Creating Places: A Citizen Observer's Look at Nashville's Built Environment

Writer's Note: William Williams' interest in the manmade environment dates to 1970, at which point the then-young Williams started a collection of postcards of city skylines. The collection now numbers 1,000-plus cards. Among the writer's specific interests are exterior building design, city district planning, demographics, signage, mixed-use development, mass transit and green/sustainable construction and living. Williams began his Creating Places column with The City Paper in February 2005. The column in its original form was discontinued in September 2008 and reinvented via this blog in November 2008. Creating Places can be found on the home page of the website of The City Paper, at which Williams has worked in various capacities since October 2000.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Creating Places: Mass Transit Update

For years, comprehensive mass transit in Nashville has been no more impressive than NPR’s handling the firing of Juan Williams (no relation).

But on the heels of concluding a major study regarding intelligent transportation systems (ITS), the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is now crafting a plan that could aid Midstate public works departments and transit agencies with low-cost solutions to addressing infrastructure concerns.

Though not fully funded, the ITS Deployment Plan could yield transit improvements related to usage efficiency.

The MPO study, conducted by the Nashville office of Texas-based Kimley-Horn & Associates, touches on the nationally newish open transit data concept. With an open data approach, a transit agency makes its information available to software programming companies, which then create applications citizens can access via their hand-held devices. Lots of transit agencies are a bit skittish about “going open.”

Of note and with the ITS plan possibly providing some guidance for a future broader strategy, the Metro Transit Authority is preparing to implement a real-time data plan. The MTA program will see electronic signage offer bus status updates, specifically at stops along the authority’s bus rapid transit line (Gallatin Road/Main Street) and at the Music City Central downtown hub. Signs already are installed at the BRT stops and will soon be installed at MCC.

That real-time data effort was to have been in place by now but was delayed when MTA servers and equipment suffered flood damage, according to James McAteer, the authority’s director of planning.

“Real-time data is the path were going down,” McAteer told me via phone and for an article I wrote for The City Paper. McAteer added that MTA is exploring mechanisms to make the authority’s data “open” to programming companies.

McAteer said MTA is planning to offer its bus route schedules in real time and to riders’ hand-held devices. This can be done, he said, prior to making the agency’s data open to programmers. Both McAteer and MTA spokeswoman Patricia Harris-Morehead told me the agency is neither philosophically nor fiscally opposed to a fully open data approach. However, there are legal and contractual issues with MTA vendors that must be addressed.

Transit Now Nashville, the city’s feisty non-profit advocacy group, wants MTA eventually to provide the more comprehensive open-data system and hopes the MPO-commissioned study can be of help.

With an open-data system — and assuming programmers develop applications with it — bus riders, for example, can use their hand-held mobile devices to monitor route efficiency and ridership. In simple terms, if a bus is running late, a rider could find out — and then take time to, say, quickly grab a cup of coffee at the nearest café.

“With open data, software developers can use the data to create new applications,” Travis Todd, Transit Now president, told me via phone while he was stressed during a regular work day and I was still in sleepwear, enjoying a cup of coffee and trying to convince myself that this freelance writing gig is legitimate work. “If the data stays closed, the public’s only source for that information is the agency that controls it.”

Todd said that an open data system could help spur private investment as an ancillary component of public transportation.

“Like weather information, we want to have transit information easily available, real-time and free,” he said. “The best way to get there fast is to open the data and give private companies a chance to create tools to complement existing transit systems.”

Todd said Transit Now has surveyed numerous citizens who have never ridden transit in Nashville and determined that a real-time app for bus services “would persuade them to ride for the first time.” I have some doubts about that as folks tend to exaggerate their seriousness about hopping on a public bus. But I want to be hopeful and if we combine hand-held devices and buses, well it might just work.

Not surprisingly, Nashville is not alone in failing to embrace open transit data.

Of note and according to City-Go-Round, of the nation’s 824 major transit systems, 122 offer an open-data system and 702 do not.

“Transit data sharing is a relatively new concept and [Metro Government] officials may see it as a cost, especially if their system was built for internal use only,” Todd said. “In addition, we know that MTA was greatly affected by the flood. They lost buses and equipment, and they are in the process of moving their offices again. Yet, they have made many accomplishments this year. We are optimistic that, in time, they will open the data.”

The Rockefeller Foundation-funded City-Go-Round website retrieves — via the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) Data Exchange — a list of those agencies that provide public data in GTFS format. City-Go-Round matches these agencies against its master list of transit agencies that was compiled from the National Transportation Database. This enables the City-Go-Round site to show users those agencies that do and do not provide open data.

Josh Herst, CEO of Seattle-based Walk Score (for which City-Go-Round is an initiative), said open data can help make transit usage more convenient.

“More people will find transit valuable and land values will increase near areas that are well served by transit,” Herst said in yet another phone interview.

A fine example of open data benefits, Herst said, is location-based mobile network Foursquare, which allows riders in the San Francisco Bay Area to monitor if their friends are using transit.

If MTA eventually opts for a full open data approach, the MPO study may have served the broad purpose for which it was conducted.

Michael Skipper, MPO executive director, said the next step with the ITS Deployment Plan, is finding funding for the study’s recommendations.

“As we move forward in an environment with limited financial resources, we’ll be looking to invest in low-cost solutions that help modernize our infrastructure,” Skipper said (no need to add “in a phone interview”) “ITS solutions span a broad range of projects ranging from providing real-time transit arrival and departure information via cell phone to improving the synchronization of traffic signals to keep roadways moving efficiently."

Related to mass transit in Nashville specifically, an intelligent transportation system program could use computer-aided dispatching tools to, say, help bus drivers monitor the location of accidents and automated passenger counting systems.

Mary Beth Ikard, MPO’s hard-working spokeswoman, said a major reason for the organization’s commissioning the ITS architecture study was “to improve emergency management coordination across jurisdictional boundaries to speed incident response.”

“Not all the jurisdictions in our planning area need to agree to use identical technology that speaks to each other, but it’s important to have everyone sitting at the table and aware of what their neighbor has and is using (under the umbrella of the ITS architecture),” Ikard said. “You can see how this would be especially important during something like the May flooding.”

Ikard said the ITS Deployment Plan is not “fiscally constrained.”

“So even though many of projects identified for the plan don't have any funding associated with them," she said, "they do represent important priorities for the region."

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