People rely on public transit in varying proportions across the U.S. This post focuses on one particular reason people may not use public transit. Some reasons individuals may not ride: first, we all like to have control over our environments, and that’s not possible when riding the bus, or the train. Second, we prefer a modicum of privacy, even in public; transit riders tend to achieve privacy by avoiding eye contact, which can be a strange experience for people who aren’t regular riders.

Waiting for the Interurban, 2003 courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives

Hey, can someone download One Bus Away?

A third obstacle to using public transit is a feeling that the rider lacks information. If a bus or subway rider cannot determine his wait time or get reliable information about service delays, then the extra monetary cost of driving and parking is a worthwhile economic tradeoff to the individual (or many individuals, leading to traffic woes). However, this transit information problem is being tackled increasingly at the municipal level, and two such projects are described below.

In Boston, the MIT Center for Civic Media introduced Lost in Boston: Real Time. Electronic signs display the arrival time for the next bus (as well as other civic information, such as municipal events) for transit riders. Initially, local businesses donated window space near bus stops to convey information. The emphasis on this project is on broadcasting information, rather than allowing users to retrieve personalized information.

In Seattle, One Bus Away is a project initiated by a University of Washington Computer Science & Engineering graduate student Brian Ferris. The application is accessible on mobile devices, via the web, and over SMS. The interface is designed to give an individual user personal, real-time information about bus routes, arrival and departure status, and nearby transit locations.

Ferris now works for the Google Transit team; over the summer, that team announced an open protocol for transit data, which gives developers access to real-time data for designing new applications. In another step toward closing the information gap for all riders – even those without personal mobile devices – Seattle is piloting an electronic display for real-time arrival information at its busiest downtown transit stop. And as of September 2011, the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York City has contracted with a private company to build a customer information platform for its bus riders (Large PDF here; hat tip to Michael Frumin).

The above demonstrates that a single problem can have multiple solutions. I am particularly happy to see that Seattle has increased its information inclusion by using existing One Bus Away data to broadcast bus arrival times, effectively maximizing the value of information available for all riders.

Image used per Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution License. Photograph by Seattle Municipal Archives.