How Smartphones Can Improve Public Transit

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"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."

Making Connections

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."

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