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Public Transit Truths, from the Real Experts (the Public)

We at Greater Good Studio began the Designing Chicago project with a hunch that the public probably knew a thing or two about public transportation. We planned to tap into that knowledge by inviting them to join us to create a new transit app for Chicago. Now, after researching and brainstorming with a slew of expert riders and transit newbies, we’re convinced that when you ask the right questions, the public will respond with productive, fascinating answers. Over 900 submissions later, here are some of the transit truths we’ve learned:

1. Riders create their own transit tools.

Even a simple trip between point A and B is peppered with questions, so riders turn to a wide variety of digital and analog sources for information. These tools extend far beyond the expected maps, station graphics, and apps. From using the Chicago skyline to orient yourself on the platform, to checking the Cubs schedule to knowing how packed the trains will be, to feeling the bus turn and knowing your stop is coming up soon, riders find creative ways to know where they are and get where they’re going. We’re exploring how our app will compile and present information from our environment to ease decision making throughout the trip.

2. The experience of transit is hyperlocal.

Though the system may cover a city, a rider’s experience of transit plays out on specific streets, stops, and stations. Riders learn about and leverage idiosyncrasies to their advantage—get to the Rockwell station a few minutes early to make it past the crossing gate, transfer to the #49 at Armitage because the bus stop is covered, take the station exit at Wells Street to avoid the crowd. Applying these local tricks elevates the rider’s experience, making it feel more like my transit system than the transit system. That’s why our app will provide a way for riders to share and learn from each other’s tips, in the times and places they’re useful.

3. Everyone is a multi-modal rider.

A typical trip could boil down to walk-bus-walk. But sometimes it's walk-drive-park, or walk-bike-train, and once in a blue moon it’s walk-bus-walk-train-walk-taxi-walk. No matter how many legs they’ll take, riders consider the journey as a whole and create their trips by weighing the pros and cons of each combination of available travel modes. And while expert riders switch from one leg to the next more seamlessly than newbies, transitions still hold the most potential for anxiety. Our app will help by including each of Chicago’s modes (yes, even water taxi) and focus usability on the moments between them.

4. It’s not “If” Plan A fails, it’s “When.”

Expert riders are less ruffled by changes to the routine. When the train is delayed, the bus is rerouted by construction, or the morning starts with a few more snoozes than usual, years of hard-earned experience help them quickly evaluate options and switch to new plans on the go. But the transit learning curve can be steep, so our app will help riders make informed decisions quickly, based on everything from walking distance and travel time to true cost and comfort level.

5. Information can inspire the perception of control.

Riding transit, just like driving, can be unpredictable. But everyone wants to feel in control of their trip. When expectations line up with reality, a long wait, slow-moving bus, or crowded train can feel like a calculated choice rather than cause for frustration. Expert riders rely on real-time data, from sources like bus trackers and Twitter, to set and adjust their expectations. We’re exploring how our app could use real-time location data to support in-the-moment routing alerts, helping riders feel confident and in control of their trip.

Top Chicago skyline image via Thomas Barrat /; other images courtesy of Greater Good Studio

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