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Technical Toolbox

Whetting Your Travel App-etite

A Sampler of Useful Transportation-Related Tools for Smartphones

By David Schmetterer and Karl Vilacoba

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About Technical Toolbox

  • Technical Toolbox highlights innovations and emerging technologies that are making an impact in the transportation sector.

Man walked on the moon thanks to a guidance computer that ran at 1 MHz. The system in charge of controlling the lunar lander’s descent to the Sea of Tranquility was, in the most generous of senses, 1,000 times less powerful than a computer in today’s cell phones.

What used to be the domain of the few, usually well-funded (and often military) research institutions, is now in the hands of every smartphone user on earth. And what are we doing with all this technological firepower?

We’re using “apps”—lightweight mobile applications that turn smartphones into mobile computers that do everything from syncing with corporate email systems to playing videogames. Between these extremes lies a multitude of apps with varying functionality, many of which cater directly to people on the go. When combined with always-on data connections and GPS-enabled location services, these apps can help users find their way around traffic jams, access mass transit, find cheap gas or public restrooms, and a seemingly boundless range of other possibilities.

The following is a small sample of the thousands of transportation-related smartphone apps now available to the public.

Car Finder


Dan Burden/PedBikeImages.org

For anyone who’s wandered through a sea of cars at a sports stadium or unfamiliar city blocks searching for their ride, a handful of apps can save the aggravation. Among them is Car Finder, developed for iPhones by Intridea, Inc.

Car Finder users can mark where they park with GPS technology and add notes that may help them along (i.e. “in front of red building,” “lot 2-C”). With its “augmented reality” capabilities, the app guides people back to their cars, telling them how far away they are and which direction to walk. A parking meter timer sends alerts when the minutes are dwindling down.

Other variations of the car-finding application include the cAR Locator by Libertine Labs, Presselite’s Find My Car! and the pirate-themed Carrr Matey by Lionebra Studios.

For more: CarFinderApp.com, Presselite.com, Lionebra.com

Carpool Apps

A number of apps are helping drivers fill their empty seats with gas money-contributing riders. Services like Avego, Carticipate and Zimride have grown in users, which has increased the chances that another local rider is heading the same way.

While each app has its own wrinkles, users generally sign in with their destination and the date/time they’re looking for a ride or are willing to offer a ride. The app will generate a list of the best potential matches. If no matches are available at the moment, some apps can send an alert the moment a promising option comes up.

Interestingly, one prominent carpool app, PickupPal, became a source of controversy in Ontario in 2008 when local bus operators complained the company was in effect profiting off an unregulated taxi operation. The courts agreed, fining the company $11,000 and limiting the types of carpools it could legally arrange there.

For more: Avego.com, Carticipate.com, PickupPal.com, Zimride.com

Clever Commute


Clever Commute CEO Josh

Crandall speaks at a 2010

NJTPA symposium.

Available as a free service, as opposed to an installed app, Clever Commute collects and distributes crowdsourced transit information. Transit riders use the service to learn about system delays and the track numbers of trains departing major stations. The system relies on its users for information. For example, if a rider’s train is 10 minutes late, they send an e-mail to the system with the pertinent information in the subject line. Human operators collect this data and redistribute it as appropriate via e-mail, text and a mobile-optimized website.

New Jersey resident Josh Crandall came up with the concept after an especially bad commute to his Wall Street job in 2006. Watching fellow riders peck away on their smartphones, Crandall said it occurred to him that, “Somebody got to Penn Station before me and they could have sent up a flare and said ‘reroute yourself.’”

The system has been in use for a few years for New York and Boston area trains, Portland buses and streetcars, and is currently in beta for Chicago, Washington D.C., San Francisco and London. The system is also expanding the modes it works with to include everything from ferries to highways.

For more: CleverCommute.com

DriveSafe.ly


A flood of research has detailed the dangers of texting while driving, but that hasn’t stopped people from doing it. Now, for drivers who can’t wait til they’re parked, the DriveSafe.ly app offers a way to carry on their 160-character-or-less conversations while keeping both hands on the wheel.

Without any action from the user, DriveSafe.ly automatically reads incoming texts and emails aloud. Through its iSpeech technology, the user can respond verbally, dictating the text message without ever touching the phone. Free versions of the app read the first 25 words, while paid pro versions offer options for longer messages, different voices and varying read-back speeds.

“People want to stay connected while driving, and we’re giving them a way to do it more responsibly,” said Heath Ahrens, CEO of iSpeech, the Newark, N.J.-based company that developed the app. “Reducing the number of people looking at phones instead of the road is always a good thing.”

For more: www.DriveSafe.ly

511 Mobile

While also serving millions of users through their websites, phone lines and radio broadcasts, the nation’s many 511 services have greatly expanded their offerings for smartphone users. Each 511 is different, but are generally services run by state DOTs to disseminate free real-time travel information to the public in a variety of forms, such as traffic maps, live camera feeds and text bulletins. Many 511s offer options for users to subscribe to customized alerts about the local routes they depend on most.

At least a handful of 511s have incorporated apps into their services or are planning to soon. New Jersey’s 511 (511nj.org) uses the app trumpit, which was designed to deliver alerts in a safer manner for drivers. Trumpit alerts show up like regular e-mail and text pop-ups, but are read aloud so the recipient doesn’t have to read while driving. The San Francisco Bay Area 511 provides a list of links useful third-party apps like BayTripper, which uses transit schedule data to build routes for travelers.

For more: fhwa.dot.gov/trafficinfo/511.htm

Layar

Layar is the equivalent of a web browser for the physical world. Developers create a dataset—bus stop sites, for example—and Layar can display that set by combining input from a smartphone’s GPS, accelerometer and camera. The end result is a display that can show the location of all bus stops within a specific radius.


Users looking through their phone’s camera/video monitor would see the actual landscape with digital icons layered above the picture to mark where the bus stops are located. Layar even works through walls, as it will show locations that are out of sight, behind buildings or over the horizon. Layar has the ability to work with real-time data, and is being used to show everything from the locations of Twitter users and real estate listings to cargo ships and satellites.

Developers are encouraged to create and distribute datasets at Layar.com for free. Additionally, there is an option for the less technically inclined to find help from the Layar Partner Network.

For more: Layar.com

SeeClickFix

SeeClickFix gives residents an easy, on-the-go platform for reporting non-emergency problems to their towns. Someone who spots a pothole or light out on their street can open a “ticket”—an online post that can be viewed by the public—detailing the issue and what’s needed to fix it. The public works official or responsible township employee can acknowledge that they’ve seen the report and post updates on the status of the issue.

One of the technology’s most active adopters has been Philadelphia, where an advocacy group and residents used it to document instances of vehicle idling, leading to new initiatives to help clean the air, according to SeeClickFix. Although residents can report anything ranging from unsightly graffiti to minor crimes, a high percentage of reports in a typical city’s stream tend to be transportation related. A sample of Philly’s most recent posts at the time of this writing included poor lighting at a commuter station, hazardous road conditions for cyclists, illegal parking problems in a neighborhood and a manhole leaking on the street.

For more: SeeClickFix.com

Traffic!

Inrix, a provider of navigation and traffic solutions, has made its Traffic! app available for free on the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. In addition to mapping real-time traffic conditions construction sites, incidents and events, the application also reports the user’s current location and speed, and the system uses this information to further develop the map of current conditions. A pro version is available (with the purchase of a yearly license) that offers navigation, traffic prediction, and the ability to see traffic cameras.

For more: InrixTraffic.com

Twitter

At first blush, Twitter might not seem like a useful transportation app. A 2009 study by Pear Analytics showed that 40.6 percent of all Twitter posts (a.k.a. “tweets”) are “pointless babble” and only 8.7 percent had any “pass-along value.”

However, Twitter brings to bear four very useful tools that apply to transportation: Every tweet can be associated with an exact time, place (geotag), photograph and message text. Transportation agencies are already using Twitter to communicate with travelers, but the possibilities for data collection are endless. Tweets can be collected, sorted, and mapped, giving planners a rich source of data to mine. Applications that map tweets already exist, and a method for tagging information called “hashtags” is built into Twitter—just put a “#” in front of any keywords and the post is now tagged for easy searching.

For more: Twitter.com

Walkmeter

Its creators describe the Walkmeter as an app that turns an iPhone into “a powerful GPS stopwatch,” but it really goes several steps further. Along with the Cyclemeter and Runmeter, created by the same company, the app charts people’s travel routes on Google Maps, telling them how long, far and fast they’ve gone, how many calories they’ve burned, and a number other useful facts.

The three meters were developed by Abvio, which was founded by the duo behind the Atomz search engine. Users can log their data long-term in formats that are easy to search and offer helpful insights on their progress. For instance, someone jogging a 5K-route could file the data from each trip over the years and export spreadsheets or graphics detailing their performance—when their best and worst times were, how their pace tends to change as the minutes wear on, whether they’re now moving any faster or slower. During races, the apps can automatically send Facebook messages or Tweets to followers updating their progress, while text-to-speech technology reads the fans’ cheering responses to the user over their headphones.

For more: Abvio.com

David Schmetterer is a senior planner at the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority. Karl Vilacoba is the managing editor of InTransition.

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