Interviewed: TransitScreen Co-founder Ryan Croft on Multimodality at a Glance

Demonstrating TransitScreen at Seattle Municipal Tower launch event. (Courtesy Ryan Croft)

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TransitScreen builds real time transit information visualizations for businesses, institutions, and governments, including real estate developers, landlords, universities, and county and municipal transportation agencies. Founded in 2013 by Matt Caywood and Ryan Croft, the company promotes sustainable transportation by aggregating information on the availability of public transit and shared transportation on digital displays. TransitScreen has offices at Code for America in San Francisco and Washington, DC, and is in the midst of expanding to Europe.

I recently spoke by phone to TransitScreen co-founder Ryan Croft. He filled me in on the company's history and mission, as well as its embrace of shared mobility and the open data movement. He also talked about the importance of remaining "agnostic" regarding transportation modality, and shared anecdotal data on TransitScreen's behavioral impacts.

ABM: What is TransitScreen? How did it come to be?

RC: TransitScreen is live transit or transportation information at a glance. Our roots are in [Virginia]. We came out of an Arlington County government program called the Mobility Lab, a little over two years ago.

We have a team of up to 20 people...in Washington, DC and San Francisco. Our core focus is the gateway cities: San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, New York, DC, Boston, and, now, London.

Describe TransitScreen's client base.

TransitScreen is B2B and B2G—we serve businesses. I'd say half is real estate, a quarter is corporations, and another quarter is government or higher education.

With real estate, it's the building owners or the property managers—the people who own large buildings in major cities where you work or live.

On the corporate side, we work with a handful of Fortune 500 companies. The way we see it, they just value their employees' time. It's inefficient if someone's waiting 15 minutes for a bus to get to or from work. More critically, a lot of these larger companies operate their own mini transit systems. It's not that they don't work well; it's that nobody knows when they're coming. We've found a niche there, in serving some very large corporations, helping them value their employees' time, getting them to and from meetings and around town faster.

The last piece is government or higher ed. We've been fortunate to work with many great government entities and municipalities. We came from a county program. We're in city hall in Montgomery County, Maryland; Seattle, Washington; Toronto, Canada; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Bellevue, Washington. And we're in a lot of municipal buildings.

We [also] work with leading universities, higher education all across the United States.

What is TransitScreen's mission?

The broader vision is, simply: we want to save people time. Waiting, or not knowing where you're going, or where your mobility option is, is frustrating. The key piece that we always go back to is that everyone's a commuter, no matter if you walk or bike or take the bus or if you drive. And you're commuting five, 10 times a day—between meetings, between lunch or dinner and home. So it's about making cities more efficient, it's about making them more sustainable, and making it easier to get around town through access to information.

Our mission is to promote sustainable transportation and save people time with reliable information.

How do you decide what "counts" as a transportation option?

That's a great question. It is selective; there's only so much screen real estate—the displays are only so big. And, to be honest, you can't fit it all. There are so many different ways to get around a city.

Say [the client is] a building owner, or an employer. We sit down and discuss with them, what are the most relevant things people use? The key for us is we're pretty agnostic. We're not pushing one or another [transportation mode]. The reason being: we want it to be a solution that fits the largest amount of people.

You're welcome, as a commuter, to choose what makes sense at the time. Because there are a lot of variables that go into it. Availability: when is my train coming? Weather, time, cost. We're simply the information layer, and then people make their own decision.

TransitScreen display for Sedona | Slate apartments in Arlington, Virginia. (Courtesy Ryan Croft)

Where does your data come from?

With public transit—trains, buses, streetcars, and ferries—it's mostly public sources. It varies country to country and city to city. With the sharing economy—bike share, car share, ride share—it's usually private sources. They're not public API; we have to have a strong relationship with who we get the data from.

We also use real time drive time [data]. Our partnership is with INRIX, based out of Washington. But ultimately we say that there is a transportation data community. We support open data practices, open source projects. Our offices here in San Francisco are at Code for America, which is a non-profit all about sharing open data and advancing the open source and open data movements.

Speaking of sharing, how do you conceptualize your relationship to the sharing economy?

It's in our DNA. We're promoting all of the sharing economy on one single device, one single screen. The beauty is: we don't play favorites. We're agnostic. You, as the commuter, decide. There's a basket of options, but they all revolve around an alternative to driving alone.

We think that automobile traffic, parking, congestion, and pollution can be fixed through giving people the right information to carsharing, bikesharing, ridesharing services. So we love the sharing economy. We're very vocal supporters of all of the different modes, which is unique—because I think a lot of them compete with one another, whereas we play nice with all the different modes.

Tell me about feedback. First, are you collecting any behavioral data? Second, do you have any anecdotal feedback from either clients or end users?

We do. I'll identify three different use cases. [First,] the academic side: we're participating in two studies. One's at UC Berkeley—it's ongoing right now in San Francisco Bay Area. The other is at University of Washington, with a sustainable engineering professor up in Seattle. In both of them we're trying to quantify the level of behavior change.

The evidence is starting to pile up that [correlates] real-time information with increased ridership and increased usage of more sustainable options. Kari Watkins is a great example. She's done studies at Georgia Tech over and over again. Who else? New York City MTA. Arlington County's done countless transportation demand management studies. And, again, the evidence piles up: that access to real-time data actually drives new ridership, and it shows that it will decrease automobile usage over time.

On the impact side: we haven't ever shared it publicly, but we had a display at a large coffee chain in Seattle. The owner of the coffee shop, a month after TransitScreen went up, noticed a 33 percent jump in retail sales, month over month—which is very impactful. We've heard other anecdotes of similar jumps in bus usage or bike share usage, but that's probably the most concrete one—a 33 percent jump in sales.

Wow. So that's sales of coffee, etc., after people come into the space with the screen?

Yeah. What the team noticed was that people were running up to the screen; they were noticing that their bus was eight or 10 minutes away, and they would make a beeline right to the coffee shop and buy a coffee or a sandwich or both while they wait. So it's increasing dwell time and it's driving sales as much as four or five people per half-hour—roughly eight to 10 people per hour, in the afternoon in particular.

That's interesting. It redefines wait time as an opportunity instead of an inconvenience.

Exactly. That [experience] opened the door to a variety of other coffee shops. We're negotiating some larger deals with them, as well as [with] grocery stores. Imagine you leave a grocery store like Whole Foods—a lot of people don't drive to Whole Foods if you live in San Francisco or Washington, DC or New York. And you know that your bus is seven minutes away. Or there's a bike share right around the corner, and you don't have a lot of groceries: you can just hop on bike share. It's giving people the options at a glance, quickly, as opposed to fumbling around on a phone, or just not knowing and just saying, "Whenever it comes, it comes."

One other anecdote: a third party up in Toronto—the owner of six buildings—surveyed a couple hundred people in the building. The results were pretty interesting. Eighty-six percent of the people said that [TransitScreen] was either easy or extremely easy to use, and 85 percent said it was useful and that they should expand the program.

So we're getting good feedback from the people that are using it—and it's not a survey that we did, it was the building owner trying to evaluate the efficacy of the program. Thankfully, we're very happy with the results.

What's next for TransitScreen?

We're really excited: we just opened a London office. We hired two really sharp guys from the branding and marketing world who are leading our efforts in London, the UK, and all through Europe.

We are growing. We've got multiple positions [open], and we're hiring. We really love the diversity of our team—we think that's actually a competitive advantage. [We have] people from a lot of different backgrounds, different perspectives, but we all share the common goal of trying to make cities better.

Another thing: we're seeking LEED points, associated with the US Green Building Council, which we have not had before. I can't say with certainty every building with TransitScreen will get a LEED point, but we're inching closer, and we're in conversations with them.

We're doing multi-lingual displays. There are a few that are live in Spanish and English; English and Chinese in Chinatown.

Two more things. One is that cities are beginning to require TransitScreen for new developments or redevelopments. In the past, for a new building to get zoning you'd have to put in bike parking or transit passes. A lot of cities are beginning to write TransitScreen into the policy for people to get permitting or entitlement [for] projects.

[Finally,] brands have been approaching us about doing screen sponsorships. We're slowly rolling out brand sponsorships in certain markets, and testing advertising on certain networks.

Brandywine Real Estate Trust TransitScreen display. (Courtesy Ryan Croft)

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