Improving the transportation experience with transit apps

The Roadify app on an Apple iPhone

Tess Vigeland: Among the things you probably hate in life? All that time wasted on your commute. But the growing popularity of both smartphones and social media means software developers are jumping in to the transportation app business, hopefully saving you some time and maybe even some money.

From the Transportation Nation public radio project at WNYC, Andrea Bernstein reports.

Andrea Bernstein: New Yorkers hate waiting for just about anything. For us, standing at a bus stop? Excruciating.

Shira Katz: Because when the bus doesn't come it's the worst, which is partially why I don't take the bus because its too annoying because you wait and wait and wait.

I found Shira Katz riding the B67 bus in Brooklyn. She was dreaming of what she would do if she knew when the bus was coming before she even left her house.

Katz: I'd read my book, sleep, work.

Enter Roadify, a software app that combines official schedules with user-generated information.

Nick Nyhan is the founder of Roadify. He works in market research, and one day, he was looking for a parking spot in New York City.

Nick Nyhan: And I was frustrated because there I was waiting for a spot, sitting there double parked on a street with my phone in my hand and I knew that people were leaving spots and they had phones in their hands. And there was no way for us to trade information about what would be useful.

So he developed an app. But parking was just the beginning. Then came Roadify's popular feature: the ability for bus riders and subway riders to share information about when buses and trains are actually arriving, not just when they are scheduled to. A platform platform. This spring, Roadify won the grand prize in the recent Big Apple's "Big Apps" contest.

Brandon Kessler: It's in the zeitgeist.

Brandon Kessler ran the competition. He says 40 percent of this year's winners were transportation-related.

Kessler: So your transportation experience can be improved by technology that knows where you are through your GPS chip in your phone and can give you information that's relevant to your location.

But that doesn't mean that it works for everyone. Bus riders tend to be older and poorer than the general population -- and that means they don't have fancy phones.

And, down in the subways, programmer Anand Mohnadoss isn't sure about the quality of information.

Anand Mohnadoss: It relies on people to know the status of stuff. That seems too unreliable.

But financial adviser Luis Ciriaco has to travel around to meet with clients. With an app like this...

Luis Ciriaco: Probably see a client and not be late to my meetings.

Bernstein: If your train were delayed would you send that in?

Ciraco: I wouldn't want anybody else to be late to a client meeting, so by all means.

He says he'll go download it now -- as soon as his train comes, and he can get to work.

In New York, I'm Andrea Bernstein for Marketplace Money.

Vigeland: For more stories on getting around in cars, buses, and subways check out our link to the Transportation Nation website.

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A recent trip to London made me feel like we are really far behind. Bus stops and subway stations have LED screens which display how many more minutes til your vehicle, train or bus, will arrive. It seems like a no brainer to have a system like that in New York, cutting edge and available to all.

Previous posters have it correct...a program like Roadify, that relies on passenger feedback, is horribly inefficient. What if too few passengers share the info? What if the information they share is inaccurate? How can a program effectively synthesize all that feedback in a quick way?

Much better for cities and transportation agencies to make the small upfront investment in systems like NextBus, given that increased predictability of buses, etc. will lead to increased ridership.

Reading the comments, I think that "Nextbus," which tracks buses by GPS, should be every where. It would be IMMENSELY helpful to know /exactly/ where the bus is.

In the Boston area, the MBTA also uses Nextbus. They have released the data to public interfaces, and there's a couple dozen apps to choose from to get your next bus. Similar data is available for most of the trains.

I should add that I also use an app called Transporter, which I think was designed by someone at UC Berkeley, in which I can consolidate all my usual buses & trains, so I only have tong one place for current data on everything. It's truly amazing.

In the SF Bay Area we have a terrific system that tracks buses by GPS (called Nextbus) and it almost always works. I don't drive, so I've wasted thousands of hours I'm sure waiting for the bus and the subway. Now I can do errands instead of waiting, and I know when it's worth running for the bus. Hurrah for technology!

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