The design-your-own-bus-route tool called Transitmix had all the makings of an Internet sensation when it came out last summer: an addictive fantasy system capable of entertaining both amateurs and wonks alike. And it didn't disappoint. In six months since the beta version launched, users have created some 50,000 transit maps in 3,600 cities around the world.
But it was the messages from professional transit planners that led creator Sam Hashemi to think Transitmix might have a future as an actual business, instead of just another fleeting Web obsession. "They'd email us and say, 'I've been waiting for this. Thank you so much,'" says Hashemi, who's now CEO of the company. "They were love notes in a way. We realized it could be something significant."
Last month Transitmix launched a customizable "pro" version the company believes will help transit agencies not only improve their local bus systems but also explain to the public the logic behind these service decisions more clearly. The Oregon Department of Transportation has already contracted to use the tool. Hashemi says he's in conversations with up to 80 other agencies to form similar partnerships.
"The Transitmix story is an awesome case study of how we can bring innovation to the industry," says transportation consultant Paul Supawanich of Nelson\Nygaard, who encouraged Hashemi and says his firm plans to use the tool for some projects. "Such a product could really help save people time, money, and hopefully lead to better transit plans, because we could iterate and evaluate ideas much more quickly."
From NASA to Transit
After studying at Carnegie Mellon, Hashemi began his professional career at NASA, designing new communications tools for the International Space Station. Realizing his work would only ever reach six people—the number of astronauts on board—he left to become a Code for America fellow. Transitmix emerged there: born from Hashemi's frustration with the 48 Quintara bus in San Francisco then developed during meetings with transit pros across the country.
Those talks taught him that too many planners rely on antiquated tools. Some drew bus routes on big pieces of paper. Then maybe they copied the route into Google Earth to figure out its length and upload relevant data into Excel to calculate its cost. Sometimes the spreadsheets grew to hundreds of tabs—so large they required a special staffer to manage. The process was not only slow, it was all too common.
Transitmix simplified and prettified everything. Users can find the map of any city and either import existing bus routes or draw their own from scratch. No more Google Earth. They instantly see the stops, schedules, and cost of individual lines or entire systems. No more Excel. They can even layer in geospatial Census data to see, for instance, how many people in a certain corridor live below the poverty line.
Take the No. 21 line in Salem, Oregon—a double loop that runs eight miles with two buses:
Overlaying Census data, users see that roughly 14,000 people live within a quarter-mile of the bus route, with about 9 percent of them considered poor:
If a user tweaks the route a bit (below, upper-left part of the line) the display map immediately updates its figures:
Once users are satisfied with a change they can see a side-by-side comparison of old and new in terms of ridership and cost:
Low Barrier to Entry
The Oregon DOT will use Transitmix to help assess the connectivity and quality of the statewide transit network. Matthew Barnes of ODOT's Rail & Public Transit Division says the tool is an easy way to model "what-if scenarios" for the 50-some fixed route services in the state and quickly answer questions about the network's accessibility: Where are the service gaps? How many jobs are within walking distance of a stop? Where does investment fall short of population?
ODOT can then inform local planning departments of weaknesses in their systems, and since the state paid for any Oregon agency to use Transitmix, the conversation can continue using the same tool. Barnes expects it to be especially useful for many of the smaller, less technologically sophisticated agencies—some of which might have only one planner who spends just a fraction of the time working on transit.
"Transitmix is simple enough so someone can spend literally half an hour and be a pretty fluent user and mock up potential services," he says. "There's a really low barrier to entry and usability. That's really one of the things that attracted us to it immediately."
With Oregon on board, Hashemi says the company's biggest goal this year is "to partner with as many transit agencies as possible." He believes that in addition to facilitating system design the tool can help agencies fulfill transit's social justice mandate as outlined in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires scrutiny of service changes that impact low-income riders. Transitmix is building new functions that will consider Title VI criteria early in the planning process.
"So as you plan out the bus routes you can see the Title VI implications," he says. "Our hope is to make it so you can see immediately what types of legal impact the planning is going to have."
Transitmix Pro from Sam on Vimeo.
Simplifying Public Feedback
Hashemi believes Transitmix could have an even bigger impact during the public feedback stage of local transit planning. Not only does the tool give agencies a visually appealing way to present potential routes, but it enables them to respond to ideas—or, let's face it, complaints—in real-time. If someone wants to move a bus route one street over, for instance, planners can just drag a line a few blocks and show that for an extra $250,000 the bus will now pick up just 10 more people a day.
"So it really reframes the conversion around numbers, both in terms of costs and benefits, as opposed to: 'I want the bus to come to my house,' " says Hashemi.
Last year Transitmix modified its basic tool to help the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency gather public feedback on potential investments in its rail system. In addition to holding workshops across the city—a costly and staff-intensive process—Muni and Transitmix set up a website where residents could modify the existing rail map or draw new desired service corridors. Users could also provide comments about their decisions.
Grahm Satterwhite of Muni's Strategic Planning and Policy Group says the agency received more than 100 concepts via the online Transitmix tool. Both the public and planners saved time and energy: people no longer had to travel to a workshop and fight to voice their ideas, and Muni received proposals in a unified format that made it easy to identify the most popular service requests. Satterwhite says the tool "pulls back some of the curtain on what transit planners are doing on daily basis."
"Transit for a lot of riders seems like just lines on the map," he says. "This tool can really communicate to folks—much, much quicker than we've ever been able to— what changes to the system mean."