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Public transit agencies turning to hackathons for innovation

computer programmers working on laptops at a table
Computer programmers at a hackathon in Miami. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Transportation agencies in San Antonio, Baltimore, Fairfax and the state of Delaware have hosted hackathons and open data challenges, as did the recent InnoTrans conference in Berlin. These are opportunities for programmers, coders and designers to turn their ideas into practical transportation solutions in the form of web and mobile apps, data visualizations and algorithms for improved transit performance.

The big picture: Transit systems across America have seen a steady decline in ridership over the past five years, with an average drop of 5% in bus ridership from 2016 to 2017. These hackathons are only one of the newest ways cities are approaching the modernization of their transportation offerings — in addition to connecting public transit with Uber and Lyft, hosting bike and scooter shares, and launching smart phone apps that plan and track public transit rides.

The winners of San Antonio VIA Metropolitan Transit's first GoCodeSA Codeathon produced an Amazon Alexa skill that integrates VIA’s real-time bus information with voice-activated commands from any Alexa device. The winning team this year developed an app that plans a round trip on the bus system based on the user’s interests and activities, such as dining, shopping and exploring.

In Delaware’s competition, one winner’s program allows qualified users to make paratransit appointments quickly on a phone app, as simply as ordering an Uber. A separate app plans routes by helping to replace a vehicular commute with biking (or by combining biking with public transport) — like Waze for cyclists. Users can add warnings and route suggestions.

Yes, but: While these tech-driven programs to improve transit ridership can help in many cities, they most likely won’t impact ridership in places like Washington, DC, and New York City, where the main causes of concern are aging rail infrastructure.

Why it matters: Transit leaders are hoping these innovations will not just grab headlines but actually make public transit a more appealing and easier option for riders.

Paul Comfort is vice president of business development at Trapeze Group and the former CEO of the Maryland Transit Administration in Baltimore.

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