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Transit Planning Is Getting Faster

This year, Houston revamped its entire bus system. (Photo by Metrobusfan3550)

Transit technology has grown in leaps and bounds over the last few years with everything from new apps for riders to the promise of self-driving buses. But as consumer-facing tech rapidly evolves, transit agencies still largely rely on the same many-step, manual labor-heavy process they’ve used for decades. A small software company in San Francisco is hoping to change that.

Remix is a new software tool that’s helping local, regional and state transit agencies streamline their planning process for new and revised routes. The software allows planners to draw new transit routes on a map and receive a litany of data such as cost and population in real time.

“It’s just been taken as a given that it’s going to take a long time to answer these really simple questions for planning a bus line,” says Alex Baca, Remix marketing manager. “Remix just makes the process a lot more efficient. It gives planners an easy, fast responsive way to collect data.”

Remix co-founders Tiffany Chu and Sam Hashemi built an early iteration of the software while working as Code for America fellows. After hearing about the multi-step, multi-tool process transit planners were using to map out a proposed line, they created a free, online tool called TransitMix. It was essentially a game meant to help people see the costs and challenges of creating new bus lines, but Chu and Hashemi started hearing from planners who were using TransitMix professionally.

About a year ago, they decided to focus their efforts on creating software for transit agencies. This summer they rebranded as Remix. They’re now working with over 60 agencies around the country.

In Remix, planners draw out a new or modified bus line on a map, clicking to add new stops. As they do, the program provides real-time schedule information, data about the number of residents the line would serve, the number of buses needed to serve the line and costs. When you make a modification to the line, the data changes in real time. In addition, Remix incorporates existing transit lines to show how the new line would interact with the system, has layers of census data about population density and poverty rates, and has a feature where users drop an icon on the map to show how far someone could travel by transit in 30, 45 or 60 minutes. Remix can be used for planning train lines as well, but Baca points out that new train lines are fairly rare and once built are almost never modified.

Remix isn’t providing new information (the data is all open source) or cutting out parts of the planning process, but it combines many steps into one near-instantaneous platform.

“Agencies are still by and large doing things by hand. A planner will sketch it out on a map or a computer. Then they might put it into Google Maps to see what it looks like on an overlay in the city. Then into ArcGIS to see demographic input. Then into Excel for costing, etc.”

Raymond Hui is director of planning for Alexandria Transit Company in Virginia. His agency recently started using Remix. “Doing the grunt work and vision gathering on a particular transit scenario would’ve taken four hours to do. Now it’s 30 minutes,” he says of the software. “I can’t say it took a six-month project down to three months, but it has resulted in a lot of time savings, flexibility and nimbleness.”

In its current form, Remix is limited to the earliest stages of route planning, meant to help agencies sketch out new lines and present them to the public. Baca says one of its strengths is its ability to show people tradeoffs such as cost and time in public meetings.

Hui says after they’ve sketched out routes in Remix, they would still need to do the intensive manual work on maps, in other software and in gigantic spreadsheets.

But he remains excited how the software is helping his agency streamline their processes.

“It’s got huge potential. Even at its current stage it helps us do more in the limited amount of time we have to do something and allows us flexibility and nimbleness to play with infinite number of scenarios.”