Don’t nag me about taking the bus. Vanderbilt engineers already put me on it.
By Heidi Hall
Guilt and nagging just don’t work on me. My do-gooder, bus-riding friends who constantly hounded me about adding to traffic congestion and hurting the environment with my car? I just learned to avoid them.
Show me that there’s a great reason to make a different choice, and you’ve got my attention.
That’s why, at least three days a week, you’ll find me standing at an East Nashville bus stop, my employee ID card on a lanyard around my neck. A group of Vanderbilt University engineers created a mobile app that figures out the bus schedules for me, shows me my buses’ locations at any given moment, provides step-by-step instructions for transfers and then tells me how much gas money I saved and calories I burned each day.
And that Vanderbilt ID I’m wearing? I swipe that as my bus fare, because the university also supports mass transit by paying for any employee who wants to use it.
Now, the city of Nashville has the opportunity to do what I’ve done for two months – test Transit-Hub, the free app developed at Vanderbilt’s Institute for Software Integrated Systems through a grant provided by the National Science Foundation.
It uses computer data and hardware provided by Nashville MTA, and unlike other transit apps, it’s aimed at changing lifestyles, not just mapping bus routes. If it works, it can be duplicated in cities nationwide.
Find T-Hub by searching “Nashville MTA” in the Apple Store. The MTA also has its own app for both Apple and Android, which is free, too.
The lead Vanderbilt engineer on the project, Abhishek Dubey, and computer science graduate student Fangzhou Sun invited me to try the test version of T-Hub after I wrote about their grant award.
Here’s what I learned:
The app helped me overcome the illusion of control. This was my number one barrier to bus ridership, one shared with many of my friends. I used to say, “I want to leave when I want to leave and get there quickly.” But the fact is, if I left at rush hour, I sat in the same increasingly horrific Nashville traffic as the buses do.
I wasn’t really captain of my own transportation destiny, and I couldn’t very well complain about the traffic while I added to it.
To be blunt, the MTA’s bus schedule and when the buses actually arrive have very little to do with each other on busy routes. T-Hub allows me to set the trip, but then track where my bus is in real time. No need to run out of my office at 4:30 p.m. if the bus isn’t going to be there until 5 p.m.
T-Hub also makes bus schedules less intimidating. Yes, I’ve had to figure out a subway schedule in New York City. But for the most part, I’ve spent my adult life driving my car in small and mid-sized cities that don’t embrace public transportation. That kid from Sikeston, Mo., who traveled everywhere in the back of her parents’ station wagon still dwells within me.
T-Hub users tap their starting and ending points on a map. Then the app spells out each leg of the journey – get on Bus 3, get off Bus 3, get on Bus 56 and so on — and lets me check legs off as they’re completed.
T-Hub reminds me why I’m doing this. Is every minute spent standing at a bus stop complete and utter joy? No. But I can check the “summary” page of the app and see how many calories I burn walking to stops and the gas money I save by leaving the car parked, and that helps take the sting out.
While the bus driver deals with the traffic for me, I surf the internet on my smartphone – I can return to the T-Hub trip in progress at any time – read a book, work on my laptop or chat with my fellow riders. I used to sit in my car, white knuckled, watching some other drivers perform maneuvers of great idiocy and hating my commute. Now I almost look forward to commuting.
A bus sensei in addition to the app makes things even easier. Mine is Tom Wilemon, my friend of many years, who was taking the bus long before I ever did but never tried to guilt me into it. He gave me an extra level of confidence, and some days I’ll send him a text asking if he wants to have a “bus date” and catch up.
He also gave me tips about the best seats – the tall, side-facing ones on the express lines – the quickest way to navigate Music City Central bus station downtown and the most no-nonsense bus drivers, who we love.
So download the app. Give it a try. Let Abhishek and his team know what you think at this survey.
And if you’re commuting between East Nashville and Vanderbilt, hit me up for a bus date.
Note: This story was updated Jan. 13, 2016, to reflect the app’s public availability.
Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering