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June 2013

Apps Helping to Enhance Riders' Experience

In the last year, transit systems have ramped up their smart phone offerings to provide riders with much more than real-time arrival information. This is happening just as the number of smartphone owners in the U.S. rose to 54% at the end of last year, according to comScore. In 2012, 46% of Americans reported using them, based on study  findings from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Additionally, one in four Americans owned a tablet by the end of 2012, reported the study.

Transit agencies have been able to enhance riders’ experience on their systems in a number of ways, ranging from safety to the ability to get those last-minute grocery items on the way home from work. Here is a sampling of some of those apps and their features.

Safety
With the aim of providing a security tool that lets riders anonymously report crimes or suspicious behavior to transit police, Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) released its iWatch app in February.

Lt. Mike Gettings, transit police, GCRTA, says the app gives riders options to report an incident via smartphone, text message, or calling and leaving a voice message — the system records the person’s voice, translates it to a text message and sends it to transit police.

Development company iThinQware created the app and the iWatchRTA.net website, taking into consideration factors that are unique to transit security and GCRTA’s transit police beat. People can also send notifications and messages through the site.

GCRTA also worked with the developer to create the look of the app, its ease of use and a marketing plan.

Currently in the second phase of its marketing campaign, transit police are encouraging people to use the app as part of GCRTA’s “See Something, Say Something” campaign.

Often, a rider might see something on a train, but if they picked up their phone, they might not feel comfortable talking to the police dispatcher, Gettings explains. The app allows them to simply text the information, so they can not only be anonymous to police officers, but also on the vehicle.

“The person in the vehicle [causing the problem] may be sitting two seats away from them. They’re not even aware they’re sending this to us,” he adds.

While iWatch was installed to use as a tool to notify police of crimes, people often send alerts about basic quality-of-life issues. That’s a good thing, Gettings says.

“We want this app just in case there’s a major incident, like somebody leaves a suspicious package, something happening out of the ordinary,” he adds. “Thankfully, we haven’t received any of those tips.”

The app has helped people point out minor issues and enabled transit police to respond. At this point, the majority of incidents reported have been other riders violating rules against eating, drinking, smoking or playing loud music on the buses. In the past, riders reporting these offenses had to go talk to the driver, and the offender would see the person making the complaint. The operator would then have to call the dispatcher.

However, with the app, riders no longer have to get out of their seats and bring attention to themselves. The driver, who often might not even be aware of the situation, isn’t required to make any phone calls.

Dealing with the minor incidents lets people know that the agency is serious about them. Then, major incidents often don’t occur.

“If we take care of the smoking, eating and drinking, then people are less likely to [commit] more serious crimes,” Gettings says.

Meanwhile, as part of a revived initiative started in 2008 to combat sexual assault and harassment on the transit system, Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) introduced a downloadable “See Something,  Say Something” app. The app allows riders to send a message and photo of the offender to transit police. As an added safety feature, the app automatically disables the phone’s flash.

MBTA transit police suggest that when passengers can safely do so, they take a photo with their phone of the offender and send it to them, Chief Paul MacMillan, MBTA Transit Police, says. “If we don’t know the individual — [many] are chronic offenders — we will send that picture to the media and ask for the public’s help in identifying [them].”


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