By Mohan Krishnamoorthy
According to the United Nations, 68 of world’s population is expected to live in densely populated urban areas by 2050 (link). Urban residents will need suitable ways to commute around town for work, shopping and other daily needs. Town planners and transportation designer engineers around the world continue to race to provide seamless connectivity and commute to residents.
As an Enterprise Architect, I frequently see analogies between technology roadmaps and town planning. I happen to live in a large, densely populated metropolis and utilize its local transit services, along with other modes, for my daily commute to work. While town planners work on larger infrastructure programs, local transit and last mile, connectivity is an area waiting for innovative solutions.
Besides civic officials and elected representatives, almost everyone who lives and works in a crowded metropolis has an opinion on traffic, congestion and public transit. So, here’s my observation. During the past year, I have been using BMTC’s ‘Vajra’Air-conditioned bus service that ply frequently around the Ring road, connecting the suburbs to the tech corridor.
While the BMTC, like most other transit departments around the world, publishes a timetable and schedule of the service, it struggles to adhere to it. It is not for the lack of trying. As one transit inspector explained to me, “We can begin adhering to a timetable the day the flow of traffic gets predictable. I can’t hold drivers accountable if they are stuck in a traffic jam.” He added “The day anyone can assure me that a bus can travel a kilometer or more without a roadblock, is when we can begin to have a meaningful conversation.
He had a point. Anyone who commutes in urban India knows how unpredictable, and stop-and-go, traffic can be. Haphazard parking, breakdowns and civic work and construction on near roads are all par for the course.
The transit operator is unable to keep to a predictable timetable for reasons beyond its control. Enterprise Architects focused on Digital Cities and urban transformation would label it as a ‘constraint’. However, there are technology solutions to work with such constraints; which is what BMTC is trying to do.
The transit service realized that they couldn’t fix the larger problem of traffic gridlock, and decided on a technology-driven solution to empower riders by sharing near-real-time information.
Mobile App: Functional and usable
A couple of years ago, BMTC launched an Intelligent Transport System (ITS) to enable ‘near real time’ data on transit routes, planning and bus schedules. Information from the ITS is available to users via a Mobile App that can be downloaded from Google and Apple’s store.
Real-time GPS Data from over 6,000 buses feeds into the ITS. During the past few years, BMTC went through a few iterations of development to enhance the application, and to make it user friendly.
I downloaded an iOS version of the App when I started commuting regularly, and was impressed by its ease-of-use and simple navigation across screens. One can look up transit routes and available buses between bus-stops and also search by individual bus routes if one knows the Bus-number.
The information on the mobile-App is really useful if you happen to be at or near a bus-stop and want to know about the next available bus. Likewise, it can help you plan a trip or commute across the city based on a starting and ending point.
Most days, I am able to load the mobile-app and look-up schedules and availability of a bus. When the mobile-app works, it is really useful. For example, this morning, I was trying to decide if I had to rush to the bus-stop or walk in a few minutes later. On checking the app and realizing the next bus was five minutes away, I decided to quicken my pace.
As a technology professional who reviews enterprise large-scale applications for use by thousands of people, I would rate the application very high for ease-of-use and navigation. However, the biggest pitfall of the application is its reliability.
System Review : Fix the Reliability of App
BMTC’s digital solution is a great idea that has been implemented and rolled out. However, there are operational and reliability challenges that need to be addressed before the mobile-app can be adopted by a wider cross-section of people.
Here are a few things that BMTC’s tech team needs to focus on:
• The operation of the mobile-app is extremely unpredictable. In its current state, commuters are likely to be disappointed if they depended solely on the App to plan their daily commute.
• On loading the app, one should be able to depend on the information provided, which is not always the case. The app sometimes begins buffering or ‘clocking’ when one is trying to use it
• Make the app work predictably – The ‘backend’ servers and infrastructure needs to be reviewed to ensure it can scale-up and scale-out when there is a surge of users
• The operational support of the Intelligent Transport System (ITS) needs to be enhanced. Most commercial and enterprise systems have ‘alerts’ designed into them to inform IT operations team when the system stops working or if there are other issues. BMTC’s ITS team should implement simple monitoring solutions
• The App is focused on a single functionality – Provide bus-schedules and ETA of buses at a stop. The system can be enhanced if they continue to focus on the core capability
Another challenge BMTC faces is awareness. For instance, some of the regular commuters on my route who take the Vajra buses have started a WhatsApp group,where they share the departure timings from major stops. With a reliable, and predictable App, individual commuters may not have to resort to such jugaad.
In addition to fixing basic data, integration and support issues with the ITS and mobile-app, BMTC’s ITS team should also consider franchising the data to other mapping services like Google maps. Currently, Google maps uses static schedules published by transit authorities and shows an ETA of buses based on that data, which can be highly unreliable. If ITC can stream the GPS data from buses to Google maps, it would provide a one-stop commute experience for users.
Bottomline: As a technologist, I am fascinated by this simple, easy-to-use tool. By fixing the basic technical, integration and support issues, the tool has a potential to make commute predictable for thousands of users like me.
About the Author
Mohan Krishnamoorthy is an Indian American technology executive with a multinational company. His viewpoints and papers have been published in several international technical and nontechnical journals.
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