Through an email list I was introduced to Innocentive, a clearinghouse matching inventors and developers with organizations in need of innovative solutions. Often there is a cash award for the ideas and solutions submitted. In this case the request was for "Ideas for Increasing Public Transportation Use to Reduce Greenhouse Gases in
I had done some thinking about this kind of problem back in 2000, immediately following the closure of Interval Research, and had written wrote 14 pages of scenarios on the subject of using wireless Internet on public rail transportation. I took some of the ideas I had developed then, updated them to take into account the growth and penetration of applications on cellular phones, and turned out the following ideas for making public transit more usable and attractive.
The deadline for submission has now passed so I am publishing the submission here, since ideas have little value if kept secret, and require a lot of value added before they become reality.
Introduction and Background
A major inhibition to the use of public transportation is the fact that scheduling is very poorly understood by the rider and that time in transit is generally considered wasted (except possibly for reading). If riders could be kept informed of their projected arrival times at transfer points (with real-time performance taken into consideration), the realistically projected arrival times of connecting routes, and could make arrangements for the disposition of their time between connections, there would be significant incentives to chose public transit over private vehicle use.
The growth of wireless communication creates an opportunity in improving these aspects. Penetration of cellular phones (technically known as “handsets”) has become significant, and the arrival of a new generation of “smart phones”, with the Apple iPhone followed by a number of competitors’s offerings has moved the “cell phone” experience well beyond simple telephone voice messaging.
Detailed Description of the Solution
At the base would be real-time access to the database of schedule information, both for intended schedules and actual progress of runs. On rail sections this information can be updated from the signaling system, but on street transportation there are various other ways to update progress of a run relative to the schedule. Since the author is not familiar with the capabilities of the CTA in extracting actual run performance we will make some general assumptions here about possible solutions.
Ideally there would be a central database of schedules for each run, updated by input from signal or sensor networks with real-time information about actual performance. This database would be accessible on a read-only basis by an external application which is itself accessed from wireless phone providers and from the Internet. This application would have the capability to calculate projected arrival times at any schedule point from the schedule modified by performance information. This information would ideally include projected arrival times for the next several runs at any given stop.
The utility of such a system is obvious for users who are awaiting an arrival, however other modes become interesting when one considers use by riders in transit. The obvious question for a rider is whether a connection will be made, and how much time is available before the connecting arrival. If there is to be more than a brief gap, the user would be helped by information about merchant services available at the transfer point during the gap. This would create a market for local advertising from merchants located within a short distance of the transfer point, and this market could be served by another wireless application accessible from the schedule progress application.
Since such a local merchant application would require a sales and marketing function, it would best be implemented as a private profit center. Merchants would be encouraged by the merchant application operator to create special offers for transit riders, who could place orders or reservations through text messages generated through the advertising application.
In this way the rider’s process of decision making about use of time would no longer be deferred until arrival (with uncertainty as to time limits due to the connection) but would be extended into on-vehicle time and given optional connection limits well in advance.
Another area where the trip coordination information could find a use is in social networking. Riders who will be in the same area at the same times would have something temporarily in common, and might want to arrange face-to-face meetings under differing degrees of anonymity. Providers of social networking application service should be interested in extending their offerings to this new venue.
A limited subset of the schedule and connection service could be made available to riders without wireless service through a built-in publicly-accessible wireless unit running only the relevant application. For all on-board users it will be necessary to make the run number available and to provide a relatively easy method to identify stops. Numbering of stops on the in-vehicle route map or an interactive map accessible from the wireless schedule application are two non-exclusive approaches to this requirement.
We will mention here, without further detail, the possibilities for wireless-based charging for merchandise or services. There are technologies available for displaying specialized bar codes on wireless handset displays which can enable charge transactions to complete sales. At the least, the merchant application can provide confirmation numbers to display on the handset by which riders can pick up merchandise ordered earlier.
The effect of these applications would be to decrease the friction inherent in fitting one’s schedule to those of the transit system. In addition, it would provide the opportunity to extend one’s productive time into trip time, as well as reducing uncertainty and anxiety. In fact, it should be possible to reverse the equation and make travel by public transit less anxiety-producing than travel by private vehicle.