How San Francisco drives better transportation experiences for citizens and visitors

Fri, 2016-06-10 06:00 -- SCC Partner

By Bill Mitchel, Senior Director, Microsoft Worldwide Public Sector

The San Francisco Bay Area has no shortage of transportation options for residents and tourists alike. You can hop a cable car up and down the city’s hills, take a Muni light rail west to Sunset Beach, drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, or take a ferry across the Bay (or a BART train under it). What’s great is you can enjoy all these ways to get around, plus many others and conveniently pay for your transit, tolls and public parking in five San Francisco parking garages, with just one pass: the Clipper card.

Launched by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in 2010, a new Clipper card costs just $3.00. It can hold needed transit passes, plus cash and parking value, to be replenished automatically whenever your cash or parking value falls below a preset level. Users appreciate the convenience their Clipper cards provide, but few have a clue how much IT integration was required to enable them—and keep them functioning.

Seamless transit experiences. The Clipper card illustrates the emerging trend of how cities worldwide are increasingly using data to provide seamless transportation experiences for their citizens and visitors. Another intersecting trend is complementing their efforts, if not helping to drive them: the trusted integration of transportation and other data from the public and private sectors, especially data from nonprofit organizations.

Nonprofits play a special role in urban sustainability, because their participation is critical to driving forward big issues that can span municipalities and are typical of urban transportation challenges. The commercial sector plays an important role, too, for reasons of promoting the livability of where their customers and employees work and play. Of course, cities are fundamental partners in ensuring the efficient operations of their own transportation systems as well as optimizing how those systems work with others in the region.  

Data-driven insights. A user-friendly tool called the AllTransit Data Builder illustrates how data from the public and private sectors can be integrated and used to improve urban transit. Its developer, the nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), along with the TransitCenter, compiled AllTransit’s vast database. It covers all US metropolitan areas with more than 100,000 people and features data from 805 transit agencies, including 15,000 public transit routes and more than 543,000 transit stops.

How can this data be used? Legislators can see how much—or how little—public transportation is available to their constituents. Urban planners can gain insights into how a redevelopment project might affect the surrounding mass transit systems’ rider volumes to determine if more routes are needed. Businesses can see how many customers are within a certain number of stops on public transit routes.

Big data analytics. Another notable project is the Urbanomics Mobility Project. It’s a big data initiative to help promote sustainable growth by correlating citizens’ transportation needs with their economic activity. By overlaying credit card transaction data on top of a city’s transit system, planners can determine not only how citizens are moving around the urban landscape but also why they’re moving.

This combination of the how and why can help city officials identify patterns in the movement of their population to help improve urban planning and development.Announced in late 2015, this project combines the expertise, data and technology of Urban Insights, part of Cubic Transportation Systems, a worldwide mass transit operator, MasterCard and the Microsoft Azure cloud platform. Urban Insights is actively seeking cities as partners to test the prototype and apply it to their own issues.

Making a difference. One goal of employing big data in city transportation systems is to efficiently and securely manage the flood of data those systems can generate in order to improve end-to-end transit experiences. For example, NextBus is a mobile app that uses data from San Francisco’s Muni transit system to tell riders when the next bus will pull up within a 15-second margin of error.

Clearly, the potential to use public transit data for urban planning and mobile applications such as NextBus is vast. As mobile payments become more sophisticated and reduce latency, the Clipper card and similar consolidated transit passes elsewhere will likely find their way to smartphones, too. But what the big data analytics and applications will need is a highly secure, trusted cloud platform, such as Microsoft Azure, to gain operational efficiency and scale. In turn, we expect to see even more integrations of data from the public and private sectors. It’s a most interesting phenomenon to watch and be a part of, especially because it makes a difference in people’s lives.        

As Senior Director for Microsoft’s World Wide Public Sector team, Bill Mitchel leads the company’s worldwide public sector business development for its Cities and Sustainability solutions. Over the last five years, Mr. Mitchel has built an ecosystem of strategic partner relationships with software companies, universities and government to deliver innovative and economically sustainable solutions for Smart Cities.