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Local Transit Start-up Working on Real-Time Tracking App, On-Board Payment Idea

Brent Warren Brent Warren Local Transit Start-up Working on Real-Time Tracking App, On-Board Payment IdeaPhoto by Walker Evans.
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A local start-up has set its sites on two of the most vexing problems facing its local transit agency – real-time tracking and convenient on-board payment. Omnibus, a group of developers and entrepreneurs formed at this year’s Give Back Hack event, is bullish on the potential of their app to offer an easy, visually-friendly way for riders to see on their phone exactly where their bus is.

They are also working on an easy and quick way for riders to pay for that ride – on board, and without cash – a fix that may be further in the future but even more far-reaching in its impact.

“The goal is to eliminate transportation uncertainty, and that can bring lots of benefits to our city,” said Nora Gerber, who pitched her idea on the first day of the weekend event and was surprised to see it take on a life of its own and eventually be voted the winning project on the last day.

“The app provides a visual, Uber-like experience, not just estimated time – that is something different,” she explained. “We really want to make it so that the bus is just the easiest choice.”

For the app to function, each bus in the system would have to be outfitted with a device to track its movement, which is different from some existing transit-tracking apps like MoveIt. Omnibus would not rely on individual riders, with an app open on their smart phone, being on a particular bus in order to track it.

This could potentially would make the Omnibus app more reliable, especially for smaller systems that might not have the critical mass of riders needed to provide crowdsourcing data. It also means, though, that it would require the explicit cooperation of the transit agency in any city in which it hopes to operate.

To that end, the Omnibus group has presented their concept to the COTA board and is encouraged by the initial, informal response from both staff and board members. The team thinks that a partnership could eventually be forged with the transit agency that would complement the work COTA and their vendor Trapeze have already done on the issue.

COTA announced in the fall of 2013 a plan to roll-out real-time tracking, but it has yet to be implemented after a long string of setbacks and issues with the accuracy of the product provided by the vendor. COTA VP of Communications Marty Stutz said that the system is currently being tested internally, but no date has been set for rolling it out to the public.

Whether an Omni/COTA partnership is eventually formed or not, count developer and COTA board member Brett Kaufman as a fan of the group.

“I was very impressed by their presentation, I thought they did an outstanding job and firmly believe it’s the kind of thinking our city continues to benefit from,” he said, adding that, “I am aware that COTA continues to consider all innovation opportunities and best practices from around the world.”

Since the Give Back Hack event in February, the Omnibus group has used the $5,000 prize money to further develop their ideas, while also pursuing additional funding from the Create Columbus Commission and the SEA Change Accelerator program, which has a $50,000 pool of money to distribute to worthy social enterprises.

In addition to bus-tracking, Omnibus is also “tinkering” with a proprietary system aimed at speeding up on-board payment by credit card.

“There’s nothing in the market that would easily replace the current (way of doing things),” said Omnibus team member and designer Bryan Vogel, adding that a speedy, non-cash system of payment has been identified by COTA’s NextGen outreach and planning process as a priority.

For Gerber, she sees great potential in both initiatives; “I grew up in Columbus. I love the city, and have always liked COTA, but I thought that it could be better connected…a better system for more people.”

For more information on Omnibus, visit rideomnibus.com.

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