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Friday Fun: The bus that goes where you go
Do you ever wish bus routes better fit where you actually want to go? New startups are changing the way routes are designed, and they could be launching a revolution in ‘smart’ bus transport. Photo by Ken Power/Flickr.

Do you ever wish bus routes better fit where you actually want to go? New startups are changing the way routes are designed, and they could be launching a revolution in ‘smart’ bus transport. Photo by Ken Power/Flickr.

Startups like Uber are revolutionizing personal transport in cities worldwide, providing on-demand services at a relatively low price. Can the same thing be done for bus transport? Imagine requesting a bus from your phone, and having it drop you off exactly where you chose. This reality may be closer than you think. Multiple companies are taking advantage of new technologies and big data to optimize pick up and drop off locations, making urban transport more responsive to users’ needs and potentially revolutionizing the way we think about bus transport.

Flexible bus routes to go where people want

Bridj – a Boston-based startup – uses a fleet of shuttles that adapts in real-time to users’ locations. Its bus routes target specific neighborhoods, but change based on the locations of riders who sign up and a wide range of data streams that help Bridj determine where people move. Data comes from municipalities and censuses, but also from sources like Twitter. All this analysis allows Bridj to provide short waiting times and faster commutes for about US$ 5 per ride. Bridj is still in early stages, but the company has already raised US$ 4 million in investments to help it expand.

In San Francisco, a startup called Chariot is taking a different approach to optimize its bus routes. After launching its first line earlier this year, the company is choosing its next route using crowdfunding. A proposed line will only be built if 120 riders commit to buying monthly passes for discounted rates of US$ 96 to US$ 116.

How can smarter bus systems be integrated with other transport modes?

Leap Transit – another private bus company in San Francisco – started by providing an alternative to public buses along the city’s crowded 30X line. For US$ 6, the service allows users to book and pay through their iPhones and enjoy leather seats and on-board Wi-Fi. To decide which route they should expand to, Leap Transit then called for people to vote. Critics, however, see this private bus service as a threat to cheaper public transport services. In San Francisco, Leap Transit – along with private buses belonging to tech companies Google, Zynga, and Yahoo – are using public bus stops to pick up customers, causing delays for the public bus system. Writer and academic Rebecca Solnit wrote that the Leap Transit bus “contains the people too valuable even to use public transport or drive themselves.” As private bus services become more sophisticated and responsive to users’ desires, will this lead to reduced public investment and an unequal transport system?

Helsinki offers one example of how on-demand shuttle services can be integrated with public transport and accessible to passengers of different income levels. The city has an ambitious plan to be car-free by 2025, and is using on-demand flexible-route shuttle services to help get there. The city manages the van system called Kutsuplus, which was developed by local startup Ajelo. Kutsuplus allows users to request shuttle service on their phones through SMS messages or smartphones, and vans change their routes to accommodate passengers. Kutsuplus is heavily subsidized, and is one component of the city’s plans to create a “mobility on demand” system. When users request a Kutsuplus, the system assesses how long it will take for Kutsuplus to accommodate the order, while also informing the traveler how long it would take to complete their trip using other public transport modes. While Kutsuplus is still small, the city plans to have 100 vans operating in 2017 and 2,000 by 2020.

Big data and new technologies are revolutionizing transport in a multitude of ways worldwide. In Nairobi, for example, the increasing use of smartphones is helping improve informal transport planning and user experience. Cities can empower private sector companies to improve mass transport by opening their data. São Paulo, for example, released public data and is supporting events for developers to innovate around urban mobility. Data released by Mexico City’s transit agency powered dozens of apps within the first month. Bus transport, in particular, is ripe for innovation, and new companies rethinking bus routes could be on the brink of transforming systems worldwide.