Arlington County's Mobility Lab experiments with high-tech ways to help people get over their transit phobias

Don’t lie: Sometimes you’re afraid of the bus. Bus route information is pretty uniformly awful. You don’t know where the stops are. If you do know where the stops are, you don’t know when the bus will come. Or, if a bus does come and you manage to get on it, you’re not quite sure where it’ll take you. Or – worst of all – you’re standing on the corner where you know the bus is supposed to come, it finally appears on the horizon – at last! – and then, for whatever reason, it rumbles past without you. This corner, on this day of the week, heading in this particular direction, is bypassed during express service.

This is basically why the field of Transportation Demand Management exists. Just because a city has extensive transportation options to move everyone around without a car doesn’t mean people will use them. Any one of those fears is enough to make you think, "it’s easier if I just drive."

"There is that saying ‘build it and they will come,'" says Tom Fairchild, who works in the Arlington County Commuter Services office. "And that will only get you so far. There’s also a lot to be said for bringing people there."

Arlington County, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., has managed to take 40,000 car trips a day off of the county’s roads through its TDM programming (transit hand-holding, you could call it). That doesn’t mean that they’ve reduced car traffic by adding more bus routes or building out more bikeshare stations. They've eliminated these car trips with their existing infrastructure just by making it easier for people to use it.

Since 2010, the office has built up a kind of R&D lab, which Fairchild directs, where a small group of programmers has been trying to figure out how to use technology to close that convenience gap between driving your car and using absolutely any other alternative. Mobility Lab, and its Transit Tech initiative, has a lean start-up philosophy that's almost unrecognizable in a government bureaucracy.

The lab wants to collaborate with unusual suspects outside of government. It’s willing to play with ideas that may not pan out. And it’s putting its inventions – so far, a kind of live transit-tracking billboard and a motherlode of all transit phone apps – on the street before they’re really ready for a ribbon-cutting.

That whole mentality comes naturally to the open-source software developing community, if not a traditional municipal agency.

“Governments and open-source software development have been moving closer together over time,” says David Alpert, the lab’s product development manager (and, incidentally, the blogger behind the popular local planning site Greater Greater Washington). None of these projects would work if transit agencies weren’t freely providing their own internal tracking data. “Agencies are just putting this data out there and being sort of willing to have it there without necessarily knowing or controlling what people do.”

The lab has taken some of that data and created a web and mobile app called Transit Near Me that tries to make sense of all that chaotic bus information. Washington’s routes, for example, look daunting on a single map:

So how to make that information usable? Mobility Lab has played with the idea of a Spider Map, a geographically distorted image that zooms in on your immediate neighborhood while also illustrating the full reach of relevant bus routes that pass through it. This is what such a map would look like for the H Street neighborhood in Washington:

Courtesy: Peter Dunn, Stone Brown Design

Transit Near Me deploys a similar model, while also layering on top of it real-time data on the next bus or train arrival.

The lab also wanted to create the ultimate dream for wayward bus travelers (who may or may not have a smart phone): a live sign projecting arrival times. Many train systems already do this. But bus stops are outdoors, and it would be prohibitively expensive to run electricity to them and to build electronic displays that could withstand the weather. The lab invented instead a low-cost computer display, built out of cheap consumer-grade hardware, that could be hosted instead in coffee shops, bars and retail. The signs are designed to face the sidewalk from inside a store window, or to serve customers inside the kinds of places people linger anyway.

The sign is programmed for each location and combines live data feeds from local bus, train, and bikeshare systems. Today, you could see a screen displaying something like this at a test coffee shop in Arlington or a bar on H Street:

Eric Fidler, one of the Transit Tech fellows, spent considerable time just trying to figure out the layout on the screen (because even details like that matter when you’re trying to help people over their transit phobias).

"Auto companies spend huge amounts of money to hire designers just to design a little volume knob," Fidler says. Local governments don’t have that kind of cash, but he thinks good design can help ease people into transit. "It’s like, well, we have to compete with Toyota and Ford and GM in their quality of graphic design, so we have to take this very seriously."

Mobility Lab envisions that one day shop owners would be willing to foot the bill for the hardware once they perfect the software, since the idea has a potential downwind economic impact. Wouldn’t you buy one more round of drinks if a monitor over the bar could assure you that you still have 20 minutes to spare before the last bus home?

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