Soon you can app your route on Columbia Transit

Jul 11, 2012

Big budget deficits and low ridership keep the Columbia Transit system searching for new ways to boost support.  One unusual place they’re looking is the League of Innovators, a group of tech-oriented entrepreneurs.

The advocacy group Columbians for a Modern Efficient Transit said, in a list of recommendations that usability was its number one concern. The Columbia bus system is complicated, and the schedule is irregular. Even Columbia Transportation Supervisor Drew Brooks agrees:

“Well we don’t make it easy.  We’re kind of antiquated in that we still have paper maps that you can come and get that have a map one side and a schedule on the other.  If you’re not familiar with the bus schedule it can be very intimidating,” Brooks said.

Columbia Transit narrowly balanced its budget this year with fare increases and route changes, so the irregularity won’t be getting much better anytime soon.  But, by partnering with local computer programmers at a recent event at the Museo Building, Columbia Transit is trying to make transit information more user friendly.

Dave Oster is the Chief Technology Officer for Occupied, LLC. He showed up for the League of Innovator’s first Hack for Good Event--the single night event partnered programmers with local organizations to build software that fills a civic need.  Oster ended up creating an iPhone app that helps riders find nearby stops and plan their trips.

“I myself am pretty good at learning a new thing like that.  But nowadays anyone can be that good.  The tools are out there.  I did like 4 google searches and I knew what to do after that.  It’s all out there for anyone,” Oster said.

Through a federal grant, Columbia Transit has bought GPS locators that can track exact bus locations.  Once those are installed in the fall, that data will be public, too for developers like Oster to build bus tracking apps.

Crowdsourcing like this doesn’t always come naturally to a government agency, but Brooks is all for it.

“You know it’s a brave new world out there where if you can supply the information, someone is going to come and analyze that data in a way that you never thought possible,” Brooks said.

For Columbia Transit, usability is just one piece in the puzzle.  If the system is more user friendly, maybe ridership will go up.  If ridership goes up, then general support might increase as well.  

Columbia Transit is particularly concerned about getting more support from students who already make up more than 7 out of every 10 riders.  In nearby university towns like Ames, Iowa and Lawrence, Kansas, student body fees fund more than half of the bus system’s budget.  The student body at Mizzou currently contributes nothing.

The Columbia Transit iPhone app is complete, but not yet in the iTunes store.  Apple takes a few days to vet each app before approving it, but Oster thinks it will be available any day now.