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Here’s An Idea: Why Not Have All Public Buses Be On-Demand?

MIT researchers have created a platform that could turn bus transportation into your own personal pickup service.

Here’s An Idea: Why Not Have All Public Buses Be On-Demand?
[Cover Photo: zhu difeng via Shutterstock]

Traffic is a problem in any major city, but the gigantic traffic jams found in the growing cities of India and China would bring even New Yorkers to their knees. The answer is better public transportation–but how do you convince people to take the bus when their car, the new symbol of the middle class, takes them directly from home to their location?

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Karthik Narayan, a senior experience designer at Isobar US, has a potential solution: on-demand public buses that pick you up wherever you are and drop you off where you need to go, no need to run to the bus stop or go ten blocks out of your way. The concept is a bit similar to the carpool services that Uber and Lyft offer today.

Narayan, who came up with the idea for his thesis at the MIT Media Lab, simulated how this would work using an upper middle class neighborhood in Bangalore, India. He and his team (including Ryan Chin and Kent Larson of the MIT Changing Places Group) created a platform that would place buses strategically around the city. As people request them via phone or computer, the buses would use an algorithm to reroute to their locations. It would take no more than seven minutes for a bus to arrive.


“The platform will start calculating, who else can I pick up on the way to make sure the first person gets dropped off in time?” says Narayan. “If I run the service at 60% to 70% capacity, I can match travel time in cars.”

In the Bangalore neighborhood, most people are traveling in the morning to work in a commercial neighborhood 10 or 15 miles away. During the day, the algorithm can rely on the fact that most people are traveling to similar endpoints. But people could change their minds about destination while still on the bus, and the algorithm would simply shift to pick up other passengers in convenient locations. Delays are built in to the system, much like they are for flights.


Narayan believes he has the algorithm for the system down pat; his next challenge is looking for seed funding and business partners, as well as a viable financial model. While he designed the system for the developing countries, where traffic severely interferes with daily life, the system could be just as useful in the U.S. “It could work in any setting,” he says.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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