Navigating the Chaos for Reliable Public Transport InformationBy Lorena Ruiz | Thu, 04/07/2022 - 15:00
In June 2021 in Mexico City, almost 100 million people used public transport to get to where they wanted to go. Despite the size and chaos of our transport system and the lack of information to facilitate its navigation, millions of locals and foreigners make use of it every day. Many of them know their most frequent routes by heart, but when something happens on your usual route, when you have to go in a new direction or when the routes change, for those who are just “beginner users,” the sources for information are: the maps at the entrances of the Metro or Metrobús stations, the ‘checadores,’ information provided by friends or relatives’ experience, or sometimes even stopping buses and asking the drivers if they go in the direction you need (which could be a successful option depending on how friendly the driver is)
In the 21st century, with all of the collaboration and data collection tools, it’s surprising that most of the cities in emerging markets don’t have access to reliable and up-to-date public transport information. In economies at the base of the pyramid, people have to travel without knowing if the routes they are using are the most efficient, if the stations they usually use are operating regularly, and without visibility of possible new options to get to their usual destinations. Along the same line, public transport operators don’t have much information about commuter needs, don’t get feedback on their operation or the routes they offer and don’t have any tools to communicate with users in general. Private companies, authorities and government could benefit from knowing how the city moves. The possibility of designing smart cities and the planning of new transport options could be based on dynamic and historical information on how people use current options. The problem is, how do we achieve that?
The Public Transport System in CDMX
Mexico City has 12 Metro lines, seven Metrobús lines, nine trolleybus lines, two Cablebús lines, a Light Rail line, RTP (Passenger Transport Network) service, Corridors and "Zonal” routes; its metropolitan area is also complemented by four Mexibús lines and a Mexicable line, and these two areas are connected by the Suburban Train. To that point, the public transport system seems big already; however, those are only the "integrated" or "formal" options, which, according to the CDMX Mobility Ministry itself, serve only 18 percent of public transport users. The remaining 82 percent is served by the more than 2,000 combi and microbús routes that operate in CDMX and its metropolitan area.
If we consider the above, the maps at the stations, although effective, cover the information needs of a very small sector of the population. Word of mouth and the search for information directly from those who operate transport become much more relevant, but they leave a lot of room for human error or rely on the goodwill of those who provide it.
A System in Constant Change
In the last year, the transportation system in Mexico City and its metropolitan area has undergone hundreds of changes:
- Due to COVID-19, many routes stopped operating, modified their usual paths or decreased their hours of operation.
- Rates for some routes in the State of Mexico changed.
- Incidents such as the fire in the Metro Control Center and the collapse of the train overpass on Line 12 required emergency services, some routes had to change their paths, service was suspended in many stations and the frequency of trains changed.
- … among many other changes.
Although integrated transport services have official communication channels (website, social media and others), this information does not necessarily reach users immediately, nor when they require it. In the case of concessioned transport (microbuses and combis), they do not have specific communication channels and, although some of the changes may become relevant enough to appear in the media (e.g., the increases in fares), in most cases, users find out about the changes only when they are already suffering the consequence of them (e.g. when the path of the route is changed and it no longer leaves them at their destination or when they are charged more money than usual for the same trip).
This last year, as part of my job, I had more than 40 conversations with public transport operators, more than half of whom stated that they would like to have some way to communicate changes to their users, as well as receive comments and evaluations from them because that’s the only way they can compete with private transport apps (Uber, Urvan, etc.). However, they accept that since there are hundreds of companies that operate in the city, and they all have such diverse interests and forms of operation, coordinating them would be a very big challenge.
Collaboration and Community the Key
In the last year, our research team at WhereIsMyTransport has held more than 80 interviews with more than 200 public transport users. The team found that most of them consider it important to have up-to-date information on public transport options and they are willing to collaborate to build the necessary infrastructure. Most of these people know their city and are proud of it; they like to share it to show that they have more “barrio” or they are more “local” than others.
Regarding the changes in public transport, users have told us that, when there is something abnormal on their routes, when they find a station closed or when they detect an event that is affecting normal operation, they usually use social media and messaging services, either to check what the authorities are reporting, to make a public complaint or to share what happened with their friends and family and warn them if they use the same route.
The desire to share with the community and the idea of doing it so that others are not affected is something that millions of users share. However, there is no platform where they can integrate all this information so that it can be used not only by friends and family, but also by other users who use the same transportation options.
A Platform for Everyone and Everyone on the Same Platform
The problem then requires a platform that:
- Concentrates the complete and up-to-date information of all modes of transport and allows users to plan trips from it.
- Allow users to report changes in their usual routes, new routes, disruptions and possible interruptions in the service.
- Provide operators and authorities with reliable and historical information about the use of transport, from which service improvements, planning of new routes, etc., can be made.
We created Rumbo (available in the Google Play Store) to fulfill those needs and improve the experience of public transport users, but it also fulfills some additional goals from the social perspective:
- In Mexico, millions depend on public transportation to get to their jobs, schools or, in general, to be able to develop their economic activity. Having reliable and up-to-date information would eliminate some of the differences that exist with other sectors of the population and would reduce the level of uncertainty with which people at the base of the pyramid in Mexico live.
- By having reliable information and a tool that allows the understanding and navigation of the transportation system, many who do not use it today could once again consider it among their mobility options, thus helping to reduce polluting emissions and promoting a more sustainable form of mobility.
- On the other hand, having information about how this sector of the population travels and where it goes would allow decision-makers to have enough data for designing cities, deciding on new transport options and, in general, would provide a better understanding of the needs of a social group that today is in many ways invisible to those developing technology and consumer products.
The Value of Data
Building Rumbo implied a significant amount of effort for the collection and organization of the initial data, the creation of a methodology to keep it updated, the building of a community so people can collaborate, the design of a good validation system and the continuous work of monitoring public transport information to keep users informed about both permanent and temporary changes.
This set of data, in addition to helping those who depend on transport to navigate the city, is an important source of intelligence for those who design cities, for the authorities that regulate and generate transport services, and also for all those who are looking to create businesses at the base of the pyramid.
Our goal is to help people who depend on public transport to get to their destination have a better experience with it, while we generate data that could help design better cities for them and for all of us living in emerging markets.
 With information of the last maintenance project performed by WhereIsMyTransport (February, 2022)