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Changing Urban Transportation with Real-Time Screens

There’s a trillion-dollar trend called the Internet of Things. Simply put, this means adding small computers to physical objects, and connecting everything together over the internet so useful information can be collected. When a recent McKinsey white paper looked at every foreseeable application of this massive trend, one of the biggest impacts they found was:

“People will know when public transit is coming so they won’t have to wait.”

This is surprising. Catching a train on time doesn’t exactly seem futuristic, like the Internet of Things. And yet, according to McKinsey, the time people save from knowing exactly when transit is coming amounts to $60 billion in potential global savings! 

How do we achieve that $60 billion potential? First, we have to get people the transportation information they need so they never have to waste time. I started TransitScreen (now Actionfigure) to solve this exact information problem. We use public screens to inform people at a glance about all their transportation choices, just when they’re making travel decisions: in lobbies, offices, on the street. That way, a transit user knows exactly when to go catch a train.

The true impact of public TransitScreen displays can be much greater than the value of time savings. By making urban transportation work better, we can create new transit users and help convert people who drive by default into transit users, reducing pollution, CO₂, and traffic; and improving quality of life in cities, all of which in turn brings additional economic benefits. 

How Real-time Screens Turn Wasted Time Into Economic Benefit 

Digital information screens change people’s behavior. The Canadian industry group OMAC has found that 50% of people have taken an action after seeing an outdoor advertisement. Real-time information signs at bus stops and subway stations are used by 80-100% of transit users (Bai, 2014). And when transit users have real-time information, they spend less time waiting (Watkins et al. 2011).

At Actionfigure, we aim to make information available where people are making a travel decision, before they’re stuck at a bus stop or subway platform and contributing to that $60 billion wasted. Our public screens are located where people are starting trips (in lobbies, stores, offices, coffee shops). And we display all travel choices at a glance: public transit, bikeshare, or hailing a ride via Uber or Lyft, so if your first choice doesn’t make sense, other choices are always available. Now, if your bus is late, you don’t have to wait! With our help, you can find a bikeshare or an Uber instead.

The payoff of putting screens at decision points like lobbies is the number of people who use them to make decisions. In the most comprehensive study we’ve done, of six displays in commercial building lobbies in Toronto, 80% of people who saw Actionfigure Screen used it. Over 85% of tenants found it useful (or extremely useful) and 86% found it easy to use. In another study in twelve residential lobbies in San Francisco, where we took over only a small part of an existing screen showing messages, over 53% of tenants used TransitScreen, more than triple the 15% of tenants who had previously used the screen. So even though our users aren’t captive and are free to go, our usage numbers are comparable to “captive audience” numbers like subway stations, and much higher than mobile apps!

We’ve begun to collect some amazing stories about how people change their behavior by using TransitScreen. At Seattle Children’s Hospital, we installed a TransitScreen display in a lobby near a bus stop. When we came back to visit two months later, the manager of the lobby’s coffee shop ran over. His afternoon sales had increased 33%, and he even had to hire another barista. Why? In his words:

“People who used to shoot right out the exit in order to not miss their shuttle would stop at the TransitScreen, see how much time they had, and instead grab a quick cup of coffee, tea, or snack for the road.”

Not only did we make riding the bus more comfortable (people no longer had to sit on a bench waiting in the Seattle drizzle), we brought a significant economic benefit to a retail business as people turned wasted time into economic activity! 

Screen with bikes

Overcoming Defaults to Attract New Transportation Users

The grand prize is to make an impact on cities and the environment by helping people shift away from unsustainable transportation choices (driving alone) to new, sustainable transportation choices like transit, bikeshare, and carshare. 

In most US cities and a growing number of cities worldwide, the drive-alone car is the default (and the problem). Roads are crowded with cars, 90% of which are drive-alones, and cities are crowded as cars sit vacant in parking lots for 95% of the day. Last century’s response to this problem was to increase supply by building more roads. Building roads is incredibly expensive and unsustainable, and at this point, nearly every American city is turning away from road-building. The new, more efficient, response is to reduce demand for driving by shifting demand to other transportation choices. 

In the US, driving is embedded deep into our psychology in the form of “cognitive biases” that can work like reflexes to make snap decisions. Consider these three questions:

  • When you think about getting around the city, what comes to mind?
  • What do you picture when you think of a commuter
  • How much work would it be to change the way you commute to work?

If cars come to mind first when you think about “getting around”, that’s an example of availability bias influencing your perception of transportation choices. 

And if a commuter sounds like someone driving their personal car during rush hour, that’s an example of representativeness bias, that is, viewing a diverse set of people and choices through the blinders of what’s “typical.”

And finally, if it seems daunting to change how you commute – it’s true that some people don’t have workable transit options. But it’s equally likely to be status quo bias: people get personally attached to their existing choices, and perceive change as a disproportionate risk. 

The good news is we have options for fighting these cognitive biases. One is to attract new transit users before they acquire biases. This works well because transportation is like any other business: new customers are created every day as people move, are born, enter the workforce, and age. 

Attracting new transit users is something Actionfigure Screen is built to do. Our screens are in the lobbies of many residential buildings, and they’re the easiest way to get informed at a glance about all the choices that surround you. In Washington DC and San Francisco where we have offices, 88% of new households are car free, and thousands of new residents are living in transit-oriented apartments and condominiums featuring Actionfigure Screen, like those developed by our partners Avalon Bay and JBG. Once people know about their choices, the next step is to persuade them to try them out, making Actionfigure Screen an example of “persuasive technology.”

Changing Behavior with Transportation Demand Management

The set of tools that governments, employers and developers use to reduce driving demand and achieve more sustainable outcomes is called Transportation Demand Management (TDM). TDM incorporates a variety of tactics including information (TransitScreen, personal commute plans), financial incentives (tolls or congestion pricing, offering benefits for transit or removing subsidies for parking), and behavioral incentives (ridesharing programs). 

A classic story of a successful long-term TDM program in the US comes from Arlington, Virginia, where TransitScreen started as part of the Mobility Lab. Arlington is a small city of 220,000 across the river from Washington, DC, home to slightly more jobs than people thanks to the presence of many government agencies (including the Pentagon). From 1997-2004, Arlington’s downtown corridor served by the Metro subway, Wilson Boulevard, saw 20% growth in jobs and residents, while traffic didn’t grow at all. Meanwhile, 47% of residents were using transit to get to work. The result of this combination of planning and TDM is Arlington’s ability to grow as a highly successful and livable city.

Another more recent TDM success shows that sometimes information is all you need to change behavior. The Barclays Center, in Brooklyn, NY, was built in 2012 for the Nets basketball team to move from Newark, NJ, on the opposite side of the city. And while the old stadium had plenty of parking, the new stadium had almost none. New York-based transportation planning firm Sam Schwartz Engineering was brought in to develop a plan that would help the team avoid a parking and traffic disaster. In a survey of Nets fans likely to attend games, they found that “information about the exact location of Barclays Center and the transportation options available to reach it” increased the number of fans taking public transit by 20%. By aggressively providing information to fans through media and at the game (including installing real time transit information displays in the stadium), nearly 60% of fans arrived using transit while only 25% came by car.

It’s not surprising that TDM can influence behavior. After all, the advertising industry does $600 billion of business per year because of its ability to influence behavior! Imagine what a fraction of that amount could do to make sustainable transportation attractive? 

We have seen some evidence of behavior changes from TransitScreen, for example, drive-alone commuters decreased by 5% in the San Francisco residential towers we studied. Follow-up behavioral studies are in progress, and our expectation is that TransitScreen information can be effective by itself, but will be most effective combined with other interventions as part of a larger TDM program, such as our work with our partners Wells + Associates in Tysons Corner, Virginia, a dense suburban “edge city” which is trying to change from 95% car-dominated to a more sustainable, healthier mix of cars, transit, biking and walking. 


Hundreds of cities worldwide are planning to become smart cities. But smart cities are smart because they create smart citizens: they make the people who live in them able to achieve a better quality of life. 

Part of being a smart citizen is having the information you need to make better choices so you can avoid waiting and save time. 

Another part of being a smart citizen is knowing what choices are available, so you can avoid falling into traps of cognitive biases. Tools like Actionfigure Screen can give people the “nudge” they need to think outside their default boxes, and act more sustainably. To put it another way, TransitScreen displays aren’t just sensors, passively collecting data and sending it to a computer somewhere; they’re actuators, changing the world by using data to change people’s behavior.

Transportation is vital to the economy and the way we live. It’s 16% of global CO2 emissions, essential to the productivity of cities, and critically linked with issues like housing. But perhaps most important, it’s essential to quality of life. By focusing on how to get people in cities the information they need, we can improve their individual quality of life, but more importantly, we can get everyone acting together. And it’s the power of smart citizens acting together that makes sustainable, livable, thriving cities.

This post has been updated. Originally posted April 20, 2016.

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