February 16, 2009
Public Transit Sees Changes in the Age of Web 2.0
By ERT DREDGE
It’s been five years since the Web 2.0 revolution—or, more accurately, evolution—got properly underway, and it’s easy to see the imprint of that change on the world. The web is now a place of rich user interfaces that rival and surpass desktop applications, and hundreds of millions of people showcase their ideas on blogs and their social connections on social networking sites. Web sites like Facebook, Flickr, Wikipedia, and YouTube are growing by leaps and bounds, fueled by the continuous input of everyday people around the globe.
A consideration of how Web 2.0 has affected the public transit industry leads one first to consider the web sites of various transit agencies, where nowadays one can readily find blogs detailing upcoming changes with local systems and current system alerts. The most significant development on transit agency sites in recent years, though, has been the introduction of online trip planners, with the most cutting-edge transit sites now simply exporting their standardized schedule information to Google so their riders can plan their trips via embedded versions of Google Maps.
Looking forward beyond the current state of transit agency sites, however, takes an examination of the other fruits of the Web 2.0 world.
One of the most obvious changes in the last five years of online technology has been the dramatic increase in the number of sites that rely on crowdsourced input and the network effect to drive their growth. Wikipedia is developed by thousands of volunteer contributors and editors, and MySpace and other social networking sites are only interesting because other people already are using them. The larger the number of people who are already using one of these sites, the more useful that site is.
The ability to derive small amounts of volunteer work from each of a large number of people—by getting many people to write articles, post videos, or upload lists of their friends—allows everyone to take a small portion of the cost of, say, writing an encyclopedia, but everyone can enjoy the benefit.
Significantly, public transit has always been greatly impacted by both the positive and negative repercussions of network effects: One person riding a bus isn’t really a transit system at all; it’s just somebody with a big vehicle and a really huge monthly car payment. But if you get enough people together, riding in the same direction at the same times, they all get to share in the costs of maintaining the system. If you get too many people trying to ride the same vehicles in the same direction, you get overcrowding, at least until you can purchase more vehicles.
You already can see the early beginnings of crowdsourcing and network effect information sharing on the public transit industry. Neighborhood blogs and web sites contain comments and tips about local transit stops with no input from transit authorities. Meanwhile, the transit agencies themselves ask their patrons to watch out for suspicious packages. These are early and easily spotted examples.
In the next five years, we should expect to see the lessons and growth of the online network effect and crowdsourcing web sites showing up in the public transit industry. Before long, systems will be able to plot their own routes over hundreds of miles, using routes and data collected from a wide variety of sources including transit agencies, private jitney services, traffic reports, and ratings from individual end users. (Imagine a transit route plotted on Mapquest with a casual note beside one leg of the journey: “Don’t take the #471 bus between 2 and 3 p.m., it’s way too crowded.”) “Dynamic ridesharing” ventures are already under development, using the agility of modern mobile telecommunications to mix parts of private vehicles, taxi fleets, and public transit agencies into new mobility solutions. We are sure to see social networking groups of people who have nothing else in common except their daily commute on the same bus.
Public transit has collected crowds of users for years. It’s only natural that crowdsourcing will come to have a dramatic impact on how it functions.