Your office on the subway: making public transit more fun and productive

Humans have gone to the moon and made a laptop less than an inch thick, but they still can’t make the trains run on time.
In fact, the Boston Globe recently reported that Massachusetts’ commuter rail trains are on slower schedules in some instances than the steam-powered engines that once chugged down the tracks.

It’s no better on the nation’s highways, and drivers surely share some of the blame.

In 2005, the number of U.S. workers was roughly 133 million, and about 102 million — 77 percent — went solo in their cars, according to one study. In the Boston region a typical rush-hour drive, in or out of town, sees cars inch for miles along the Massachusetts Turnpike between Route 128 and downtown, despite the multibillion-dollar Big Dig project.

“I don’t know anybody who says, ‘I love to commute.’ It’s really a universally loathed thing,” said Robert J. Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.

From both a government and grassroots level, however, efforts are under way to make the loathsome at least livable, through various applications of technology.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority recently garnered headlines when it began a pilot Wi-Fi program on its Worcester line, which travels between Boston and Worcester in the middle of the state. The agency plans to eventually offer it system-wide.

Of course, train riders have long used cellular-based Wi-Fi. But an opportunity lies in making Wi-Fi a basic service on public transportation, Thompson suggested.

“If one could make the argument that the subway and the bus could really become adjuncts of your office, as soon as you get picked up, your workday starts, that’s really an attractive argument that hasn’t been able to be put forth before,” he said.

However, the usual things that keep people away from public transportation must somehow be overcome, Thompson noted. “If you’re in a major metropolitan area at rush hour, half the time you don’t find a seat. A laptop is no good without a lap.”

Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray is a vocal advocate for the service. In an interview, he said the early word is positive: “I’ve heard from a half-dozen people who say it’s a good thing, an incentive to use the train. I think for a state like Massachusetts, which is a high-tech driven economy in many respects, this is important.”

But at this point, the service has obvious limitations, based on tests by IDG News Service during the past several weeks. While it is generally adequate for Web browsing and e-mail, the signal drops out in certain places along the route, and given the limited bandwidth, surfing can slow to a crawl or stop during peak periods.
G. Andrew Hunt, director of transportation programs for Parvus, one of the vendors taking part in the trial program, said trains pose unique challenges to Wi-Fi: “Metal, tunnels, valleys, you name it — you’re trying to deal with it.”

Right now, the MBTA guarantees that at least one coach per train will have Wi-Fi; in that coach is a single device that can service between eight and 12 users, according to Kris Erickson, deputy chief of staff. The agency is also testing another router that can handle 17 to 20 simultaneous users, he said.

According to Erickson, between Feb. 14 and 21, the service was logged onto by 1,782 users, a figure that suggests the bolts are practically popping off the test system.

Beyond a path to the Internet, some believe that dedicated Web-based software can help ease commuting woes by focusing on carpooling.

One advocate is Ben Rosen, a retired venture capitalist.

“Carpooling suffers from the absence of a dynamic, convenient matching system (drivers and riders) operable on home and office computers, PDAs and cell phones that makes possible both regular and ad-hoc pairings to be made,” Rosen wrote via e-mail from a South Korean airport this week. “Also, the absence of local government regulations (with both carrots and sticks) doesn’t help.”

Rosen has met with companies and government officials to gauge their interest in a fix, but had little luck.

“Poool was a pro bono company funded by me to develop the software for the above matching system,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, neither large employers or local governmental agencies I met with were interested, even though it was free.

We spend billions on HOV lanes, and zero on computer systems that would help solve the problem a lot cheaper.” [HOV lanes are for vehicles carrying two or more passengers, and typically traffic flows much more quickly in them.]

More commercial ventures, such as NuRide, are a little further along. Ride users plan ride-sharing trips through the site with other members and earn points that they can redeem for rewards such as gift cards from the company’s sponsors. The site is operating in a number of major cities, according to its Web site.

Meanwhile, back at the bus stops, on the train platforms and in the subway tunnels, some commuters are seizing control, employing mobile technology to harness collective intelligence.

Clever Commute, a service that began in the New York City area, recently began running in the Boston area. Members serve as a sort of clandestine network, keeping their eyes peeled for potential problems on their public transportation lines and using the service to alert fellow members.

Clever Commute competes with notification services such as that provided by the MBTA.

But as the Clever Commute site notes, the official version of the truth can differ from the reality on the ground: “We have found our alerts to be more user-friendly, action-oriented, targeted, and in many cases, they are more timely.”

Just what every commuter craves.

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