ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A city is easier to live in when it's easy to get around. But even when there's good public transit, there are problems. Buses or trains may not run when you need them, and they might take too long, or stops may not be near your neighborhood. Well, today, we're going to hear how some people think the digital age could change things for the better. It's the latest in the NPR Cities Project.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Becoming a world-class city.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Keep the transit running.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We have to move people a lot more efficiently.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Come take a ride of the future.
SIEGEL: Transit operators, city planners, people in the federal government are all banking on big data to make public transportation more responsive to people's needs. NPR's Franklyn Cater has been exploring that here in Washington, D.C.
FRANKLYN CATER, BYLINE: I wanted some examples of the emerging tech industry that's trying to make public transportation better. So for starters, I met up with a guy who's in the business.
DAG GOGUE: Hi. I'm Dag Gogue, founder and CEO of Transit Labs based in Washington, D.C.
CATER: What do you think? Should we find a bus stop?
GOGUE: Yeah. Why don't we try to get on the bus stop by the corner of K and 15th?
CATER: Transit Labs is a startup that merges a very analog thing - the act of moving people around town - with a very digital enterprise - data analysis. The basic idea is this. The more information you have about how the system is working, the more you can improve it.
GOGUE: This timetable gives you the expected wait time.
CATER: Dag Gogue gestures at the Plexiglas wall at this stop. There's a chart that shows different bus routes and times. It's pretty low-tech. It tells riders what the schedule is supposed to be. It says nothing about how far away the next bus really is. But these days, buses are getting higher-tech. Cities can buy them with all kinds of gadgets onboard that generate data. One of those gadgets is called an automatic vehicle locator.
GOGUE: You use a combination of geospatial data so AVL - automated vehicle locaters - will give you the position of all the buses you have...
CATER: The bus transmits its location in real-time. With software, operators can see instantly where buses get bogged down in traffic, and they can make adjustments. That data is also passed on to riders. If you've ever used a smart phone app to check how long it'll be till the next bus, you've received information from an AVL. It's the kind of thing that makes a bus trip more palatable. Instead of looking wistfully down the street hoping to spot the next bus, you can see it on a screen.
GOGUE: So here's a local bus. We can hop on it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Fort Totten station
CATER: To see that in action, let's head to a different bus stop outside of Washington.
MARY LEE KINGSLEY: I wish all bus stops were like this.
CATER: Mary Lee Kingsley is waiting on bus route 47 in an office park in Montgomery County, Md. There's a big LED screen at this stop with a map displaying the location of buses and how long they'll take to arrive. This display and the new lighted shelter that we're standing under have convinced Kingsley to start leaving her car at home.
KINGSLEY: I'm a fairly recent convert, but like the people who quit smoking and, you know - I'm now so pro-47 bus. It's ridiculous.
CATER: This is exactly the kind of rider a transit agency wants. With gas prices down, bus ridership is trending down a bit nationwide according to the American Public Transportation Association. To encourage riders, agencies want to make service as user-friendly as possible, and this big display is more accurate than the one offered on a smart phone.
JOHN VAN ECK: It's within 45 seconds. That's exactly where the bus is.
CATER: That's John Van Eck. I also met up with him at this stop. He's the director of IT for this bus system, known as RideOn.
VAN ECK: And as you see, Bethesda says zero, and that's the 47 Bethesda right now. So it's right on target.
CATER: Montgomery County is an early adopter of these screens, and the choice of where to put them as well as where to put a bus shelter, by the way, is also informed by data.
VAN ECK: They're picked by the most active bus stops as counted by ridership. Who's getting on and who's getting off at each bus? The ones that have the most - those were the ones that were picked first.
CATER: Those numbers - which stops are used most - come from another onboard bus technology. It's called an automated passenger counter. For more on that, let's get back to that busy bus stop at 15th and K in Washington.
We got a real line here.
ERICA MAZZA: I love how many buses are out here right now - must be that time of day.
CATER: Erica Mazza, deputy general manager for the transit agency in Flagstaff, Ariz., was visiting Washington for a conference and to tell Congress how much agencies like hers need federal money. Her agency is a customer of Transit Labs, and I met with her to ask about this other key reason for generating and tracking all that transit data.
MAZZA: Passenger counters are - have become a critical component for what we do.
CATER: Flagstaff has had passenger counters on buses for about a year. And Mazza says understanding how many people are getting on and off the bus at which stops helped her agency redirect buses so they're being used more. They're moving more people - 60,00 more riders last year. And that improved performance gets them more support from the federal government. That's huge for an agency in Arizona, one of a few states with no dedicated tax for transit.
MAZZA: Really gave us, you know, about 200-extra-thousand dollars in our operating funds this year.
CATER: Now, here on K Street, Washington's big-money boulevard, a skeptic might roll eyes at a local official asking for more money to subsidize buses. But transit analyst Dag Gogue says those buses are necessary.
GOGUE: Eighty percent of the U.S. population lives in cities, so we have to find a way to move people around more efficiently. Technology is ready, and we hope that in the next few years the quality of public transportation will increase dramatically.
CATER: That's the hope, that with urban populations growing, all that granular data adds up to a sharper, big picture getting the buses where they're needed the most. On K Street in Washington, Franklyn Cater for the NPR Cities Project.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.