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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday 22 May 2014

Open Data Solutions for Toronto's Transit Mess

Toronto transit is a bit of a mess, but it's a problem that stretches beyond infrastructure.  When everyone is traveling the same arteries at the same time of day, each impatient to get where they're going and intolerant of delays, problems happen.

We can blame Public Works and Infrastructure for shoddy repair plans; we can blame aggressive drivers for clogging up intersections by racing lights; we can blame pedestrians, politicians or whoever else we want for the general congestion of our roads, but that doesn't help matters.

Instead of focusing on blame, let's look for solutions - which, in turn, present opportunity for entrepreneurs.

Players involved in our transit nightmare include:

- commuters
- planners
- business owners (who set work hours and, as such, standardized commute times)
- politicians
- business owners and residents (who dislike construction that impedes traffic to their venues/homes)
- construction firms (eager to make coin doing the work)
- police and Emergency Services (direct traffic, deal with accidents, etc)
- Metrolinx and the TTC - planning side, comms side, front-line workers, etc.
- Taxi drivers.  Oh, those taxi drivers.
- Bicyclists and the organizations that represent them
- Tourist/conference authorities in town
- the airports
- Municipal governments of bedroom communities
- anyone else?

There are lots more than this.  If you want a thorough assessment of who's impacted and who needs to be part of the solution conversation, go talk to Bianca Wylie at Swerhun - she's a world leader at this stuff. (She's on twitter - @biancawylie)

The two main, unavoidable factors here are 1) people need to get where they're going and 2) the roads have to be up to par for transit to happen.

Do the people need to get where they're going at the same time?  Do they need to get where they're going all the time?  What role can staggered working hours, work-from-home schedules, etc. play in reducing gridlock and related lost productivity?

There are big, structural challenges in here that, if politicians were to bring to stakeholders in different sectors, creative, shared solutions could be developed for.  

But let's get real - that's not going to happen any time soon.  People are way too focused on their own, micro problems to pay attention to how their behaviours play into the macro problems we all share.

Which brings us to Transit and Open Data.

If you're not familiar with RocketMan, it's worth checking out - an App for your phone that tracks public transit via Open Data provided by the city.  Instead of waiting for a bus that may or may not be on time, you can check your App and see where it's at in relatively real time, saving you from standing around needlessly.

Think about this for a second - free, public data made available resulted in an innovative solution that helps the public but also made an entrepreneur money.

How cool is that?

Back to transit construction.

It's a given that construction is going to happen - there's now way around it.  It's also a given that this construction is going to impede transit flows.  

But what if you had an App that mapped out construction zones for you and helped navigate around it? 

If we had real-time congestion metrics (recorded by cameras at busy intersections, for instance) you could feed that data into the App too.  Someone commuting from Etobicoke to downtown Toronto would be able to check their App, see where construction was happening that day and determine a couple of alternative routes to get where they're going and figure out (roughly) the time required.

In an ideal world, you'd get scenarios where an employee could tell their boss the commute time looks to be a dismal 3 hours of lost productivity; the boss would then say "work from home today so you don't lose productive hours" and then any direct communication could be done virtually.  And, you'd have one less body on the road.

It's all doable.  With the App side, if there was an entrepreneurial App designer out there they could get started on this immediately.  Talk to Keith McDonald at the City of Toronto's Open Data team (@COTkeith on Twitter) or check out Make Web Not War (@WebNotWar on Twitter) to find open data sets that could help you with planning.  They may even be able to offer you advice.

The key point to all this is that we don't need to be so reliant on politicians to come up with one-size-fits-all plans on our behalf; we have the tools we need to make positive change happen ourselves.  We just need the will and support to get moving.

And we all want to keep moving, don't we?

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