Intelligent Transit and Smarter Travelers

On Real-Time Information and Flexible Mass Transportation

In February’s blog, I spoke to my complicated relationship with the car. In March’s post, I provided a slightly queasy anecdote about the experience of commuting on public transit. Today, I muse on the intersection of these modes – the privately owned, flexible auto services popping up like weeds in major cities worldwide. And just as weeds expose (and, arguably, create) cracks in the sidewalk, Uber and related services  - called “Transportation Network Companies”, or TNCs, by those kids hip with the transportation planning lingo – are poking holes in established public transportation systems.

Eric Jaffe brings attention to the steadily rising antagonism between transit agencies and TNCs in a recent article from CityLab – framing this discussion around Uber’s April fool’s prank, when the company touted launching an on-demand train service called “UberT”. While I certainly thought the hoax was silly, I doubt many public transportation agency folks are laughing. Although these agencies are seemingly taking a sort of “wait-and-see” approach with regard to speaking out on TNCs, there is no question these operations are beginning to siphon away occasional (if not, increasingly, regular) transit riders. Providing on-demand, flexible, comfortable service – I understand the appeal of the TNC. I buy in.

That said, I am, fundamentally, a champion of public transportation. I don’t believe private control is appropriate where it might compromise the mobility of certain travelers (those of low-income, for instance).

I am of the conviction that transportation is a right.

Accordingly, I support private enterprises seeking to assist transit agencies in reclaiming urban transportation dominance. I believe that modeling public transportation systems such that they might provide smarter, more flexible and accessible services, has been, historically, an initiative ignored amidst ever-pressing operations and maintenance burdens. Given the pressures of TNCs and the like, this is no longer acceptable. Ventures like TransLoc, which works with transit agencies to provide real-time transportation service and rider information, hold great potential for informing the transition to “smarter” transit. Other transportation information services – including TransitScreen and RideScout, to name a few – are simultaneously allowing travelers to make more informed decisions about the way they move. From where I see it, aligning intelligent transit with smarter travelers is the best way to maximize the efficiency, effectiveness, and equity of today’s mass transportation systems.

So I implore public transportation agencies to hear the call of modern riders - those of us with dynamic schedules, and places to go beyond fixed routes. We don’t want to give up on you, but hey, everyone’s a little fickle. If there’s a more flexible option many of us will take it. Thus, I urge public entities to take advantage of real-time information, and tailor their services accordingly. It’s time to learn up!

Here’s to a smarter public transportation future.