Lead image by Lauren Holley on Flickr
Convenience is an important part of everyone’s commute, especially when public transit is involved—no one likes to wait for longer than they have to. Fortunately for Atlanta commuters, the ride just got a little smoother thanks to the Atlanta Streetcar’s brand-new app.
Passengers who were once forced to purchase tickets from standalone kiosks and check online for delay notifications can now buy trips and check the Streetcar’s timeliness on their smartphones before getting out of bed in the morning. Plus, MARTA riders can time their connections by viewing real-time Streetcar arrivals on the app.
Although the app’s early features are basic, many moving parts aligned to build this tool for Streetcar users. The Streetcar team pulled together third party vendors and coordinated with the city to make the app possible. We spoke with Marwan Al-Muktar, Director of Safety and Security, and Norman Lopez, Program Manager, to learn a little more about what went on behind the scenes.
Our first question was simple: What was the goal behind the project, anyway?
According to Lopez, the team wanted to be on the cutting edge of transit.
“Exactly,” agreed Al-Muktar. “We wanted to transform how people use the transit system.”
They’re also in agreement that convenience is the most important feature the app has to offer. Smartphones essentially become ticket vending machines, eliminating the need to carry cash or wait in lines.
“We also introduced new fare products,” Lopez explained. “Previously, we could only do single day and one-way tickets. The mobile app allows weekly and monthly passes. It’s a better bargain for our riders to purchase a monthly pass versus a new pass daily.”
Those daily riders do exist, by the way. According to Lopez, “A lot of them work in downtown or live in the Old Fourth Ward district. Many of them use it to get to work, and a lot of people also use it for lunch. They come into town and use the Streetcar to get to various restaurants on the line.”
When it comes to creating civic technology like the Streetcar app, the process involves a lot more than just coding. Lopez explained the programming phase only took about six months. Before development began, the team worked with MARTA and other transit systems to develop a request for proposal (RFP). “We had an advantage here because we were able to take the best parts of all transit systems and apply it to our app,” Lopez said.
Completion of development started another, more complicated phase: approval. The team couldn’t release the app until it passed safety certification by the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT).
“Our team did a great job with the safety certification,” said Al-Muktar. “Since [users will be] sharing credit card information, there was a lot of work behind the scenes to certify the app. We were able to get preliminary approval within about two weeks after submitting it to the state.”
Security was also a major priority for the team. According to Lopez, one of the many steps they followed to ensure the safety of user data included a “penetration test” involving trained security specialists who attempted to hack the system. The results led to an identity system that improved security without compromising convenience.
Not only is the app a major milestone for the city, but it is also a personal achievement for those involved in its creation. “I’m most proud of how we were able to pull this together quickly,” Lopez said. “A lot of agencies spend a lot more [money] to build their apps. We built our app for a fraction of the cost of other agencies. We were able to pull this together in roughly a year, and I am really excited about the features and upgrades we have planned next.”
And what might those features and updates be?
On the checklist is integration with the MARTA app and Breeze system. Also scheduled are features that incorporate holidays, local culture and businesses.
According to Lopez, riders can look forward to holiday specials for Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s Day. For adventurous riders, there will be a Streetcar Scavenger hunt where savvy shoppers will get automatic coupons for businesses along the route.
The most impressive feature of the new app isn’t its ability to send you texts if your Streetcar is delayed—it’s the passion of the people behind the work. They’re serious about security, which is comforting whenever personal data is involved, but they’re also driven to give users the best experience possible.
Although the future of the Streetcar has often been in question, its team’s commitment to innovative technology and customer engagement will surely help it continue to grow.