Designers seek input of riders to develop useful transportation apps

Effort earns them TED award

George Aye and Sara Cantor Aye want to help improve the experience of using mass transit in the Chicago area, and they are appealing for your participation.

The husband and wife team last year opened the Greater Good Studio, a Chicago firm that uses design methods to solve social problems. Sara Aye, an innovator and educator, is research director at Greater Good Studio, and George Aye, who formerly was lead designer at the Chicago Transit Authority, is the firm's design director.

The couple said they believe that people are fully capable of creating their own solutions to problems, but it takes certain tools, and research, to make it happen.

A new project they recently launched, with the goal of making the mass transit system work better for commuters, starts by asking riders to pay attention to signs and posters and to listen to announcements — and identify other cues — as they ride buses and trains.

A signal that a CTA rider who sometimes missed his stop found useful was the sun shining into his train between buildings in the morning as the train rounded a certain curve in the tracks, signaling to that sleepy commuter that it was time to start heading toward the doors, George Aye said.

Wouldn't it be great, Aye said, if there were a cellphone app that performed the same function, especially on cloudy days? Or how about a commute-planning app that tells CTA Red Line riders on the North Side whether the Cubs are playing at Wrigley Field that day?

Today's existing transit tools — like CTA Bus and Train Tracker, transit websites operated by CTA, Metra and Pace, email alerts informing riders about service changes and commercial transit-related apps — represent bare-bones components of what commuters need and want, according to the Ayes, who last week won a prestigious design award called The City 2.0 award from TED.

There is the potential for offering much more to help transit customers know where they are and to get them where they're going, they said.

So instead of experts observing transit riders and essentially scratching the surface by inferring what basic information they might find useful, the project invites riders to become the researchers — they're called "urban agents" — to help design a bottomless toolbox for navigating potentially each moment of the transit experience.

"We are engaging lots of different people from all over Chicago and the rest of the world to help us create what will be ultimately the mother of all transit apps," Sara Aye said.

Holly Swyers, a Lake Forest College professor who lives in Chicago's Ravenswood neighborhood, is an urban agent. Her major complaint about current transit apps and information is that not enough specific guidance is provided.

Swyers, 41, commutes to Lake Forest on the Metra Union Pacific North Line, sometimes bringing her bicycle.

"If you are a bike rider, you kind of have to learn through osmosis what to do with your bike on the train," Swyers said. "And you don't know until you are on the platform and the train arrives whether there will be room for bikes."

She would welcome a transit tool that uses real-time information to answer that question.

Urban agent volunteers can sign up at http://designingchicago.com/sign-up.

Here's what is requested of urban agents: When you notice yourself using a transit tool, take a picture and email it to agent@designingchicago.com. Name it in the subject line of the email. Then, answer these questions: What information is this tool giving you? Why are you using it right now? What's helpful about it? What information do you really want to know that this tool isn't giving you?​

The purpose is to learn about missing information that commuters would like to know and that current transit tools aren't providing. Later in the process, volunteers will be asked to do other tasks, including going somewhere where they haven't been on transit before.

The final step, which the Ayes expect to occur next year, will be to design the new transit app.

"We want to create an app that helps people to actually not just have an easier commute, but maybe even have a more enjoyable commute, a more integrated commute, maybe one where they trust their transit and believe in their city," Sara Aye said.

Commuter Dave Sonders is all in favor of those goals. The 15-year Chicago resident and his wife recently moved in with family in Crystal Lake on a temporary basis while their new home in the city is being renovated.

Sonders, 35, who says he is a big fan of the CTA, has experienced a difficult learning curve on Metra.

Aside from having to learn the train schedules, Sonders said it took him three or four attempts to figure out the parking regimen — including memorizing his parking space number and entering it on the parking meter fee box — at the Pingree Road Metra station in Crystal Lake.

So he wouldn't miss his train on his first failed try, Sonders had to ask his father-in-law to drive to the station to pay the parking fee so his car would not be towed, he said.

A parking app that would allow park-and-ride commuters to drive into the Metra lot and have the fee paid through a process similar to the Illinois Tollway's open-road tolling is badly needed, said Sonders, who is also an urban agent in the project.

"There is no reason we have the current system with all its frustrations and expensive infrastructure like remote parking pay boxes," Sonders said. "Everybody carries around their own infrastructure in a smartphone or in a smart credit card. Using an app, that's the only terminal you should need."

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.

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