Transit's Killer App


Sometimes it's the little things that make the biggest difference.

We of the wonk persuasion often find ourselves focusing on big investments (high-speed rail, new light rail lines) or sweeping systemic reforms (land use, parking) as the solutions to our transportation woes. While those changes are certainly necessary, it is also true that small, low-cost changes can make a big impact in enticing people to use existing transit services.

Providing free wi-fi on commuter trains, as Boston's MBTA has done recently, is one of these changes. But the far more consequential one -- which has the potential to be transit's "killer app" -- is the availability of real-time bus and train data via mobile devices.

This week I downloaded one of the many smartphone apps that provide real-time information on bus routes in Boston. Without leaving the house or memorizing a complicated schedule, I can see not only when the bus is supposed to come, but when it will actually arrive at my stop. And I can get this information not only for my usual stop, but for any stop in the city, making it far more likely that I'll choose to use an unfamiliar bus route.

It's not hard to imagine how this kind of technology can revolutionize people's experience with transit, and even make it easier to go car-free. Imagine dropping into a strange city or visiting a new neighborhood and feeling confident that you'll be able to find your way around without a car. Or being able to plan a transit trip on the fly, rather than well in advance.

It is not surprising that the availability of real-time data for bus service -- which the MBTA has been gradually rolling out now for some time -- has coincided with record bus ridership. MBTA bus ridership in August was 4.5 percent higher than the previous year and represented the MBTA's all-time record month. For a city with a well-developed transit system and modest population growth, a 4.5 percent year-over-year jump is very impressive. And the fact that the all-time bus ridership record was set in August -- a big vacation month and a time when most students are still out of town -- bodes very well for the future.

Not to sound too much like a techno-cheerleader, but one could make the argument that transit is simply far more compatible with today's mobile lifestyle than the car. On transit, you can text, talk or work while on the move. And the ability of real-time data to bridge the information gap removes some of the biggest sources of uncertainty that keep people awy from transit and in their cars.

Just last week, there was a profile in the New York Times of actor Vincent Kartheiser, who plays Peter Campbell on "Mad Men." Kartheiser lives and works in L.A. without the benefit of a car and takes transit wherever he goes. Kartheiser was quoted as saying the following: “They’ve done a study and they’ve found that people under 30 no longer view cars as status symbols or even positive things. They look at them as pollutants.”

I'm not sure Kartheiser is right on his facts. But there is a ring of truth (or at least "truthiness") in what he says. With developments like real-time transit data, the rise of car-sharing services, and the seeming boom in bicycle ridership, people -- especially younger people -- are in the process of reimagining what our transportation system can and should be. Policy-makers had better pay attention.