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Using Mappable Data App to Change Transit Routes On the Fly

A new app called Transitmix will let transportation agencies route buses and other transit based on mappable data.

The trajectories of transit routes have never been intuitive. Today, buses traverse city streets on what is more or less a loose science of rider estimates. Policies, politics, zoning densities and thoroughfares, the pitch and roll of topography -- they’ve all been contributing factors. To simplify the process, transit planners far and wide are waiting for a tool that can responsively adjust their bus routes to real-world data.

And such a tool is nearly here.

Tiffany Chu is the co-founder of Transitmix, a startup that’s reworking typical route planning with a map and data tool that lets citizens and planners draw routes on the fly. New lines can be dragged and dropped. Costs and demographic information adjusts on demand. There are even plans in the works to construct a predictive analytics feature to forecast ridership and routing details. If successful, Chu, who previously served as a user experience researcher at ZipCar, hopes the startup can be a disruptor for better transit nationwide.

“I think it’s just a really fascinating time right now for a new generation of tools to help push forward the planning process,” Chu said. “To democratize it, to make it more accessible, and in a lot of ways, to revolutionize the archaic methodologies it’s used before.”

Some of these old methods date back decades, Chu said, detailing current practices from her research. The process generally starts with a transit planner printing out a map — yes, that’s right, printing out a map — and marking it with highlighters. Next, these sketches must be manually reworked into Google Earth for exact distances and coordinates. And finally, points are again re-entered into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and re-plotted over demographic boundary maps — a source for statistical reference.

“Shifting tools over and over again is very complex and often unwieldy,” Chu said. “Things can get lost in the process.”

Especially discouraging for Chu is how current techniques can hinder exploration and experimentation. The intricate and often tedious minutia of rerouting a bus line can be a deal-breaker when paired with cost estimations and demographic analysis. Also, decisions aren’t always planted in the hard data. Seeing the compelling points behind routes is difficult. Decision-makers, who are not always transit experts, must search multiple sources for the inner reasoning. Chu said this problem only grows exponentially for the public, who are daunted and crippled by these technical tripwires.

“There’s just a whole wealth of improvement that can be done,” said Chu.

With this in mind, the Transitmix team, which includes Chu as chief design officer, fellow co-founders Sam Hashemi as CEO, Dan Getelman as CTO, and Danny Whalen as the VP of engineering have tried to craft a simple solution. The group hatched the idea at a hackathon when serving as fellows for Code for America (CfA) in 2014. A framework was drawn from a former CfA app called Streetmix, an interactive city street builder app that was repurposed for transit routes.

A map of Oakland, Calif.
Those eager to test drive the app can demo it on San Francisco’s city streets. With a click, users can take the city’s traditional grid-based routes and let them fall organically through neighborhoods and side streets. Bus stop times and locations can be adjusted. Demographic information can be layered onto routes. And amazingly, visitors can watch as route service costs and ridership numbers automatically recalculate.

The four-person startup has created a free version of Transitmix that jurisdictions can deploy for citizens, but plans to release an upgraded version — Transitmix Pro — that will gradually be rolled out and refined as the company develops its platform and business model. Transit agencies, however, are already taking note and partnering through a handful of early pilots: the San Francisco Bay Area’s AC Transit, serving the East Bay; North Carolina’s Triangle Transit; Oregon’s Department of Transportation; Tacoma, Wash.’s Pierce Transit; and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), a semi-governmental transit service serving California’s Santa Clara County.

In Santa Clara, Jim Unites, the VTA’s deputy director of service and operations planning, said the app has the underpinning to radically improve and accelerate route planning at the authority. While statistics abound for large demographics, the Transitmix app has the insights to break down data to neighborhood and resident levels.

“One of biggest challenges I think any transit planner has is when people ask, ‘How will it do? And how many people is that route going to carry?’” Unites said. “Anything that we can get to quantify the ridership is a big step forward.”

The app is an asset to accessibility as well. Martin Barna, the VTA’s transit service development specialist, is the one of the authority’s route planners. He’s taken to the app, not just for its planning benefits, but also for its ability to communicate consistently with multiple parties. Internally the display ensures a simple fidelity to the core data. A staff member might be immersed in one part of a project, and another in a different part.

“It just makes things a lot smoother, a lot easier, and a lot more efficient,” Barna said.

But for some transit agencies, there are still hurdles in collaborating with young startups, Chu said; it’s the elephant in the room. Many transportation agencies are accustomed to traditional procurements with large tech companies. Startups are virgin territory, unexplored. And consequently, officials sometimes hold a measure of caution.

Yet for the VTA, collaboration and experimentation with startups is held with an eagerness. Without dismissing typical procurement restraints, the VTA has opened itself up as a testbed for new technologies using private-public partnerships as a foundation for potential future procurements. It’s a tactic evident in the organization’s recently unveiled VTA Innovation Lab and with Transitmix’s developing technology.

“It’s a technology that’s evolving, it’s in an iterative process, and that’s why VTA is happy to be at the table for something like this — because that means we have the opportunity to steer it in the direction that helps us do our jobs better,” said Cody Kraatz, VTA’s administrator of digital communications.

Kraatz credited the embracing of Transitmix and similar startup innovations to the VTA’s general manager and CEO Nuria Fernandez who has championed a campaign to bring local Silicon Valley talent and tech into the organization. The advantage, Kraatz said, is quick adoption, and co-developing and leveraging breaking technologies closer to the speed of industry.

“This attitude, this approach, lets us shape the way technology will evolve," he said, "and that really lets us benefit our customers, the drivers and commuters of Santa Clara County."

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.
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