new riders, serving casual riders and in neighborhoods or regions with few transit options, Radulovich said.
"Especially if you're used to the automobile, that real time transit info is something that's going to make you feel more in control," he said.
Filling The Information Deficit
Latitude chose Boston and San Francisco for its study because there is a relative abundance of information about public transit. Both cities provide open-source data to developers who can create any number of apps. More than 30 apps have been created with data provided by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Those apps increase riders' sense of autonomy so they don't feel they're at the mercy of someone else's schedule.
"Mobile technology has allowed us to provide customers with dramatically more information about their commutes at a relatively low cost," said Richard Davey, MBTA general manager. "Just a few years ago, providing riders with real-time information would have required the installation of costly signs at bus stops throughout the system or building a complicated phone system. Today, new technology allows us to simply open our data allowing third parties to provide great solutions for customers."
Unfortunately, gathering and releasing all that data requires some tech savvy, which too often is lacking at some transit agencies.
"Muni, until recently, had very little information as to where their buses were, how many riders they had," Radulovich said, referring the to San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency. When Muni started gathering data, it not only helped riders but gave transportation planners the information they needed to manage transit systems more effectively. Other agencies can learn the same lesson.
"That's going to be a boon to the agencies," he said. "If they use those tools customers can have more information and feel empowered, and the agencies themselves can manage reliability."
A Sense of Community
Study participants reported that ditching their cars made them feel more connected with the communities where they work and live. That feeling grows stronger still with technology that connects riders to the cityscape.
"We heard of a sense of community, and a serendipitous sense of experiencing their community that they wouldn't be doing if they were going from point A to point B in their cars," Sakaria said.
Without cars, participants rediscovered their neighborhoods while walking or biking to and from transit stations. Many said they'd like more information about the areas they pass through while riding mass transit. For example, if there's a supermarket where they can grab something for dinner or a gym where they can work out, have it show up on the transit map.
To be clear, none of the participants had a lifestyle that left much time for exploration. They all had jobs and pretty rigorous schedules.
"What was really interesting is the people we talked to were inherently in need of getting to work," said Sakaria. "If someone could get other things done on their public transit ride — what other errands they need to run, for example — this time that you're using to get to work can actually be more productive than time spent in your car."
Radulovich says transit riders, pedestrians and cyclists have a better sense of the communities through which they traveling, which increases social cohesion. Technology, he said, can take some of the unease and guesswork out of finding what lies between the stops.
"You might not know that there's a dry cleaner here, there's a hardware store here," he said. "Things might be closer to you than you imagined."
For all that BART and the MBTA have done to share data, Sakaria says there is still a disconnect between transit apps and services that might be useful to riders. For example, MBTA and BART have teamed up with car sharing services to allocate parking for shared cars. Ideally, an app would meld the two services, allowing transit riders to have a car reserved the moment their train arrives.
Another example is a new parking app in San Francisco that shows how many spaces are available at a given location. If it included transit schedules and other data, it could quickly and easily tell commuters whether they're better off driving or taking a bus.
Places less connected than San Francisco or Boston can benefit, too.
"Cities where giving up a car is out of the question can certainly learn something from what we did here." Sakaria said. "There are things technology can do to improve the perception of public transit that can overcome some of the barriers around infrastructure. It can overcome some of the hurdles that infrastructure can't."
In many cities, Google Maps offers directions via bike and transit in addition to driving and walking. Combining each and every mode of transportation into what Sakaria calls a "service ecosystem" can only increase the number of choices open to a commuter.
"I don't need to be 100 percent a car person, or 100 percent a transit person — but two, three or four days a week I can make the decision to make incremental choices that make me feel good about saving money," Sakaria said. "Information access becomes a great democratizer. It can start to create equity between public transit, bikes and personal cars."