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How Boston’s Changing the Way People Experience Transit

And why picking one app is good for commuters everywhere

September 7, 2016

Yesterday, Boston’s MBTA announced that after a competitive bidding process, the selection committee has unanimously endorsed us as their recommended transit app. We are honored to have won. We also think it’s worth explaining what led to this partnership, and why we think it’s a smart initiative — not the choosing us part but the decision to endorse a single app, period.

But first, a little context:

Do you remember how people planned transit trips before smartphones and public transit apps? Before Google Transit existed?

It was painful.

If you were lucky, your transit agency might have had a clunky trip planning tool on their website. If not, you’d gather a bunch of route maps and timetables, and try to figure out the best connections.

How people navigated transit until a decade ago

This is not ancient history. This is as recent as 2005. Which is long after drivers had graduated from Rand McNally maps to GPS and online driving platforms like Google Maps, MapQuest and Yahoo Directions.

So what changed? Thankfully, Portland‘s transit agency, TriMet, understood the need and collaborated with Google to help them launch their first transit trip planner in 2005. This was when GTFS, the data standard that powers most public transit apps (including ours!), was born.

But TriMet wasn’t the only agency that recognized how technology could improve the public transit experience. On the other side of the continent, the MBTA was setting a strong example with their own innovative projects:

Transit will send users a notification for disruptions on their line

It’s no surprise then that the MBTA became one of the most influential voices shaping agency best practices for delivering customer information. Today, the standard they helped create looks something like this:

Step 1:

Release as much data as you can to developers in standard well-documented formats; make it easily accessible; maintain it religiously; and regularly invest to improve it.

WMATA’s Developer Page (Washington D.C)
Step 2:

Recognize that building or buying your own mobile app — whether in addition to releasing data or instead of it (yikes!) — is at best, a waste of resources when technology companies are doing it better for free; and at worst, a disservice to riders who are then funnelled to a subpar app.

A sample of official US transit agency apps: all under 2 stars. If you want to go a scavenger hunt, try and find an example of one that stacks up against the best third party apps and let us know in the comments.
Look at how infrequently major updates are released, and then compare to some of your favorite apps.
Step 3:

Teach riders that third party apps are reliable sources of information.

Transport for London (TfL) suggesting to riders that they can use third party apps
Step 4:

Aggregate all those apps into some form of App Showcase, without establishing special relationships with developers, or endorsing any one app over another.

Commuters don’t want to try 94 different apps to choose the one they like

It’s this final step that the MBTA has decided to change. In their words, they believe that “having a single, full service app can provide a tremendous improvement in customer experience.”

They recognized that sometimes too much choice is as bad as no choice, and rather than having their customers wade through the mire of available apps, they’d direct them to the one that in their opinion, is the best. The one that they know has the correct information. And by building a relationship with the app developers, they can work together to make sure riders get the best service possible.

Plus, there are other useful benefits of having one dominant app. When more people use the same app, usage data becomes more representative of the system as a whole, and suddenly crowdsourcing features that require a critical mass of users to work are possible (woohoo!).

Sound good to you? Sounds good to us. So here’s what our partnership with the MBTA is going to look like:

  • The MBTA will promote us to their riders as the officially endorsed app for Boston transit and feature us on their website, vehicles, and in stations.
  • Transit App will supply the MBTA and their team of MIT whiz kids with app usage data to support their operations and planning initiatives. We’ll also be readily available for support for both the MBTA and their users; update their data nightly (which we already do for all transit agency data); customize certain screens in the app; and provide tools to monitor app adoption and push messages to riders.
Customized MBTA Screen enable customers to contact the MBTA directly through Transit
  • We will also collaborate on other great new features, like integrating their mobile ticketing system into the app, and giving riders the ability to directly report service issues to each other and to the MBTA. This feature will be especially helpful during epic winter storms or other massive system-wide disruptions. Finally, we’ll be developing a real-time feedback mechanism that the MBTA can incorporate into its customer satisfaction metrics.
  • No $$$$ will change hands in either direction.

So it’s a win for everyone! The MBTA gets access to support, data, customizations and feedback — all of the things that agencies typically use to justify the creation of their own apps. And they get it at no cost. Riders know that they can trust the information coming via our app, as it’s endorsed by the transit agency. And us? Well, we get more users and more data, which in turn helps us to stay ahead of the pack.

Oh right. And the stamp of approval from one of the biggest and most innovative transit agencies in North America? We don’t mind that too much either.

When it comes down to it, we’re excited about this new model that the MBTA has created. Of course, all riders should be able to choose which app they want to use to get around. But ultimately, not all apps are created equal. With so much choice, why shouldn’t an agency have editorial power? By choosing to work with us rather than building their own app, the MBTA is saving money and reaping all of the benefits of having their own, with the added perk that people love using Transit.

Curiosity piqued?
You can get Transit App for free on the App Store and Google Play. Or learn more about the company on our website.
Work with an agency? Curious about partnering? Email
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