A couple months back, I got a smart phone. One of the first things I downloaded was OneBusAway, an app that provides real-time information on transit stops, routes, and arrivals using data provided by King County Metro.
Finally, I thought! I’d never again have to wait around for a bus that’s 20 minutes late. I’d know exactly when the next bus would arrive, shrinking my wait time at the stop.
And it’s true: in my daily commute, OneBusAway tells me when buses are coming and if any are delayed significantly. But has it significantly changed how I ride?
Well, not really.
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To be honest, I still get out the door at the same time most mornings. And I leave work when the work is done. I might check my phone before stepping out the door to see where things are at, but it very rarely changes my routine.
For me, it’s not a game-changer, but the reason is not the app; it’s the transit-friendly locations of my apartment and office. I’m lucky; I live in a neighborhood with a good bus system. My front door is within five minutes of three bus routes that take me straight to the office; all of them come pretty frequently at peak commute hours.
I’m never tempted to drive, since the bus ride takes about the same amount of time and let’s me catch up on reading. Plus, compared to the hundreds a month I’d spend on gas and parking, the bus is a steal. It’s the perqs of living in a walkable neighborhood close to the urban core and crisscrossed with transit lines that make my commute a breeze.
But for others, transit technology can make a big difference. Commuters who live a little further out from the city center (or in the ‘burbs) likely rely on a handful of express buses—time-savers that can cut commute times in half or more. For them, knowing exactly when that bus or train is going to arrive could save hours each week.
For those folks, access to accurate transit information can be the deciding factor between pulling out of the driveway alone in their car or taking a brisk morning walk to the bus stop. It’s a trend that transit agencies—and technology enthusiasts (nice word for geeks)—are catching on to.
Already, northwest transit providers have email and text-message alerts for route changes and closures, construction, and storm- or emergency-related changes; some buses are equipped with GPS tracking to provide exact location information; and light rail (and planned BRT) stations display when the next train is arriving.
New services and applications are cropping up left and right to help people figure out their transportation options while they’re on the go. Following in the steps of Walk Score, sites like TravelSmart and City-Go-Round offer an array of tools for transit riders looking to get connected. Plus, transit reps are hopping on to social media sites like Twitter to provide updates and answer questions.
With gas prices creeping up, many car commuters will again be thinking over their options. Convenient (and cool) planning tools and real-time information could tip the scales toward transit for many.
So that’s my smart phone story. It wasn’t really the revolutionary transformation I expected (other than the fact that my morning reading has been replaced by 20 minutes playing Angry Birds). But I do feel more empowered just by having the information; it adds confidence to the days my routine changes and I need transit info on-the-fly. And on that side of things, I suspect I’m not alone.
OneBusAway screenshot from www.onebusaway.org.
My girlfriend and I, who are entirely transit dependent, just got a smart phone and where it has really helped us is recreational activities. Like you say, the daily commute is pretty standard, home and work is usually the same, give or take a few minutes. But when we are out, say in Fremont or Ballard on a Friday night, we can quickly check if whether heading downtown or to the U-District is quicker. Similarly, it can help us make choices about walking to 3rd or 1st downtown, or getting off at Denny or waiting until Westlake to get back to Capitol Hill. I think it has taken a lot of the uncertainty and frustration out of spur of the moment decisions.
I second the “out and about” usefulness of transit apps. Especially outside of downtown, where you can’t always rely on bus stops having stop info. I feel much more confident choosing between unfamiliar bus routes.
My commute is very routine as well. My bus and train are almost always on time, and when they’re late it’s only very rarely more than three or four minutes off. Anybody who drives will have similar experiences—usually a routine drive, with the occasional crash to screw things up.But I’ve been doing this for years, and you’re right that newer users will need some handholding until they get comfortable with the system.
I am the lead developer on OneBusAway and do research at UW on how tools like OneBusAway impact riders. It’s true that systems like OneBusAway don’t have a huge impact on non-choice / commute trips, but there is evidence (echoed in the comments above) that people do take more choice, ad-hoc trips when they have real-time info to help navigate transit. I think there is a lot of work we can do (and are doing) to build better tools around real-time trip planning and navigation. That said, regardless of mode-shift, users of real-time are across the board much more satisfied with public transit. Shift the bar on trip counts may be hard, but there is definitely something to be said for happier riders.
Brian—Thanks for commenting! I linked to your transit-behavior research in our “Weekend Reading” roundup. Also can’t wait for the day Metro gets GPS units on board. Hopefully much more accurate info.
I work for Latitude Research – we recently conducted a study around alternative transit and our findings are very closely related to many of the points made here. 18 participants in Boston and San Francisco went car-free for a week and the majority (3 in 4) owned and depended on smartphones and mobile information to navigate their commutes. You can find the first post and report PDF at the link above, we will be publishing two more discussion posts around the topic – stay tuned to http://www.latd.com