The spread of smartphones, with their apps for maps and transit schedules, is leading the usual tech boosters to claim that the world is on the cusp of revolution and transit and urbanism must change to accommodate. This video by Gensler Architects is a typical example, rightly excoriated on Human Transit for trying to replace fixed-route public transit with glorified taxi-share and calling it “liberated transit.” What this could be called is smartphone-oriented transit, and it’s rarely good transit.
In reality, technological progress is slow and painstaking, and does not offer many good reasons to reinvent the wheel. Consider clockface schedules: one would expect that in an environment in which everyone has a smartphone and could look up schedules in an instant, there’s no need for an easily memorable timetable. One would expect the benefits of clockface schedules to evaporate, and agencies with arbitrary schedules to have sharp ridership increases, as if they suddenly adopted such timetables.
However, this is not observed. We haven’t seen outsized ridership increases in the last few years in takt-less regions imitating the ridership gains coming from a memory schedule. See, for example, the anemic ridership gain on the MBTA commuter rail in the 2000s. It turns out that being able to know when your train is coming without consulting software is still worth something, just as it was worth something to not need to consult a printed timetable.
For another example, consider good service maps, including a listing of route frequency. Google Transit will tell you when the bus is expected to come, but not delve into which routes are more frequent and reliable than others. Thus separate listing of frequent buses remains important – in fact, it’s gradually being adopted in American cities now, without any fanfare from urban visionaries.
Since smartphones don’t have that big of an effect on transit, there are two questions that naturally follow. First, why do some agencies, such as New York’s MTA, constantly plug their growing body of transit-related apps? And, second, if smartphone-oriented transit doesn’t work, what technologies do meaningfully affect transit use, and how?
The answer to the first question is that it comes from ideology. If you think like an American entrepreneur, or like a Friedmanesque booster who likes American entrepreneurs, this attitude is understandable. Smartphones were invented in North America; apps are written by upstart members of Richard Florida’s creative class. It’s much easier for people with such a mentality to get the role of the software superstar than to get that of the transit planner. If a transit planner gets fame from such quarters, it’s for doing bold, individualist, technological things, which are almost never best industry practice. Former MTA chief Jay Walder’s ideas about smartcards are a good example: his idea of how to speed up commuter rail ticket-checking is to equip conductors with smartcard readers but still require them to go through the entire train every single time. Proof-of-payment is for light rail and European bureaucrats; true American entrepreneurs use hi-tech solutions.
A related issue is one of competence. The MTA is bragging about everything, since it’s under criticism about everything and there’s no progress about costs; apps are one of several things to brag about, to make it look as if lemons are actually lemonade. This is not ideological, but it’s closely related to reformism and boosterism. Since part of the Friedmanesque ideology is that progress comes from individualists, good government does not really come into play, except when it encourages individualists to make apps. If government is inherently incompetent, then there’s no need to engage in good design or follow best practices; the app developers will take care of everything.
The answer to the second question is that smartphones do make transit more convenient – the map is right there – but are not a game changer. The technology most relevant to transit is the kind that makes it possible to run more smoothly, cheaply, punctually, and quickly. Recent examples include improved TBM designs, regenerative braking, guided buses, articulated train interiors, 100% low-floor buses and trains, DMUs that can be maintained in bus shops, hybrid and electric buses, more aerodynamic vehicles, and catenary-free light rail. None is a game changer; all taken together make transit much more efficient and convenient than it was in 1950, all else being equal. Of course, comparable technological improvements also made cars more convenient, and the spread of cars has made transit less useful, but the vehicles themselves are a huge improvement.
It’s easy to think of technology as a series of gamechanging innovations, but it really isn’t. The assembly line was a gamechanger, but it took multiple decades for mass-produced cars to remake society in their image, and every step of the way it was intimately related to such preexisting trends as urban renewal and anti-railroad populism. It should be thought of as a painstakingly long process of growth, which is nothing more than employing more resources and employing them more efficiently.
The upshot is that everything that was important for good transit in 2000 is important today. Although it may dismay some reformers with too much vision, it’s actually a good thing for riders: it means that the last few decades’ knowledge of how to run trains and buses is still relevant. The wheel is a familiar, well-studied technology. The challenges today are somewhat changed, but the knowledge of how to face them is the same. Good transit is not only different from smartphone-oriented transit, but also technically much easier to implement well.