Things newspapers could do: Traffic reporting for mobile web


Anytime I fly home to Chicago, I find myself frustrated that I can’t find information about how to use public transport in order to reach my parent’s house in the suburbs.

If the legacy media in Chicago could provide me a smart phone application showing me the way, I’d likely be able to get there.

And all those visitors stuck at O’Hare airport for hours in the winter could use it to cheaply navigate their way downtown for a look around during one of the massive delays for which the city’s international airport is famous.
But the only information I can find is about cars. Driving around with my father, for example, WBBM-AM News Radio 78 is plays in dad’s Jeep.

“Traffic and weather together on the eights,” the CBS station advertises nearly every two minutes. “If it’s happening now, you’re hearing it now.”

The traffic report, which I wonder if my dad even hears over his inner musings about the Chicago Bears’ newest player, glosses over traffic conditions whether they’re good or bad.

Unless there is a freak occurrence, the reports don’t mention what’s happening with the City of Chicago’s busses or light rail services. In fact, no major television or newspaper website in the Chicagoland regularly provides this information.

Low-hanging fruit

The chipper consultants who your local newspaper overpays to update its brand don’t typically deign to tinker with traffic reporting.

But from where I sit – on my Dutch-style bicycle - this rather routine news service represents a basket of low-hanging fruit for news brands trying to create easy-to-access content you can use on multiple platforms, from your computer to your iPhone or Blackberry.

For the teen or job seeker who is riding their local bus for the first time, a mobile application branded by the local paper represents a chance for tangible interaction with that paper. It’s a great service for local visitors and that nervous commuter who, although she always keeps his watch set five minutes ahead, is always unsure if she’s just missed a bus.

“When I visited San Francisco, I never knew how long I’d have to stand at a bus stop waiting,” writes Ginny Skalski, a community content manager at the NBC affiliate in Raleigh-Durham. “If I had an app that was tied to the GPS of the buses on the route I was riding, it would have been amazing.”

Smart phone applications for public transport users are being developed and marketed by startups like HopStop, AcrossAir and ExitStrategyNYC. Public transpiration services like the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York and, of course, Google, are also in the game.

News companies, still entrenched in a drive-time mentality and unsure how to make money online, are on the sidelines.

Car culture

On just about every morning TV news broadcast in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, live images of a idling cars flash across the screen each morning to corroborate reports of a 30-minute backup near a major toll plaza.
Invariably, after making a cutesy comment about being glad not to be stuck in that sea of metal, the traffic reporter hands the broadcast back to the main announcer. He moves on to another story.

Why not follow this report with images of what’s happening for public transport commuters? Or refer viewers to the station’s mobile application with which to better plan their commute?

Claude Erbsen, a New York resident who was until 2003 the director of world services for The Associated Press, said the public just doesn’t need this service.
“People use their cars to go to and from work. The percentage that uses public transport is infinitesimal, so information about public transit in most cities is meaningless,” he said. “The bottom line is that I don’t think this is an issue, and it will take years – if not decades – before we see a significant shift from cars to effective, widely rapid transport.”

OK, so the United States isn’t known for its public transportation. But the demand is growing. According to the American Public Transit Association, mass transit use has been for the past two years at its highest levels ever. Ridership in 2008 was up 4 percent from the previous year.

Mainstream media are not even reflecting this slight shift in transportation habits. In cities like Chicago, which boasts an above-ground metro system called the El and bustling Amtrack trains from the suburbs, not one newspaper or television station provides mobile updates for public transportation services.

Meanwhile, startups working on mobile web services for public transit commuters have seen their users increase. Hopstop, which serves seven cities including Boston, San Francisco and Chicago, recently expanded into Philadelphia, London and Paris.

It has a deal with the New York Post, where it is featured under Traffic and Transit. That makes Rupart Murdoch’s tabloid one of a handful of American dailies to feature a mobile application for public transport users.

ExitStrategyNYC, a non-web-based application, tells users where to stand on subway cars in order to be closer to their desired exit or transfer. It went on sale last week for $1.99 for the iPhone and Android phones, $2.99 for the BlackBerry, and $4.99 for Amazon’s Kindle. It’s No. 13 this week on Apple’s list of the top paid-for transportation applications.image

Finally, Acrossair will in September launch an “augmented reality transit-finding app for San Francisco as soon as Apple releases a newer version of its iPhone OS.”

Bay-area owners of iPhones equipped with 3GS viewfinders will be able to hold up their phones and see, superimposed on the video screen, directions to closest bus or metro lines.

Why Not Newspapers?

So why aren’t newspapers cherry-picking public transportation as a field in which to build or feature mobile applications? It seems like an easy foray into the world of mobile web users. After all, news brands have been forever in the business of traffic reporting.

“The development of mobile apps can be very expensive,” said Skalski, in North Carolina. “Most news organizations are struggling to develop a mobile website.”

She also doesn’t see how news organizations can make money from applications.

“I guess you could sell the app in the iTunes store or have to pay for a monthly subscription, but who knows how that would effect users,” she said.

Venture Beat reporter Anthony Ha wrote in late June that a public transportation application called Routesy was the first iPhone app for which he paid.
“I could look up a bus line and direction, then Routesy would provide the arrival times at the stop nearest to me,” he wrote. “Google Maps provides public transit times, but it’s based on the official schedules, rather than real-time data extrapolated from the buses’ actual locations.”

Routsey is now embroiled in a legal battle over who is able to commercially use real-time data from the city’s busses, Ha reported.

So would it be easier to leave public entities to develop applications for public transport data?

Skalski said she thinks it makes more sense to leave development of comprehensive mobile apps to government entities.

Frank Barth-Nilsen, who blogs about mobile reporting at Mojo Evolution and heads up the journalism training and development department at Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, said he doesn’t think transit authorities should be left alone to offer these services.

“They really haven’t proven themselves worthy of it. At least not in Norway.”

He says that his company, the biggest media organization in Norway with 3500 people on staff, offers a basic web service with reports on all sorts of public transportation but has not taken it further.

“There should be good applications offering real time data for public transportation,” Barth-Nilsen said. “We are putting a lot of money into new media, but the biggest problem is that the possibilities are endless. We have to choose some sort of direction, and put our brains and money into succeeding with those choices.”


It makes sense for news brands to develop mobile web applications for public transportation users.

The mobile web and public transportation are still emerging in the United States. Both are sure to grow, which means earnest newspapers and television stations have a great opportunity to established their brands early in this space.

And audiences are used to turning to the mainstream media for traffic alerts, so a big mindset shift on the part of readers isn’t necessary.

Low, low-hanging fruit. Legacy media can’t bite soon enough.

Flickr images from users freshelectrons and natekoechley