On public transit in the Information Age

Since I started commuting to school/work after I graduated from high school lo ten years ago, I’ve spent countless hours waiting for busses, trains, and (more recently) streetcars, wondering if they were going to come.  When I was seventeen, I carried around a pile of bus schedules in my purse, and called AUTOBUS (the Montreal transport information system) regularly when I found myself schedule-less.  Today, paper schedules are relics of the past, and rather than calling a phone number and keying in the bus stop code, people can just look it up on their Smartphone.  Depending on the city you live in, your phone may actually know where the bus/train/streetcar is and live update the expected time.  The advent of Smartphones and of smart transportation systems harnessing user and transit network data could revolutionise how transit systems are designed and how users experience them.

I used to spend a lot of time freezing while waiting by the highway for buses that were coming in forty minutes, rather than in ten minutes as planned: commuters today (and going forward) shouldn’t need to do this.  Today’s commuter should be able to know where there bus is and how far out it is.  Intelligent transit systems can help users to make informed decisions about their movements. Auckland, New Zealand, has implemented ‘Real Time Boards’ in bus stops that report up-to-date information about bus’ locations; Vancouver B.C. uses intelligent transportation systems to keep passengers on some bus/Rapid-Transit lines informed. Smartphones and transit applications can help users to decide whether they’d rather wait twenty minutes for their bus, or go for the twenty minute walk home, but more importantly the data collected from users and from live tracking can enable a complete redesign of how we envisage transportation networks.

Originally, transit networks were designed around hubs and spokes: a passenger needed merely take the bus to the depot, where they could transfer to another route to get to their designation.  This made sense: passengers didn’t really need to know where they were going, they needed only find the hub and switch to the appropriate line.  The downside is that it can make for some incredibly indirect routes to nearby destinations.  In the neighbourhood I grew up in, for instance, a ten minute drive up a major street could take 1.5 hours on the bus because the depot was in the wrong direction, and no bus went directly.  Today, with Google Maps and Smartphones helping travellers with their way-finding, easily memorised routes become unnecessary: you don’t have to be able to memorize your trip, but instead can simply follow the directions on your phone, making routes that might have been quicker but too tricky for memorization feasible.  This also means that dispatchers could be empowered to make better decisions to alleviate congestion on popular routes, reroute buses to avoid traffic accidents, and generally make for a better transit experience for everyone, while users are kept in the loop via their mobile device.

Politicians, journalists, and we the public talk a lot these days about making transit better, about the importance of public transportation for alleviating traffic congestion, and for reducing pollution, but we rarely consider innovative ways to improve transportation.  New technologies provide an opportunity to transform the way that public transit works, for the better.


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