The story behind Cleveland’s real-time transit app, which launched this month, evolved from an idea that has long floated in the ether. It took a small band of “civic hackers” to make a wedge that could open the data and some minds at transit agencies.
When Carter Wang was growing up in the Shaker Square area, he would ride the Rapid and wonder what to do about so much space between the square and downtown Cleveland. When he moved back to Cleveland after graduate school, he started volunteering with Open Cleveland which is affiliated with Code for America, a group working to bring government data out of the dark and use it to make apps and/or update arcane city websites.
For years, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority resisted the development of a real-time transit app. Instead, ten years ago, RTA paid to develop Next Connect, a static trip planner. Essentially, Next Connect functions like a paper schedule with some drop down menus on the homepage of its riderta.com site. Meanwhile, RTA buses and trains are equipped with GPS transmitters—their actual location is known to the agency.
Open Cleveland asked RTA and its Citizen’s Advisory Board (CAB) if they could provide the real-time data in a ready format that transit app developers could use. The conversation was happening, but little had changed, Wang says, until a situation unfolded in Baltimore.
There, a Code for America volunteer figured out how to “scrape” the data to make a real-time transit app work. He did it without the transit agency’s knowledge or consent. When it launched, it made a big splash, capturing headlines like, "How we saved Baltimore $600,000 in one day."
The Baltimore story likely shifted thinking at transit agencies across America. This could happen to them or for them. Soon, Open Cleveland was reaching out to Baltimore and confirming that the hack they struck on could work in Cleveland. Around the same time, RTA gave its blessing.
“It’s exciting to be in Cleveland,” says Wang who moved back after a stint in Washington, D.C. working for the federal government, “because you can show up at the CAB and your voice can be heard.”
“We’ve been asking if real-time information is something to push for,” he said. “It can make people happy with the local service, and, in the long run, will probably help (RTA’s) on-time efficiency.”
Wang, who took his early fascination with the Rapid to Massachusetts Institute of Technology where his Master’s thesis focused on how to bring greater efficiency to transit systems in declining population centers, is pleased that RTA has been supportive. Once the agency releases all of the real-time data (the Rapid and the HealthLine are the missing pieces), Clevelanders will have a mobile option that works across the entire system.
The third party that made it happen is Montreal-based Transit App, a 10-person firm that has developed a popular and free app for transit users to download in 50 U.S. cities including New York, Boston and Chicago. They were able to quickly turn around an app for Cleveland that displays actual arrival times and locations of the next bus.
“People don’t have to type in addresses,” says Transit App developer, Joe MacNeil. “We use GPS. You open the phone and see what you want to take right away.”
Wang reasons that RTA may have held back on deploying real-time technology because, like any system, it’s not full proof.
“There was a site where the real-time data was going,” he says. “They didn’t publish it because they wanted to make sure all the stops were accurate. But people on the streets are somewhat willing to have less accuracy than not have it.”
“When it’s really cold outside, people can decide on when to leave and delay walking out to the stop,” MacNeil adds. “If you’re looking at transfers, it can give you piece of mind."
Transit App operates on venture capital and revenue from serving up alternatives to transit side by side. For example, it is the top referral source for car share service, Uber, MacNeil says (Uber will appear in the app unless you turn it off). In cities with bike share, Transit App also integrates information about the nearest bike share stations. MacNeil confirms that the Uber feature is available in Cleveland, but the data from the pilot bike share powered by Zagster is currently unavailable (sounds like another hack in the making).