Is it possible for a startup to improve the packed, slow, and delayed Muni system by using the riders’ own data?
The transit-oriented software developer Arrive Labs says yes, and the plan is a finalist for the city’s four-month Entrepreneurship-in-Residence, a new program that seeks to put startup innovators at work solving what government has been slow to improve. The 11 finalists were selected from a field of 200.A group of three to five winners – to be announced by the mayor’s office in January – will have access to government staff and mentors from both public and private sectors.
For the moment, Arrive Lab’s smartphone app TransitHero is hunting for users. Its model hinges on real-time data provided by users who, in effect, save others from delays. For instance, a user could report when they get on a bus and where they’re waylaid along the route, which then is delivered to people waiting for the bus further down the route. That information arms other commuters with ability to make smarter choices to get to their destinations.
This little act of, in effect, crowdsourcing transit information is what sets TransitHero apart in a crowded field of transportation apps.
“What we’re doing is creating an entirely new data set that hadn’t existed before that combines crowd-sourced data with our own proprietary data,” said Bavidra Mahon, 29, who founded Arrive Labs with partners Christopher Cuellar and Bryan Farris.
Mahon, a Mission District resident, has a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s degree in marketing. While working as a social strategy consultant for companies at a marketing communications firm, he discovered he yearned for more than a paycheck from work.
“After three and a half years, I woke up and thought corporate social responsibility was bullshit,” Mahon said, adding most companies’ idea of altruism was “throwing money at a non-profit.” He quit the next day.
While he no longer believes corporate social responsibility is as banal, Mahon thinks there’s a better way to create change: embed a benefit for the greater good in a company’s DNA from the outset.
Mahon met Farris, 29, when they were fellows in the Acumen Fund, the global non-profit that raises venture funds for entrepreneurial approaches to tackle issues related to poverty. Farris brought in his longtime friend, Cuellar, for his engineering expertise. For months, the trio batted around ideas and plans on Skype.
To date, Arrive Labs has grown to four employees and has produced both TransitHero and the transportation routing app Arrive. TransitHero launched for the iPhone iOS7 in September, and, in early December, they updated the app so commuters can use the “Plan a Trip” feature to map the most efficient Muni route to a destination.
Arrive Labs is raising seed funding from investors to keep growing. Current investors are the Michigan-based Lakeland Ventures Development and Bay Area-based Hub Ventures.
Mahon said there has been an uptick in users since the launch of the newest version of TransitHero at the beginning of December, though he wouldn’t disclose the exact amount.
Getting more people contributing to the app requires recruiting the potential customers where they’re at: Muni stops, BART platforms, and Caltrain stations. On a recent Thursday in November, Arrive Labs’ Sam Houston, 25, a Mission resident for four years, took to the streets to speak to potential users about what apps they use and what routes they take.
Of the dozen people he talked to, none had heard of TransitHero, but all shared their frustrations with public transit. Houston is in charge of increasing the users, and brainstorming more creative tactics than typical social media and word-of-mouth marketing. One idea is to pay workers to dress up as superheroes and talk to transit riders at busy BART and Muni stations.
“We’re just starting to reach out to communities like Muni Diaries blog and Reddit’s San Francisco community, while we’ve also been becoming more involved with the SF Bay Area’s transit enthusiast community,” he said.
“We’re in the early stages,” Houston continues. “We don’t know what will catch fire with people. Now it will be a bunch of one-to-one relationships. We’ll start small and go from there.”
Once the app succeeds in San Francisco, the idea is to scale up quickly in other cities. The company’s model is similar to that of Waze, an app that allows a car driver to see how traffic is in real-time based on information provided by other users. Waze grew to 50 million users in four years and sold to Google this year for $1 billion.
A competitor for Arrive Labs is the Moovit app, which has grown to 3 million users and raised over $30 million in investment capital. Arrive Labs is banking on its company’s small size to create the app that users will find to be the best.
Cuellar and his colleagues are betting that the global migration to the cities—estimated to be half the world’s population by 2030—will favor their apps. Personal cars for everyone will become unfeasible, and public transit will become increasingly important. Mahon is hoping to be in a lucrative position to provide transit intelligence to those commuters.
“We try to guess how people will use apps,” said Cuellar, the company’s engineer. “The ease of use for users is important. We’re not perfect, but were learning from our users.”