Fixing public transit with mobile technology

As gas prices have fallen from last year’s record levels, use of public transit is falling. It makes perfect sense: the cost of driving has decreased, so more people drive.

One way to get more cars off the road is to raise the cost of driving. Paul Kedrosky, Greg Mankiw and others have talked about raising the gas tax to make driving more expensive. It sounds great in theory, but it’s political suicide for any candidate who would seriously push it. It’s also a highly regressive tax.

Another alternative is to reduce the cost of public transit. There are four cost components to public transit: cash, information, time and transaction. We could build better transit systems with greater frequency like in Europe, but that’s expensive. Mobile technology provides a cheaper route.

Cash fare — Typically the cash fare will win over the cash cost of driving or alternatives such as cabs, especially when you factor in the cost of parking in the dense urban areas best served by public transit.

A San Francisco bus stop
This bus stop sign provides very little information. Technology could be used to provide detailed information on demand.

Information cost — Public transit systems are a usability nightmare. Maps don’t have enough detail to figure out where you’re going. You have to decipher dozens of multicolored lines with tiny numbers and then hope that the line runs when you want it to. DC’s Metro system just released a study of the usability of its bus stop signs with one of the findings that information was printed in 4-point type at some stations. And you might not even have a map; some bus stops just show a line number.

Google Maps on iPhone has made this easy. I stepped off a plane in San Diego and put in the hotel address. Google Maps told me which route to take, the fare and how far I’d have to walk. There’s still the matter of finding the bus stop, but that can be solved over time using crowdsourced geotagged photos like the one at right. Google recently announced transit information availability on Android.

There are also dozens of transit-related iPhone applications that focus on specific transit systems.

Time cost — Public transit is often slower than driving. A big part of that slowness is not knowing when the bus or train is going to arrive — the waiting is the hardest part. Real-time transit tracking on mobile devices can help. When I lived near DC, I could see on my phone when the next train was leaving. If it was 20 minutes, I could have another drink in the bar. (Paid for by my savings from not taking a cab.) If I’d been waiting in the Metro, that 20 minutes would have felt like 60, adding to the perceived cost of transit.

Nextbus offers mobile transit predictions using GPS devices installed on transit vehicles. Unfortunately, it’s not location enabled and it doesn’t provide the level of detail (including maps with the location of vehicles) that Nextbus offers on its Web site.

Real-time data can be crowdsourced on heavily trafficked routes. Every Caltrain during rush hour seems to have at least 40 iPhone users on it. A simple app could transmit current position, which could be shared with other riders. (There’s already a Caltrain Twitter account that uses crowdsourced data for service interruptions.)

The Kennedy is packed -- take the L instead!
The Kennedy is packed -- take the L instead!

Real-time traffic information can also help increase the appeal of public transit. Subways and regional rail are often faster in rush hour. When I last flew to Chicago I was about to step into the taxi line when I decided to check the traffic conditions. The Kennedy showed all red on Google Maps. I flew by all that traffic on the Blue Line for $1.50, instead of paying $40 or more in a cab.

Transaction cost — Transit systems use many different payment methods. On San Francisco’s Muni there’s cash, multi-ride coupon books, transfers, multi-day passes, monthly passes. Want to ride the bus and all you have is a $10 bill? That will be an expensive ride. Want to ride the Muni and then transfer to Caltrain? You’ll have to decipher a new system. See my recent experience trying to pay for a Muni ride.

This is the area that has seen the least progress. Some regional systems have been implemented or are in development. Being able to pay by credit card or cell phone at the turnstile would make this a lot easier. A “buy” button after I select a route on my cell phone with Google Maps would be ideal.

Combining easy routing with real-time arrival information and easy payment will help increase the appeal of transit to people who don’t have to use transit. That would help address an ongoing problem with transit in America: we view public transit as for poor people and fund it like we fund welfare. Get more people choosing to ride transit and we might have more widespread support for it.

Heck, if Apple ran ads showing people using iPhones to find public transit, it might even become hip.

Dash acquisition and the standalone navigation market

This week it was announced that RIM bought Dash Navigation. I’ve written before about Dash. I’ve long been excited about the service, but Dash suffered from three big problems:

  • Bulky and expensive hardware — The device was nearly three times as big as most of its rivals. It’s weight necessitated an industrial-strength mount. The combination wasn’t something you could easily throw in your bag when traveling. At $399, the price was at the high end of the market.
  • High monthly service cost — Dash had a built in cellular modem, which added a steep monthly subscription fee. Many of the features that you might expect to see in such a beautifully engineered service — weather maps, videos, pictures of businesses — couldn’t be provided because of the high rates charged by wireless carriers.
  • Lack of distribution — Dash Express was available direct form the company and through Amazon, but never made it into the big box retailers where a lot of GPS units are purchased.

The RIM acquisition solves the first two problems. If RIM adapts Dash for use on Blackberrys, you won’t have to have a separate device and the service can ride on top of your existing data plan. Dash will be in a position to offer a better product for a lower price.

Distribution may still be a challenge; it’ll be interesting to see if carriers will allow RIM to ship a navigation offering that competes with their own. Two years ago I would’ve said there’s no chance; now I’m more hopeful.

Dash/RIM will face stiff competition. I expect that in the next two months we’ll see TeleNav, TomTom and others come out with turn-by-turn navigation applications for iPhone. (See my earlier post on what an iPhone-based navigation service could do.)

Between iPhone and Blackberry, this could spell the end of the standalone PND. The 2-way connectivity offers the ability to deliver a wide range of services that unconnected PNDs can’t offer: up-to-date business search, integration with Web apps like Zillow home prices and radio station finders, buddy finders, realtime traffic, gas prices, pictures of businesses, etc. Integration with the phone’s address book provides additional opportunities.

TomTom and Mitac have been struggling with rapidly eroding margins. Navigon has left the U.S. market entirely. If iPhone and Blackberry-based navigation take off, the standalone PND market may just be price sensitive consumers buying low end devices at Wal-Mart for $60.

Success of cell phones in the PND market will depend, in part, on the accessory market. We need to see car mounts that will let you charge your phone, serve as a speakerphone and let you transmit music from your phone to your car.

Disclosure: I worked on the distribution agreement between Tellme and Dash Navigation.