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Weekly Trend: Public Transit Systems to Get an Assist from Tech in 2015

If you could change one aspect of your commute, what would it be? Chances are, you would wish for the power of teleportation so you wouldn’t have to deal with the erratic schedules of your local transit authority–not to mention the eternal wait time in your car, with the morning DJs.

It may not be teleportation, but public transit systems the world over are getting a very good assist from technology. Thanks to open data analysis and a desire to make sure the system runs in a way that makes sense not just from a financial standpoint but also from a rider-centric experience, it’s an exciting time to consider ditching the car and trusting in your local public transport.

A few weeks ago, 1776 highlighted Singapore’s race to becoming the world’s smartest city—one of its latest claims to the title is supported by a recent focus on reducing peak hour congestion using a specific type of data analysis. A recent article by The Guardian discusses this method, which was developed by California startup Urban Engines. The startup took information from traffic systems around the world and combined it with open data from maps and road information, as well as GPS raw data from transportation vehicles so they could visualize how people and cars move in real time. This information loop becomes useful when understanding how traffic patterns develop, and what the optimal speed limits around cities can be.

Another problem of transportation systems, that of having different passes for different types of routes or transit systems within a region or a country, is something that the Swiss are trying to address. According to Swiss blog The Local, starting August of next year, they will be introducing a one-card mobility solution. The SwissPass will allow the user to pay for bus, rail and even mountain lift fares. It will also eventually incorporate the ability to pay for other transport, such as bike rentals.

But perhaps the more significant push in the right direction comes when a city decides to do away with its sorely antiquated system altogether in favor of a fully automated one: Philadelphia’s SEPTA will be rolling out a brand new card system in 2015, as reported by the Associated Press. The system, which will be called SEPTA Key, will allow for automated payment and will be compatible with commuter trains as well. It will replace the current method of payment: tokens and paper fares. While there is a quaint charm to the old-fashioned coins, riders have to pay for their tokens with exact change and at specifically designated kiosks around the system, which are not to be found at all stations. This technology overhaul will also take place in Washington, D.C, as Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority phases out paper farecards next year: a sweet bit of ‘60s technology, which takes a lot of trouble to keep in good condition.

Ultimately, transport will be moving in a smarter direction when we are all aware of where the next train is coming and going, and when we are not packed like sardines waiting in crowded platforms, as a recent New York Post piece reported. The best takeaway? “…MTA is using a new system called i-track to look electronically at what causes delays on the lettered lines, which has a less modern signal system than the numbered lines… The digital program is more precise and has been able to calculate more than 5000 delays a month than the traditional system, which used paper and pen.”

Maria Helena Carey

Maria Helena Carey is a freelance writer, photojournalist and blogger in Washington, D.C.