Copley station on MBTA Green Line

Mobile apps vie for MBTA preferred status

Late in 2015 the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority asked the public to fill out a brief survey to vote for their favorite mobile application. The results, when posted, were nuanced. Instead of announcing a clear-cut favorite, the authority posted a table that showed the most popular apps based on mode and features (e.g. provides accurate and reliable info, shows actual location of bus/train, visually appealing).  The number or percentage of votes was not included.

This year, the authority is trying something different. For starters, MBTA staff — not the public — will pick the winner, and the results will be based on formal written proposals and a set of public presentations from four short-listed application developers: Moovit, Transit App, Moovel, and Swiftly.

The meeting was held on August 12, and The Transit Wire was in attendance. David Block-Schachter, MBTA chief technology officer, opened the meeting by confirming what many researchers have shown.  “Survey after survey, research after research shows more and more customers are using apps,” he said. “They are our happiest customers and they believe the system runs better than all other customers.”

But right now, MBTA customers can choose among more than 100 mobile apps — a potentially bewildering set of options for some riders.  “Not every customer wants to choose between 100 apps,” said David Barker, deputy director of operations technology, explaining one of the goals of the competition.  “Can we improve the customer experience by recommending one really good one?”

All four of the short-listed apps provide real-time arrival predictions for MBTA services, and all four will provide the MBTA with customer analytics.  Here’s how each team tried to distinguish its app from the competition.

Moovit focused on its international presence — the app is available in 42 languages and has been named the official transit app for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games — and its use of crowdsourcing.  The app incorporates user data into its predictions and also allows users to add route and schedule data for transit systems not already available in the app.  “The community editor feature empowers users to be invested in the system,” Moovit’s U.S. manager David Klein told The Transit Wire. To enable the app to reflect short-term changes like weekend construction, which may not be included in an agency’s data feed, an operations team adjusts predictions to reflect field conditions.

Transit App, which director of strategy and development Jake Sion introduced as the “most popular transit app in North America,” is packed with features including a user-friendly display that shows upcoming departure times for all near-by services in big text and bright colors,  push notification for service alerts, and an alarm for upcoming stops.  The app is also testing a crowdsourcing feature in Pittburgh, where riders can communicate with one another.  “We have the design expertise and critical mass to make the information useful,” Sion said about the app’s rider-to-rider community.  Transit App also provides information for Hubway, metro Boston’s bikeshare service, and already includes a feature to unlock and pay for bikes in Chicago and Toronto.  “Transportation used to be a binary choice between driving and transit,” Sion added. “We want to convince more and more people to get out of their cars.”

Moovel, the German company formed from the merger of RideScout and GlobeSherpa, previewed its new mobile app that will be launching soon in the U.S. “Mobility is an ecosystem,” said Stephanie Suess, head of CRM, “and public transportation is the fundamental core of that transportation ecosystem.”  Like Moovit, Moovel has a global presence, and in Germany customers can book and pay for transit rides through the app. Suess also stressed the importance of keeping the app simple.  “We learned that users don’t respond to cluttered multimodal interfaces,” she said. “We are striving to provide simplicity and also richness.”

Swiftly, a new entrant to the Boston market, emphasized the accuracy of its data.  Michael Smith, CIO and technical co-founder, said that Swiftly’s algorithm allows it to show arrival predictions down to the second.  Swiftly also incorporates crowdsourced information and includes price comparisons in its itinerary planner. And, because not every rider has a smart phone, Swiftly will also enable customers to access real-time arrival predictions via telephone or text message. (A similar feature is currently available to MBTA passengers via NextBus.)

The MBTA will select its preferred app on September 6.  According to MBTA, the app will be promoted on the home page of its website and will be positioned as the default app in the MBTA’s app gallery.  The MBTA has posted a summary of the competing apps here.

Photo credit: Susan Mara Bregman

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