Locating a city bus is about to be as easy as requesting an Uber or Lyft car.
The Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) is launching a smartphone app that will bring real-time bus data to customers.
North Carolina-based TransLoc has developed an app called TransLoc Rider that shows buses as they move along routes and displays the arrival times for those buses. The app is already being used in other cities like Gainesville, Florida, and San Jose, California.
Locally, the University of Memphis has been using TransLoc to track its shuttle service for students, and that partnership helped open the door to MATA.
Josh Cohen, director of strategy and partnerships at TransLoc, said the company is focused on expanding public transit to be the first choice of users, rather than a "last resort."
To TransLoc, perception is part of the problem. Waiting for the bus can feel almost 50 percent longer than reality, according to a University of Washington study that focused on transit waiting times. In the study, the commuters who used an app called OneBusAway, which tracks transit systems in real-time, did not have that issue.
"The more people who are riding transit, the better our communities are," Cohen said. "More people are getting around cities and communities more effectively and cost-effectively. [The app] helps on a micro level — people don't have to stand out in the rain waiting for the bus — and the macro level, so that the more people who use transit, the less traffic we all face."
Chooch Pickard, who sits on the MATA Board of Commissioners, said the app will make Memphis more competitive with other cities in terms of public transportation. Increasing ridership is also a potential benefit for MATA. He said the organization has run into issues attracting Memphians who choose, rather than need, to ride the bus system.
"I think it'll definitely increase ridership," Pickard said. "In order to provide the best service for the city for everyone, we need to increase ridership from everyone. A lot of people who have other options that are not transit-dependent will be more likely to use MATA if they have a tool like this."
According to Pickard, it's millennials and baby boomers, both of which make up the largest populations in the United States, who need to become part of the focus as the organization expands.
"Right now, funding for MATA from the city and use of MATA is really focused on transit-dependent customers," Pickard said. "If we want to be progressive, keep up with other cities, and be able to attract millennials to Memphis, we have to have a first-class transit system."
According to the American Public Transportation Association's study of 1,000 millennials on transit usage, real-time updates were the second-most wanted feature of public transit, at 55 percent (The most-wanted feature was "more reliable systems," at 61 percent.).
Pickard said he initially proposed a MATA app five years ago but met resistance from the previous administration. MATA Traveler, the text-message service that was designed to let riders know up-to-the-minute bus arrival times, wasn't "user-friendly enough," he said.
"We need to be creating a transit system that takes care of everybody's needs, from young to old, transit-dependent to those who choose to ride the bus," Pickard said.