(Still) Waiting For Something We Already Have

» Chron: An app for Metro’s bus system (Editorial)

I’m a little late to this. But I’m still smacking my head against the wall when I read it …

We’re eagerly anticipating Metro’s upcoming smartphone application, Houston T.R.I.P., which stands for Transit Route Information and Planner.

This app, if implemented correctly, could help Houstonians navigate a bus system that’s as sprawling as the city it serves.

Again, this sort of thing already exists in Google Maps. That’s a free service that I, at least, use on a daily basis on my phone. Ironically enough, I looked at how serviceable the transit info was when I landed in Fort Worth and learned that their transit agency does not share schedule information with Google. But, so far as Houston goes, the freely available Google Maps version of this service is now being supplemented with a vastly overpriced “app” that does much the same thing.

As for the one new thing that is genuinely worth looking forward to, the Chron still seems a bit behind the times:

But the real game-changer in Metro’s app is the promise of using GPS to let riders track buses in real time. Waiting for a bus in Houston can be a thoroughly miserable experience: the 100 degree weather, the lack of street-level businesses in so many neighborhoods and the unnerving sensation of being stared at by drivers like you’re some deviation from the natural order.

GPS tracking will let riders know where their bus is and when it’s going to arrive, minimizing the amount of time riders need to spend at bus stops. By reducing uncertainty and waiting time, this new app should make Metro feel more like a convenient carpool than the current exercise in patience.

Furthermore, the GPS tracking will remove any doubt as to whether a bus has already arrived or is merely running late, an important issue for buses that run every 30 minutes, or when the bus in question is the final bus of the night.

Of course, no system’s perfect: Not everyone has a smartphone. But perhaps Metro can program a system that allows riders to text their bus line and stop number, and receive back the arrival time for the next bus. Then nearly all riders could benefit from Metro’s GPS tracking.

Text service notwithstanding, the real game-changer would be to have METRO develop an API that allows third-party developers to create their own tools and let the most productive tools rise to the top. See here for how that’s done well. Standardizing and freeing up the data on METRO stops/boardings/etc would also be a worthwhile step. It would be a lot more cost-effective than paying a five-figure sum to an “app” that already does what the free service you’ve been supporting does.

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