Atlantic Cities

These Real-Time Transit Screens Belong in Every Lobby

These Real-Time Transit Screens Belong in Every Lobby
Courtesy of TransitScreen

Most of us have such strong loyalty to one specific transportation mode that we rely on it without considering any of the others. But Matt Caywood envisions a day when we drop these allegiances and choose the best travel option for the moment. The big thing standing between us and this alternative reality is having all the information present when it's time to make a travel decision. 

"If you can know exactly what your options are, and know when they're coming, you're much more likely to use them," he says.

Caywood is a co-founder of TransitScreen, a service that broadcasts all local mass transit options in real-time to any device with an Internet connection — from a mobile phone or desktop computer to a web-enabled kiosk or television. The idea is to place the screens at critical decision points standing between you and whatever trip you're planning to take. That might mean checking the screen on the TV in your apartment, or on the little ad display in the elevator, or on a flat screen in the lobby right near the door.

"A typical case might be you walk out through your lobby and you see whether there's a bike-share or not," he says. "Maybe you just missed out on picking up a CitiBike, so you go to the next best plan, which is a bus. You see a bus isn't coming for 10 minutes. So you go by subway, because it's coming in a couple minutes."


A sample transit screen for a location in Northern Virginia.

TransitScreen is a response to first-generation apps that only show users one mode at a time, making it hard to compare travel alternatives. It's also a counter to newer apps (like RideScout) that display multiple modes at once but remain most useful for those of us attached to our smartphones. While TransitScreen does have a mobile presence, Caywood says its main advantage is being customized for a certain location; the service aims to import real-time information from every transit alternative surrounding the site of the screen. 

The goal is to focus on getting city residents to consider all their travel options before they ever leave.

This level of specificity — showing how far away each mode is and when it next arrives — reduces wait times for TransitScreen users. (Little surprise that Caywood, a neuroscientist by training, would address transit's frustrating psychological element.) It also makes people aware of options they might not know about or have otherwise considered.

"We're not trying to be a general mobile app for everything, wherever you are," says Caywood. "We focus on providing a really high-quality experience, and a really understandable portrait of the transit options at your site."

TransitScreen emerged from Mobility Lab, a civic initiative in Arlington, Virginia, intended to encourage car commuters onto public transportation. After that pilot, Caywood and Ryan Croft pushed to commercialize the service and currently have screens in 14 cities in the United States and Canada. Caywood says investor interest recently spiked after TranistScreen won a six-minute pitch contest at a recent meeting of the Transportation Research Board.

Right now commercial vendors make up the bulk of TransitScreen clients. So you might find screens in city offices, university and government buildings, or shops and restaurants. Residential buildings are another popular site for the screens; you can't get one in your apartment just yet, since the company doesn't currently do individual sales, but tenants can bug their landlord or management company to put one in the lobby.

TransitScreen may also one day work with transit agencies to put screens inside stations or at stops. That would certainly promote multi-modal trips; transferring from a subway to a bus, for instance, would become much easier even in unfamiliar parts of the city. But Caywood says the goal for now is to focus on getting city residents to consider all their travel options at the earliest possible point in the decision-making process — before they ever leave.

"Putting it in a metro station is great, but by the time you're there you're already committed to metro," he says. "We want to get them before they make that choice."

Images courtesy of TransitScreen.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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