Making Public Transit Sexy

After looking at the sticky-note schedule, unconference participants fanned out into numerous discussions of urban transportation and technology.

After looking at the sticky-note schedule, unconference participants fanned out into numerous discussions of urban transportation and technology.

En Español.

More than 100 self-proclaimed transit nerds gathered in the Mission this weekend at TransportationCamp to network and debate how technology can solve transit’s two existential problems: being inconvenient and unsexy.

The venue? A dark, industrial-looking nightclub-slash-gallery hidden under the central freeway loop, fittingly called the Public Works.

On Saturday morning, the attendees — a mix of transit users, transit activists, Muni and BART representatives, and programmers from Google and Microsoft — were asked to share three words that described their interest in the “unconference,” in which participants determine the conversation topics and lead their own discussions. A grid of multicolored tape and giant sticky notes marked which discussion sessions would move forward.

“Transit-oriented everything,” said one attendee. “Fix crappy cabs,” said another. “Public transit — sexy!” “Fix Clipper now!” “Multimodal transit haiku.”

Among the ideas: applications to pinpoint the locations of buses, taxis and even parking spots (using SFpark data that will be released next month); heat maps that show commute routes and destinations; systems to rate transit employees; applications that would facilitate the sharing of cars and bikes; and trip planners that could calculate how best to take multiple modes of transit — ride a bike, take a bus and drive a car during a single trip.

One of the most passionate debates concerned whether BART should monitor riders’ complaints made via Twitter and Facebook. Too much work, a BART employee maintained.

“What about a ‘Report a Problem’ app?” an audience member suggested.

Apparently, some BART riders already use “Seen and Heard on BART” to report problems. “We get some really strange emails directed at us as if we are BART, but we’re not,” said a developer of the app.  “Really angry messages about stains on seats.”

Not that this is discouraging other aspirational chroniclers of transit culture. “I was thinking of starting a blog about the N-Judah,” said Brigitte Davila, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a now-defunct Muni Fast Pass at a session called “Putting the ‘Public’ Back in Public Transportation.” “Or the performance art route, the Mission-14.”

Representatives from 511.org were trying to recruit developers to build apps based on their transit data. “Somebody could use this to build mobile apps to provide real-time transit information,” said Nisar Ahmed, 511′s program coordinator. “Put data on top of a Google map to show where the bus is right now.”

At a session led by data mapper Eric Fischer, who was drawn to the conference by a rumor that historical NextBus data would be released, Fischer puzzled over how to map pedestrian traffic without invading anyone’s privacy. In the words of another freelance developer at the session, “Fully mathematicizing and anonymizing pedestrian data is actually tricky.”

The conversation turned to Foursquare, and then, as was inevitably the case this weekend, criticizing Foursquare. “Do people use it because they want to share where they are with their friends? Or is it because they want to get those stupid badges?” someone mused.

Even less popular than Foursquare, though, was the Clipper card. It remained the most unpopular new technology on the block, confusing attendees from as far away as Washington and Utah.

“One of the problems with Clipper…” began a session leader.

“What’s Clipper?” someone interrupted.

After an explanation, the discussion continued. “One of the issues in the Bay Area is not having one pass,” said a transit advocate. “In southern California, you can use the MetroLink pass.”

“That’s what Clipper is!” someone said.

“No, with Clipper you’re paying each time!” the advocate replied, and the argument roared on.

The outcome of most sessions was a list. This list was a list of dreams — of ideas to make transportation more convenient and sexier.

Frequent buzzwords on the list? Some were “citizen crowd-sourcing,” “data-driven decisions” and “augmented reality graffiti.”

Augmented reality graffiti?

“You point the camera of your mobile device at something in the real world and draw something there,” said Andrew of Hack Your City, to explain the digital graffiti app. “Or you can see something someone else has drawn.”

Now that the idea for digital graffiti is out there, like other ideas shared at the conference, what if someone else makes the app first?

“Then it would exist already, and I wouldn’t have to worry about it,” said the idea’s other creator, Randall.

“It’s probably already out there somewhere,” said Andrew.

Even as conference-goers dreamed up more iPhone apps and Google maps to display information on the web, more than a few displayed awareness of humans who use neither smart phones nor Facebook. How to reach them? Digital kiosks were one suggestion.

As one transit activist put it: “You use social media, and you do flyers at bus stops. It’s not an either/or thing.”

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5 Comments

  1. Danno

    The event capacity was 250 people (much more than 100 described in your leadoff). And I was told that there was a waitlist of 130.

    With all of the problems you cite, what _should_ have the conference worked on?

    Honestly I’m sorry you went with such a negative attitude, when someone who was waitlisted could have made a positive impact.

    • J.J. Barrow Post author

      Hi Danno,

      Thank you for your comment. I certainly did not attend the conference with a negative attitude, but with genuine interest in how attendees envision the future of transportation and technology — this article is a representation of their brainstorming, the issues that arose and debates that actually took place. I’m not sure what you mean by problems I cite?

  2. Thomas the tank engine

    I attended – nice people and all very earnest but many talked about things about which they knew less than zero. Especially around transit technology. It was like being with a group of people talking about getting a plane off the ground not knowing that men had walked on the moon. Really a bunch of earnest amateurs. I think the whole thing was funded by the fellow who started Limewire and owes the Recording Industry something like 500-million. very odd.

  3. lisa

    Even if these people are just a bunch of earnest amateurs, I seriously doubt they could be any worse than the people in charge of Muni, CalTrain, etc here in the Bay Area. I’d say hand the management of public transit over to them because they actually believe in it as a cause, not just as some crap job they have to work like the lackluster employees that seem to currently be in charge.

    And Clipper – a solution in search of a problem. Seriously, ask any conductor on CalTrain what a headache that stupid card has been for them.

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