Transit Apps : Benefit or Crutch?
We’re all caught up in transit app fever. At Nextransit we’re working on apps that seek to improve our urban environment, but what’s the best way to do that? We’ve released 2 apps, Nexmap and Nextime, and they both address shortcomings in our current transit systems. While these are absolutely a necessity (have you ever tried to figure out a bus map? how often is your bus on time—in the middle of the winter?), what is the long term effect?
Filling a Gap
One way to look at these apps is simply filling in a gap. For example, in Boston, while we have one of the better US-based urban rail systems, it’s far from adequate for most daily use, particularly outside of commuting. The image below showcases how poorly relying solely on rail serves the Boston area, where 1.5 miles can take 45 minutes by transit, simply because the rail coverage inadequate.
So if we’re interested in riding transit every day, we’re forced to fall back on the bus system, which provides much better coverage, but with a much poorer experience: stops located outside and subject to the elements, frequent delays due to traffic, difficult to understand maps and find stops, and a sub-par rider experience. Nexmap helps address finding these stops, understanding how routes connect, and sharing when buses arrive at stops. Nextime helps find every nearby stop and, through push notifications, lets you continue to live your life without constantly checking when a bus is coming.
Masking the Real Problem
These are absolutely benefits, but do these apps simply cover up for problems in transit systems? If these apps remove some of the inconveniences of a transit agency’s failures, does it alleviate pressure on the agency to actually improve the overall system? Instead of working hard to keep buses running on time, will a transit agency expend less effort since “most people are using GPS anyway”? Now that we know we can take the 66 in the example above, do we really need a rail line along that path?
It seems counter-intuitive, but one of the problems that technology can create is a distraction of addressing real issues. It’s imperative that our cities evolve to better accommodate a wider variety of forms of mobility: walking, transit, biking, carsharing, bikesharing, etc. Technology shouldn’t serve as a way to avoid that, but rather to enhance it.
Transit apps can help improve the situation of an unreliable transit system, but they can’t really address the core issue of making better transit. We’ll keep making great tools to augment the urban experience, but let’s not forget to keep the pressure up on improving our cities.