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HERE for Windows Transit Mobile Apps Features Public Sector

Catching buses: why is transit so tricky?

Justus Brown has been with Nokia, and working on public transit solutions, since 2008. At HERE, he’s the head of public transit content and platform. ‘Content’ is the routes and timetables; ‘platform’ means the integration of that information into apps and the back-end infrastructure that serves them.

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We asked him about the pain points of his job and what makes creating a transit app so tricky.

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“It’s actually quite easy to make a transit app for an individual service or an individual city,” says Justus. As you would expect, you take a timetable database or an API into that database and connect it with a map. “And if you’ve got local knowledge, you can take the journeys yourself to make small corrections.”

“The difficult bit is to make it work everywhere in the world and with thousands of different data sources.”

By the time I get to Phoenix

“In the US, to give just one example, there is no public transit planner that will let you plan a route from your house in one city to another house in a neighbouring state.”

One reason being the proliferation of different transport operators, many of which are direct competitors with little interest in co-operating with other players in their areas.

“In the Bay area of San Francisco alone, there are 37 different transit providers. If I take a short journey – from San Mateo to downtown – then I need to buy tickets from three different transit providers. I can’t even buy a ticket for the whole journey.”

The French connection

Across the pond, conditions are different, but tricky in their own way.

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“In Europe, transit tends to be a bit more co-ordinated, but the problems over there are more often with access to and use of transit data. HERE is a commercial business and often there are restrictions on releasing the information to such an organisation.”

“Our argument is that we’re trying to make transit easier for their customers, and so bring them more of those customers, and reduce the number of queries and queues.”

A particular target for HERE transit services is travellers, who benefit from using the same familiar interface wherever they may be.

“Travellers are often the most expensive customers for transit authorities,” says Justus. “They don’t know the way. They don’t know how to get between platforms. They ask lots of questions.”

“If we can smooth their passage through transit hubs, then we’re actually offering a lot of value to the local authorities.”

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HERE offers a uniform interface, but it also caters for local tastes in some ways. Where particular lines have colours, as with many subway systems, then the local colours are used. In many cases, we use symbols for stops taken from the local operator.

Wider world

In developing nations, the situation tends to be simpler. But not in a good way, sadly.

“We’ve spoken to a number of transit authorities in developing nations who have absolutely no idea where the next bus might be. They buy a certain number of journeys from contractors on specified routes. But when it comes to the timetable or the location of those buses, there’s just nothing available.”

“In some countries, we just have to go out and ride the buses ourselves and record the information in order to be able to build it into our service.”

Up to the minute

Back in the Europe and the US, access to the most current route information is thankfully now available through online APIs most of the time. In many countries, those APIs can give arrival information down to the minute, and where we can get permission, that information is available through our apps.

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“HERE uses a streaming API in these cases,” says Justus. “So we take a full feed of the data every couple of minutes and our users tap into that, rather than it being a direct link which could potentially bring down a lot of these systems.”

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t different types of issues. “What we found out is that APIs aren’t sometimes actually up-to-date with the current timetable. If they are managed separately from the database that’s used for an agency’s internal systems, they may be the last to be updated.” We’re therefore constantly working with all the agencies to make sure this doesn’t happen. Finding better ways into systems across the globe occupies a fair proportion of Justus’ time.

“In the future, we plan to do more to leverage social media and our own community of users to provide alerts through our transit apps. An option would be polling Twitter for tweets around particular services, for example, among other measures.”

Our transit apps are continually updating, behind the scenes. One example is the recent addition of Deutsche Bahn routes and timetables to the system. This and dozens of other additions to the back-end services bring the possibility of door-to-door transit information to reality for more users every week.

image creditsE01SarahHåkan DahlströmAttila Schmidt

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