Sunday, September 8, 2013

Smartphone-Dependent Transit - No thank you

To all those working to design automated transit and improve conventional transit: If you're trying to gear scheduling and/or fare payment to smartphones, please stop.

A number of years ago, well before smartphones were a thing, I spoke with a PRT designer who was planning to make smartcards the preferred means for users to access the system. At the time I counseled him that a public system required anyone be able to pay a fare in cash -- what if the smartcard was lost, or damaged, or forgotten at home or office? What about members of the public who don't have a smartcard, for whatever reason? Tourists for example.

These reasons and others also apply to the idea of making the smartphone the centerpiece of transit access.

What if someone has lost or forgotten their smartphone, or doesn't own one? What if they're out of minutes? What if they are a senior citizen who has a no-frills non-smart mobile? Or what if the battery is simply dead?

And what if people are trying to access the PRT system ahead of, during, or in the aftermath of a wide scale public emergency, and the cellular network is overloaded or not working?

These reasons are why, despite it being possible to completely automate stations, at least a significant number of them, if not a majority, should have flesh and blood customer service staff.

Which reminds me that in King County the Metro buses are designated Safe Places for youth in trouble. Completely automated systems should have policies that recognize and facilitate these and other public priorities.

I know it might be more streamlined or efficient (at least for transit agencies) if everything could be done by phone. And it might be cheaper (for transit agencies) -- I've heard that cash-handling is expensive (although it's probably banks that said it).

But we're talking about public transit, the first priority is provision of service, not making things convenient for the operator. You accept the coin of the realm or get out.

(The following has been put in Bold so that commenter Mr. Reductio et al will notice it)

So if you want to have pod transit with options for a smartphone user interface and ticketless rides, as an added convenience, go right ahead. But anyone should be able to walk into a station and buy a hard ticket using cash and plastic.

Future users of advanced automated transit should expect a level of service better than what they get with online banking. Or their wireless provider.


  1. This is why I think transit agencies shouldn't publish timetables: not everyone owns a watch or can easily gain access to a clock.

    Alternatively, we could embrace new technology, but design our systems for graceful degradation so that functionality is still accessible when these technological features are unavailable. The web is built on this premise: well-designed web sites can still be used in browsers which lack certain features.

    At the end of the day, it is good to be clear up front whether you are anti-technology or in favor of sound design concepts which can leverage but not require technological features.


  2. Every problem listed could be overcome with procedure and alternatives as mitigation.
    You can't buy a monthly pass for transit onboard a bus. But you can top one up by internet. Or go to a local retailer.
    A PRT system could easily bring a patron immediately from a station with no service point or payment method to a station with one or to a customer service centre.
    If evacuation is an issue (and emergency preparedness has NOTHING to do with regular operation), then the system can be made free once an evacuation order is given (just as other transit is).

    1. My comments were about some PRT programs and neo-taxis (e.g. Uber) that don't describe how one would request or pay for normal service without a smartphone. Any system can have exceptions baked-in, I just don't take it for granted that it has been done.