Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Are We There Yet? 'Smart Mobility' Options

Editor's Note: There are many ways to weave walking, biking, and transit into a seamless tapestry of transportation choices and today's excerpt from Are We There Yet? examines some of the myriad smartphone apps and other efforts that are creating the safe and pleasant connections to transit opportunities that are critical in order to give people more choices for getting around.

The growing demand for more safe and pleasant environments for walking, biking and taking transit is being aided by transportation engineers like Dan Sturges, who are focused on making it easier for people to get to and from transit stations and bus stops — the so-called “first mile/last mile” connection. Because so many neighborhoods have been built to accommodate the automobile — with wide streets, deep lots and long distances between things — it isn’t always easy to get to stations, and there’s growing interest in the development of “intelligent multimodal transportation” or “smart mobility” options that rely on information and communications technology.

“Smart phones allow us to instantly rent a bike, carpool with someone just a mile up the road, find a bus, and even ‘ping a ride’ with a car service or cab,” says Sturges. “Transit service plus options like these will enable millions of people to get where they need to go without needing to own a car.”

Focusing on creating safe and pleasant first-mile/last-mile connections to transit stations is critical if we want to give people more choices for getting around, and retrofitting sprawling employment centers and big box shopping centers could take many years and require a near-term investment in shuttle services. But there are many ways to weave walking, biking, and transit into a seamless tapestry of transportation choices, including driving, even when transit service isn’t that frequent.

Myriad cell phone apps and Internet services provide real-time information about when trains and buses are arriving at stops nearby, eliminating hours of wait time. Google Maps and Next Bus are two popular applications available nationwide. Google Maps helps riders time and program routes on foot, bike, transit or by car, while Next Bus provides info on nearby bus arrivals. Apps focusing on service in particular regions include Routesy in the Bay Area, One Bus Away in Seattle, PDX Bus in Portland, and “To a T” in Boston (where the MBTA transit system is called the “T”).

Not to be missed is the RedEye app in Chicago that not only provides info on trains, bus and taxis, as well as bars and restaurants near stations and high frequency bus lines, but also has a “Missed Connections” feature that’s sort of like a personals page for transit riders. For example: Entitled “Don’t fear Admiral Akbar. It’s not a trap!” one rider, identified as “W4M” — a woman looking for a man — posted:

“Recently I saw this tall man on the 22 bus who looked strikingly like the Rebel Alliance commander Admiral Akbar. He looked so cool in his Wilco shirt and baby blue shorts. I didn’t even mind he was wearing Oakley’s from 1993. He seemed so busy reading a book about Lego mini figs I never got to say hello. I think about you often Admiral Akbar. You in all your tall, lanky glory. XOXO” Check it out at missedconnections.redeyechicago.com.

Some agencies are also making it easier for people to plan their transit trips by providing maps that indicate service frequency and type with colors, numbers or clever names: The transit system in Allentown-Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, designates routes according to service frequency. Buses numbered in the 100s are core routes that offer the most service; 200s are key urban corridors; 300s are more suburban; 400s are special routes for students; 500s are flexible, reservation-based service; 600s serve particular markets. Boulder, Colorado, uses colorful names including HOP, SKIP, JUMP, BOUND, DASH, STAMPEDE and BOLT.

Nate Wessel, a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati, got so fed up with confusing Cincinnati transit maps that he made his own, then found investors on kickstarter.com, a funding platform for creative ventures, who paid to print thousands of the maps for distribution. His map is simple, highlighting the routes that are the most frequent and convenient to use, providing the urban and suburban context in which they operate — allowing users to see the restaurants, shops, museums and services they can get to — and to more easily understand where lines intersect and connect.

“A good transit system should structure the city around it,” Wessel says on Soapbox Media, an online news and information magazine. “If there’s a bus making 75 trips a day along a route, that’s probably a good place to locate a business. This map is a first step in thinking about how we can restructure the city.”

Also, transit stations should be placed to take advantage of existing hubs of activity. Opportunity areas – because they already contain small blocks and moderate density housing and/or jobs – are “transit-ready” places that are likely to support high ridership and won’t need to provide much parking because some residents and workers can walk and bike. Reconnecting America’s research shows that today regions that have the largest number of stations in opportunity areas have either maintained a historic transit network, such as New Orleans or San Francisco, or have built new networks with stations sited in walkable places. See list at above: Top 10 regions with stations in opportunity areas.

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