The Future of Transit: 3 Software Trends You Need to Know

Josh CohenIndustry Thoughts, TransLoc Blog0 Comments

Buses in traffic

As you may have noticed, there are some major trends in software and data within the transit space happening right now. For the TL;DR version, check out the shortlist below. If you’d like more info, keep reading!

  1. When it comes to apps, more is not necessarily better
    Instead of just opening data via the app garage model, mobile apps that are created with more purpose will allow them to access data in a more comprehensive and meaningful manner.
  2. User-centered design is key to breaking down ridership barriers
    Agencies are beginning to see the virtue in putting the user first and attempting to remove barriers to transit use through digestible, user-centric design and information.
  3. There is less of a focus on custom features and more of a focus on outcomes
    There is movement away from the customized platform model in order to find solutions that enable the outcomes more consistently and efficiently.
When it comes to apps, more is not necessarily better

For the last 10 years, the mobile app strategy that many transit agencies have taken is extensive, but shallow—a mile wide and an inch deep.  Back in 2009, when the iPhone and Android were still in proverbial diapers, transit agencies didn’t know what would happen with mobile phones and apps. They unbarred the doors and windows to open data so that they could encourage developers to create apps.  

This made sense from a couple of perspectives: 1) transit agencies didn’t necessarily have the expertise in-house to create compelling mobile apps, and 2) the rapidly-changing technology wasn’t quite there yet to successfully engineer great mobile apps. And yet, as the mobile experience has matured over the last seven years, these approaches needed to mature as well.  But they haven’t.  

You still see many of the largest agencies relying on the app garage model.  This model is a mile wide, but an inch deep.  There are a ton of developers providing apps, the usage is spread over those apps, and the agencies control nothing about them. But that’s changing.

Over the last few years, as data has become currency, agencies are recognizing that their riders are a both a major asset and generator of data. Agencies see the mobile apps that they create or contract out with will allow them to access that (instead of just opening the data via the app garage model).

At TransLoc, we’ve collected over 6 billion data points on how transit riders move through their communities. This is data that we share with agencies to help them optimize their routes and run their systems more effectively.  And we’ve enabled agencies to ask their riders survey questions as they are using transit, to help give agencies data on how they are performing. Recently, the MBTA released an app called QualiT that uses beacons to survey riders about their experience riding the Silver Line in Boston.  

Either way, this new approach is different.  It’s an inch wide (since usage is focused on just one app), but a mile deep with tons of data collected for the agency to use to improve service.  And it’s happening all because of a shift in the strategy agencies are using to distribute apps.  

*Note: To be clear, this doesn’t mean that I expect we’ll see agencies restrict access to open data or get rid of app garages, but I do think it means that they will choose to either create their own app or contract out with an app provider that can help them go deeper with data collection.

User-centered design is key to breaking down ridership barriers

When you reflect on the success that Uber, Lyft, Apple, and others have had over the last few years, a critical factor is their strategy of simplification and a smooth user experience.  For instance, Uber made the sometimes painful experience of taking a taxi dead simple: you know who’s picking you up, you don’t fumble for cash, you don’t worry about the tip, and you can provide feedback on the driver.  

Transit is complex, too. Many people don’t appreciate how hard it is to get huge hunks of steel moving around communities as safely and regularly as they are.  But for a long time, agencies have simply delivered the same complex information that they use to communicate internally to the public. Imagine a super complex transit schedule or transit map and it’s hard to tell where to even get started.

This overly-complex communication and design creates barriers for riders to use transit and, eventually, a vicious circle that reinforces those barriers—those barriers lead to excuses for more people not to ride, leading to a lack of incentive for agencies or elected officials to solve these problems, keeping those barriers in place.  

But recently, those same user-centric principles that Uber, Lyft, and Apple have used are being  applied to transportation.  Transit technology providers are taking really complex information and displaying it in easy to understand ways. This is an important advancement because it blows up those barriers that keeps people from using transit and puts the user first.

Barriers like:

  • “I don’t own a smartphone.”  You don’t need one with TransitScreen or Roadify, which can aggregate transit data in a building lobby for you.
  • “I don’t know how to read a schedule.” That doesn’t matter when your smartphone can create the best possible trip for you, including using Uber to pick you up and take you to the bus to overcome the first-mile problem, as TransLoc Rider does.
  • “I don’t carry cash.”  Masabi gives you the ability to pay on your phone so that you’re never running for the bus or train praying you have that “secret $20” still stashed in your wallet and TransLoc Rider is integrating fare payment in the very near future.

Removing these barriers has an amazing impact. Now, instead of the vicious circle we had before, we have a virtuous circle.  Barriers are solved with technology, which helps attract new riders, giving political incentive to remove more barriers, and the virtuous circle continues.  

Less focus on custom features and more focus on outcomes

There has been a longstanding strategy for public agencies to take the one throat to choke strategy—if you’re not familiar with the phrase, it means to either buy everything from one vendor or have one vendor act as prime to control the rest of the subcontractors.  The net effect is that, from an accountability standpoint, there is one place to turn.  

This is problematic for two reasons:

  1. This implies that the relationship is contentious from the beginning.
  2. The client is dependent on one vendor, which leads to a suboptimal experience—the switching costs are high and it’s not realistic for one firm to be best-of-breed in everything.  

The root cause of this is a feeling that every agency is unique—NYC MTA is different than CATS in Charlotte, which is different from the Comet in Columbia, SC. And they are. But the result is that agencies define specific features for their unique situation instead of defining the outcomes they want.  This just encourages the creation of custom, expensive software that is bloated and hard to use.

Luckily, technology is enabling a shift that we’re just beginning to see the potential of.

Ultimately, the virtuous circle we hope to create looks like this: Agencies dictate outcomes they desire.  Software companies provide modular options allowing agencies to purchase what they need cheaply and easily. This creates more potential markets for technology providers and more options for agencies.  And the virtuous circle continues.  

Some people will say this isn’t possible.  But it’s happened in the education space with Blackboard.  Schools are unique and yet many of them use a platform to get the modules they need to communicate with their students, manage their grades, and manage campus spending accounts.  It’s also happened in the consumer space.  You and I are unique but we each have technology in our pocket that we’ve customized with modular apps to meet our needs.  

The feds are getting it too.  The recent Mobility OnDemand Sandbox encourages “open data platforms, common user interfaces, and practices and technologies that encourage and ensure system interoperability.”  When technology can allow for these modular pieces, there will be no more choking. 

You may be thinking that we’ve had standards and open data before.  Why will it be different this time?  Marc Andreessen, who might be most famous to you for co-founding the company Netscape and who is now a venture capitalist, famously said that “software is eating the world.” Andreessen cites analog businesses like Blockbuster and Borders that have been disrupted by Netflix and Amazon, respectively, themselves fueled by lower start-up costs and the scalable delivery of information via software.  

Software is indeed eating the world. It hasn’t eaten transit yet, but it will.  When it does, the benefits will be immense:

  • Access information faster:  When transit agencies can access new technology as quickly as you can download a new app on your mobile phone, just think of the overhead that can be avoided, the speed with which transit can serve more people, and the barriers that can be removed from in front of riders.
  • Data driven like never before:  Our hypothesis is that, despite all the advances in technology with autonomous vehicles, that public transit isn’t going anywhere.  There is too much infrastructure, politics, and, as consultant Jarrett Walker likes to say, geometry involved, for transit to be eliminated from our communities.  If it’s going to be here, we have to help it achieve its fullest potential.  
  • Better experience for riders: Riders don’t care about political jurisdictions, who provides the service, or why service doesn’t run on weekends, they simply want seamless mobility.

At TransLoc, we’re creating this world.  *mic drop*

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