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Opportunity Lost

This contribution refers to a problem that I, and my wife, both encountered when we wanted to make a trip into Pittsburgh.

Photo of Brent Buswell
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Hi There, I call this contribution "Opportunity Lost" because that was unfortunately what happened. My wife and I both looking to go to Pittsburgh for a couple of things: one of which was to see a good friend of ours, but the other, and even more important, was for a business opportunity that could have potentially earned us a great deal of money. Now, we don't live right in Pittsburgh, but we do reside in what is considered the Pittsburgh area. We live in Donegal, we are both totally blind, and there is almost no transportation that cang get us into Pittsburgh save for a cab that would cost almost $100.00 one-way. We live in a town that is just off of the main bus routes, so most forms of public transportation will have nothing to do with coming to pick us up, and this is making it hard for us. We are professional musicians, and I know we could pick up a lot of work in Pittsburgh. On this most recent time when we should have been there, we missed out on a great opportunity simply because we are blind and couldn't get any sort of transportation to get us in. If there could be some form of public transportation that would pick people up that are not on the main bus routes and get them into and out of Pittsburgh, that would be wonderful, and would make it so many more could more easily find gainful employment.

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Photo of Mitch Turck

Hi Brent. The problem that personal transit services (taxis, Uber, etc.) are struggling to solve for you is called dead-heading, or empty trips.

If a taxi is requested on-demand to take someone to the airport, that request is usually filled because -- despite the lengthy trip to a remote location -- it is very likely there will be another passenger at that destination who will request a trip back to a fairly populated area.

On rare occasions when that doesn't happen, the taxi company is forced to drive back towards civilization on their own dime and time. Effectively what happened is that the taxi company just provided the first passenger with a 50% discount on the service -- not a sustainable business model by any measure.

As a resident located in a remote area who is being asked to pay what seems an unreasonable amount of money for a taxi/Uber, the cost is directly related to that wasted economy of driving out to your location without a passenger in the vehicle who is paying for the trip.

This is probably not new information to you, but I mention it because dead-heading is one of the biggest issues in developing transportation services, as it involves physical and economic constraints that seem inescapable. Conventional planners would probably tell you the obvious solution is for you to move to a home with higher demand for transit access.

That said, for the purposes of this Challenge, you could make a more effective case by helping software developers understand how to better quantify people in your position, in hopes that there may be significant demand out there that is currently ignored or too splintered to be identified as a pattern.

But to take it further, look at the flip side of the empty trip: empty seats. You could look into businesses who operate in the Donegal area and see if they have frequent needs for transporting goods. It could turn out that a Donegal florist is delivering into the city multiple times a day using an SUV with three empty seats. That could be you and your wife in those seats! It's the lack of shared information that prevents such efficiencies, so there's potential for mutual benefit between you, the florist, and the city if you can unearth such information.

Photo of Aly Stone

Hi Mitch - thanks for commenting! Well stated and a very interesting idea. Sort of like a ride-sharing service - and including businesses in need of rides is a great approach. Any ideas regarding the organizational aspects of such a service - how would people find out when they could catch the ride, where, etc.?

Photo of Mitch Turck

Data sharing for commercial schedules and routes is something that the Amazons (and Fords) of the world will be looking to promote over the next decade, as the concept of mobility migrates towards resource efficiency. Projects like Uber EATS already do this to some extent, ingesting a business' transportation demand and plugging it into a driver's route to minimize dead-heading between passenger fares.

What would be new, and could possibly be undertaken during this COTC, is the development of an open data platform wherein any local business could offer up its transit patterns as well as any capacity it might have to carry passengers. From that, we could build an app to connect businesses and individuals in order to reduce costs for both parties and open up transit solutions to people like Brent. Doing the legwork to bring businesses together on an open data platform like this would fare well as a blueprint for other cities and larger corporations who, again, will certainly be getting into something along these lines in the future.

To your point, I think individual consumers such as Brent would merely engage with this platform like they would any on-demand rideshare app, albeit one that provides arrival estimates in hours or days rather than minutes. That end user-facing app (and its route optimization logic) has already been built by numerous entities, including Uber who would likely have an interest in this project -- so, the main hurdle I see here (apart from insurance and privacy issues involved in putting a civilian in a commercial vehicle) is getting the data from local businesses who may be unwilling or unable to share transit data effectively.

It's certainly harder than it sounds, to be fair. Perhaps to aid small & medium businesses who have no reliable logistics data to offer, we could incentivize them to allow location beacons to be placed in the vehicles. Doing so would give engineers the opportunity to identify travel patterns and return trip opportunities which could then be plugged into platform.

Where folks like Brent Buswell could kickstart this is by reaching out to local businesses to see if they have frequent and/or regular shipping routes locally... and whether they'd have an interest in picking up civilians along those routes as a means of cutting their delivery costs. A healthy list of businesses supporting the idea and offering to provide logistics data would go a long way as a start.

Photo of KatieWalsh 100

Hi Mitch - Katie the facilitator here, I'm commenting here so that Brent will get an alert for my comment too. Below Brent seems to have a slightly different idea of how to solve this than you do, branching out from an existing service - would you consider making your empty seats idea a new idea post? I'll leave you two to mull this over and maybe converse in comments to see where you are with this as we go towards the proposals phase where ideas start to become more formed.

Photo of Mitch Turck

Sure... although the larger point I was trying to drive home was that people in Brent Buswell 's position need to find creative ways to generate demand, because simply asking for service to be extended to low-demand areas does not create a viable business case. Any viable idea to solve his problem will appear to be different, because it has to be. Transit solutions, by design, do not service low-demand areas affordably.

Photo of KatieWalsh 100

Thanks Mitch, yes - I do see what you mean - but your 'florists van' solution seemed like a pretty good one - the 'empty seat finder app' or the ad in the local paper for available empty seats and people to hook up - I don't know - however this might work. It's a great general point though - Brent, if you read this, are you up for finding a way to fix your own transportation problem that might help others too? It could particularly help Blind people perhaps, but I have a feeling that it could just help anyone that needs to get around close to the city but not IN the city... making sure to be properly accessible to all too.

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