The bus is late again. You’re going to be late, and you’re infuriated. You’ve called to complain now and then, but nothing changed. You wrote letters and you signed petitions. You marched on the transit district’s offices. You muttered curses within your personal cabal. Even after all that, the system known affectionately around San Francisco as “the Muni” still drives you crazy.
Ask those who know how the system works, though, and you’ll hear some good advice: Don’t just complain, complain with data to back you up. Best of all, present data from many riders — though that’s hard to do.
There’s an app for that on that way. OpenTransit, now in alpha stage, running on public data, will provide transit users with the specific data they need to induce change.
It’s the brainchild of about two dozen volunteer coders, about half of whom meet consistently every week in downtown San Francisco. These are the very kind of independent, data-driven civic activists who I think are the most inspiring part in the so-called “smart cities.”
Group spokesperson Neel Mehta, a project manager at Google and recent Harvard graduate in computer science, explains how the group hopes OpenTransit will work: “Instead of just saying, ‘Hey, Muni sucks,” he said, “people can help the agency identify how and where it failed.” Let Muni drill down and see exactly what happened.
Though the group has been focused on building the tool, they have found some general observations.
• The city is a long way from meeting its “30 by 30” goal, in which Muni riders should reach anywhere in the city within 30 minutes. OpenTransit’s isochrone map shows, for example, that no trip from the low income Hunters Point district will take 30 minutes or less no matter what the destination. But most trips from downtown will take 30 minutes or less. The extent of the discrepancy is surprising.
• Actual distribution among wait times is very wide, varying by 10 or 15 minutes. “The spread is scary,” said Mehta. A rider might wait up to 30 minutes between buses.
The app is all open source, and the group is working with other all-volunteer groups in Los Angeles and New York on similar projects. They hope that other cities adopt the technology.
Metha said, “We’re just doing what others have failed to do.” He said they’d be happy if others did the same or better. “Our goal is to be obsolete.”
Take a look at the still-rough alpha version of OpenTransit. Feedback is welcome.
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