YC-backed Transitmix, which is in the middle of the three-month accelerator program, is building a business out of helping city planners make smarter choices when configuring bus routes. The fix? An online mapping tool to speed up the process of devising and comparing bus routes.
It’s a simple sounding problem with some complex implications — given the various socio-economic factors in play. So anything that makes it easier for route planners to weigh and weight different considerations — such as the cost of operation; how many people a bus route might serve; and how many jobs are in the commuter vicinity — has axiomatic utility.
Frankly it’s hard to believe that something like this doesn’t exist already. But, says Transitmix co-founder Sam Hashemi, the tool’s ‘competition’ is mostly paper-based maps and spreadsheets “containing hundreds of tabs”, coupled with manual cross-referencing of Google Earth. In short: a legacy process nightmare desperately in need of data-rich digital optimization.
The four-strong founding team behind Transitmix does not have a background in transit planning itself, but Hashemi explains the idea for building the web tool started out as a side project when they met during a year of service at local government focused nonprofit, Code for America, last year.
“We were paired up in different cities. And just as a side project we got really intrigued by public transit. And we made this very early version of the product, that basically just had a map and let you draw out the bus routes on it. It was just for fun… and we put it on the Internet — not expecting much. And suddenly all these transit planners started reaching out to us saying I’ve been waiting for a tool like this, how did you know?” he says.
“So we kept talking to a lot of these transit folks, building it out and trying to figure out what the space is all about… It got to the point today where it’s a tool that actually works for professionals, and they’re actually using it to plan out their bus systems.”
The team has raised a small seed round so far, with both YC and Code for America investing. The first prototype was launched last January, which was followed up by a beta version in June. “We got a huge response to the beta; something like 50,000 transit maps were created inside of it, and from there we kept growing it and launched a professional version last month,” adds Hashemi.
As well as being designed to take the strain out of route planning, Transimix’s planning tool also aims to support earlier and more frequent analysis of potential route changes — ultimately leading to better decisions, which can be reached faster. So it should be a win for bus users too.
Point being: If planners have to run a manual analysis of hundreds of spreadsheet tabs to weigh up every new bus route then cities are not going to be doing that so often. And routes will be left as is for longer, and may be less useful for the community than they could be.
But with a tool that simplifies mapping out possible new routes, by crunching cost and demographic data automatically — and also letting easily planners share a possible route with others — well, cities are probably going to be doing a lot more bus route analysis. And bus routes are able to change more often to better adapt to the needs of changing communities.
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(You can play around with Transitmix’s tool for yourself, using San Francisco data, by clicking the ‘try Transitmix Pro’ green button here.)
Having a web tool that simplifies the sharing and visualization of possible new bus routes also means planners can more easily loop the surrounding community into planning consultations — and that “changes the conversation”, argues Hashemi.
“One of the most powerful things we’ve seen is it changes the conversation when the public and transit planners get into the same room because it becomes less abstract. It changes the conversation from ‘why is the bus not coming to my house’ to ‘what parts of the community are we serving when we drag this line over?'” he tells TechCrunch. “You can see very immediately those trade offs.”
Transitmix gets its data from various public sources including U.S. census data (and the LEHD jobs data), according to Hashemi. “From that we can get a lot of different pieces of information; how many people live around a bus stop, which can give you a good idea of how many people might ride it, especially was you look at certain demographic indicators, and this will depend a lot on the specific area that you’re in, but we give you access to look through those different factors.
“So things like income range, car availability, languages spoken, a bunch of different things that are very useful in starting to understand who a bus route helps. And right now are very difficult to answer.”
So, as with a lot of publicly held data, the issue is not that the information itself does not exist — it’s just that it’s not very accessible or easily visualizable. Transitmix aims to fix that — starting with bus routing, but potentially widening to encompass multi-modal municipal transport planning down the line.
“I guess part of the problem is you could get these answers, if you know how to use Arc.js, and knew how to parse the U.S. census data and had a bunch of time on your hands. Which is a very small sub-set of the folks who actually plan out the bus routes. Our goal is to make it so that anyone, without .js or census experience, can go in and basically answer those key questions,” Hashemi adds.
The initial market focus for the team has been the U.S., and it has signed up several transit authorities here so far, including in Oregon and Washington. But it sees international potential too (maps have so far been made in 3,600 cities) — and has also signed up transit agencies and consultancies elsewhere, including in New Zealand and Egypt.
The priority for the team now is getting the word out to transit planners still stuck in Excel hell that a better, digital tool exists. And continuing to tweak its features to serve their users. Features wise, the plan is also to add more custom layers so cities can expand the factors they wish to weigh up, says Hashemi — perhaps including things like environmental considerations. Or toilets.
Yes, public toilets are a key consideration when transit route planning, given that drivers have places to stop off to answer the call of nature. “We’ve been looking for a good toilet data-set. So if you know of one let us know,” he adds.