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Can people power influence and improve the daily commute?

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Category: Wider impact
Published: 01/12/2016

Transport systems are the beating heart of a city. Vehicles are the blood; roads and rail networks are the arteries and veins carrying us to where we need to go and then back again. Yet traffic doesn’t always flow as smoothly as we would like. Commuter knowledge could be the answer to keeping things moving, and our cities healthy.

Transport systems ... the beating heart of a city

Transport systems are the beating heart of a city

Commuting frustrations

Sibi Arasu is a journalist and researcher living in Chennai, India. For him, if he can’t get to places, he can’t report on the stories that matter. He says Chennai’s transport situation is better than in other cities in India, but it’s not ideal and still has some way to go.

“Traffic here has got worse in recent years. The train systems provides a respite from this since large distances can be covered without much stress and in a relatively short amount of time,” Arasu says. “But trains only [cover] a few routes, so everyday commuters tend to rely on private vehicles, taxis and auto rickshaws, as well as buses.”The daily commute via an auto rickshaw

There is also the added challenge of service information being hard to find or incomplete. To get round this headache, Arasu uses an app called Raft, which provides him with real-time updates.

However, such apps often rely on vehicles being fitted with GPS systems for tracking and information relay. In some cities this just isn’t feasible – there is neither the infrastructure in place nor finances available. However, a host of startups are combatting this by turning to people’s knowledge of transport networks to ease commuting frustrations.

Connecting the dots

Crowdsourced data ... a crucial component of a city's transport ecosystem

Crowdsourced data … a crucial component of a city’s transport ecosystem

“Crowdsourced data can be constantly updated, constantly alive,” says Devin de Vries, co-founder of London-based WhereIsMyTransport. “It’s a crucial component of any city’s future transport ecosystem, since all data is time sensitive and continuously going out of date.”

WhereIsMyTransport, which principally works with emerging cities, is focused on creating centralised platforms that deliver relevant and up-to-date travel information to governments, transport providers and commuters. What’s particularly great about this is that over time, as more data is gathered, the more informed decision makers are when it comes to improving their networks.

Woman using smartphone to improve daily commute

Meanwhile, Singapore’s Beeline project, the city-state’s “first marketplace for crowdsourced bus services”, allows commuters to suggest new routes via an app. The on-demand public bus service was set up especially for frustrated travellers who have to make multiple changes to their journey.

Our routes should adjust based on your demand

Unsurprisingly, the idea is proving to be a hit. In its first year, it crowdsourced more than 3,400 suggestions. This is a huge part of its appeal – being adaptive and responsive. As it explains, “our routes should adjust based on your demand”.

Elsewhere, Ally, created by Berlin-based Door2Door, is using open data to visualise the commuting situation in emerging cities like Istanbul, where residents rely a lot on informal transport solutions, and where many roads are incorrectly mapped. Its sister project, Track Your City, is building the first digital maps of public transportation and has previously had success mapping Zambia’s capital Lusaka and Quito in Ecuador.

Crowdsourcing is nothing new of course. It has already been used successfully in major cities to tackle the plight of potholes and parking spaces. But it could have a particular impact in the urban areas where infrastructure is poor, because often in these places the transport authorities don’t release open data to developers.

“In emerging cities, crowdsourcing can be particularly powerful as it can form the first ever picture of a city’s network in the absence of a centralised one,” says de Vries. “But there are challenges in terms of inclusivity, sufficient network coverage, and sustained participation.”

Public sector partnership

Justin Coetzee is founder of South African app GoMetro, which allows users to alert other commuters to any problems. Users can also ask questions and find out the latest from other travellers. He says there has been a sustained demand for the app – it has had 1.5 million downloads so far, with around 150,000 returning users and 5,000 active mappers and data participants.

Crowdsourcing can dislodge the inertia that urban planning sometimes gets stuck in

For Coetzee, the beauty of crowdsourcing is that it can “dislodge the inertia that urban planning sometimes gets stuck in”. He stresses though that as much as it can be “a catalyst for urban change”, it’s not “the full solution on its own”. Governments and local authorities need to be active participants and collaborate with the companies and startups building apps and platforms – they are in a position to help scale projects.

Collaboration is key to making transport seamless in urban environments

Collaboration is key to making transport seamless in urban environments

GoMetro is working with South Africa’s national rail network PRASA. Before collaborating, Coetzee says the app was receiving 5,000 monthly updates on rail operations, posted by commuters sharing delays and lack of progress. Recognising the potential of crowdsourcing, PRASA adopted it across seven cities, leading to an increase to 50,000 delay updates a month.

Community participation in urban planning

Looking ahead, de Vries sees governments moving towards “a more co-creative model” when it comes to future transport planning. Currently, communities can give their feedback on plans or projects, but de Vries believes that more communities need to be a part of the structure of proposals themselves, rather than just being allowed to comment on them as an afterthought.

“The needs and inputs of the actual users of a system should always be the starting point for infrastructure,” he says. “Part of that is enabling them to voice their concerns and needs directly to the city and the transport providers.”

Listening to what the crowd has to say will hopefully mean the end of unreliable public transport services with unknown routes and unpredictable progress.