How Smartphones Can Improve Public Transit


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.

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