BART, Bikes, and Phones: How Mobile Tech Is Revolutionizing Public Transit

You’re running late. Well, you’re always running late, but this is slightly more pressing than before. You worked late, and are leaving your job in downtown San Francisco. You don’t have a ton of time to get to The Fillmore, where Radiohead is doing a reunion tour on the 30th anniversary of the release of The Bends. You really can’t believe it has been 30 years, but that’s some serious existential dread for another time- you have to get moving. But how?

You glance at your phone. It’s letting you know that there is a BART train arriving in 6 minutes and that, given projections, you will be able to grab the bus just two minutes after getting off at Market and Gough. You also see that, at the moment, there are 8 shared bikes at that stop, which might be quicker than taking the bus (and certainly better for your health). You punch in a code to reserve a bike, hop on the train, and arrive with enough time to catch the opening act (oddly enough? Skynrd). When The Bends first came out, “mobile tech” meant your Discman. Now, it is changing public transportation and getting you everywhere.

The BART might give you some info, but the Internet of Things and mobile tech might give you all of it. Image from Wikimedia Commons user Lensovet

TranistScreen and our connected transportation

This is in the future. We’re just now celebrating the 20th anniversary of The Bends, the album in which Radiohead began their exploration of the weird way man and technology interact. Their music was dark, and the band seemed to portend a dystopian ambiguity in their sonic explorations that make the listener unsure of what was real and what wasn’t. With respect to technology, Radiohead were pessimists– and with good cause.

As we try to show on this blog, though, the future of technology not all bad and technology is what we make it. In the scenario just described, technology can be a way to make public transportation more efficient, practical, and user-friendly (and, therefore, more popular).  The increased popularity of public transportation means fewer cars and a cleaner environment. In this case, technology can help to solve a lot of problems.

That’s one of the driving ideas behind TransitScreen, a Bay Area startup that just raised $600,000 in the first round of angel investing. What TransitScreen does is it places LCD screens in buildings that allow passersby to view train and bus schedules, bike availability, and anything else a commuter needs. Think of it as comparable to the Arrival/Departure screens in airports, only well-laid out and incorporating everything.

TransitScreen is a great idea that shows how much connected mobile technology and the Internet of Things have penetrated public transportation. It’s fairly standard now to be able to take out your phone, search for the bus you are waiting for, and discover its arrival time (which is good to know whether you’re in a rush or not). Right now, though, the system isn’t entirely mobile.

Commuters eager for better tech

A recent study by Accenture showed that public transportation users would be willing to pay more for improved technology. This could include:

  • Paperless ticketing for trains and the ability to use your phone to walk through turnstiles (some cities already have the latter)
  • Up-to-the-minute information and delay alerts, especially for above-ground trains. Knowing that at 8:35, the train you take every day is 11 minutes behind could save you a lot of discomfort (and maybe allow time for one more waffle).
  • Social media updates. Texts about upcoming events, deals, construction projects, and the like. People who feel more involved with a system are less likely to be alienated by minor delays.

I am not saying that these improvements will always play out as flawlessly as our imagined scenario, but it isn’t unreasonable to think that the kind of technology envisioned by TransitScreen can extend to our phones and tablets. All you have to do is punch in an address, and you’ll be able to know the exact route and timing of your chosen mode of transportation; this seems simple, but it could make a huge difference. You can select your destination based on the upcoming buses; get off the train a stop earlier than usual and take that early bus, because you’ll miss the one at your usual stop and have to wait 20 minutes. Or, you can take the bus to the nearest bike rental station. Or, after having taken a look at the available options, you can weigh the pros and cons and decide you want to walk.

A lot has to happen for the imagined scenario to play out (not least of which is Radiohead breaking up and getting back together to form a reunion tour). However, we are moving closer to a day when the public transportation experience can be captured entirely on by mobile technology. When that happens, it is possible that people will find public transportation easier and more convenient than driving. It’s an example of modern technology helping to make the world happily less modern– if that’s the case, then we’re not really sinking.

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