Can We Build Transit Systems With Our Phones? Weeels Says Yes

Public transportation is one of the world's great democratizing forces, and a major driver of its economic growth. Everyone can use public transit to get to work, to get to school, to get to the museum or the movies, to the game or to dinner, to go home.

But amidst a recession, cities are struggling to provide basic public transit service, let alone embark on new projects. That's an especially hard reality to swallow at a time when the country is coping with the dangers of oil dependence like never before.

Even my hometown of New York City, long the nation's model for public transit -- a place where, amazingly, it's customary not to own a car -- is showing signs of despair.

Thanks to recent service cuts, New Yorkers are facing some of the most headache-inducing commutes ever: the city has eliminated the W and V trains and cut more than 30 bus lines. The specter of longer, harder and more chaotic commutes lingers on the notices that now dot subway stations, and on the faces of commuters.

But there's an alternative to chaotic public transportation, and it's not through costly subway upgrades or private cars. It's built by the legions of mostly empty vehicles already driven around the city, by us commuters, and by our willingness to share.

That idea drives a project I've been working on passionately with some friends. It's called Weeels, and its a free mobile phone app that dispatches livery cabs (and eventually any kind of cab, or vehicle for that matter) with the touch of a button to any location in New York City, and at competitive, negotiated rates.

But this is the exciting part: Weeels can also look for people nearby who are also going your way, show you their profile, and give you the option to pair up and split the fare. The idea is to make transportation easier, reduce total emissions, and eventually keep unneeded cars off the road. It starts in New York City and on the iPhone; you can download the app now for free at the iTunes store and sign up for updates to learn about versions for other phones and expansions to other cities.

Taxi stands anywhere
The problem is an obvious one: think of all those cabs that are already going where you're going. Think about all those taxis, trolling the streets, looking for passengers, wasting energy and taking up space, when they could be taking us where we need to go. And think of all those other people on the airport line, at your office, or outside the bar who are going your way too.

Imagine social networks as transportation networks. We already use our phones to check in with our friends, to read reviews of shows or restaurants, to find out what to do. Our phones already help us decide where to go. Why shouldn't they also help us get there?

New York, like a handful of other cities in the U.S., knows the virtues of cab sharing, and the challenges of making it happen. A cab-sharing effort launched this year by the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission, which asks commuters to share taxis by lining up at one of several designated cab stands, has all but fallen flat on the curb.

But rather than asking people to wait at a few locations for a cab, Weeels imagines that taxi stands can be anywhere. It links people and taxi cabs to create a more flexible, efficient, reliable, and affordable mode of transit. Think of it as "social transit," taking transportation into our own hands, literally.

Even in better economic times, social transit just makes sense. It's wasteful to drive perfectly usable empty seats around a city. It's the same reason New York invented the pizza slice: we don't buy a whole pie if we just need a little bit.

And social transit has some exciting transportation-specific benefits. It's "high resolution": unlike typical public transit, it takes you right to where you're going. It's also responsive, which means it follows your schedule: you never miss a ride, and it's flexible and consistent, meaning there aren't any spots or neighborhoods that are difficult to reach.

What's even more exciting is the potential for social transit to spring up in cities (and even between cities) that don't have any public transit at all. Building social transit is much easier and far cheaper than, say, digging new subway lines. We've already spent billions on our road transit networks. Isn't it time we made them work for all of us?

Sharing is what we already do
The technology may be relatively new, but the idea's ancient. Sharing stuff goes back to the jungle and the savannah. Internet thinker Clay Shirky often points out that we're social animals who have evolved to share. "The link between intrinsic motivation and private action is just a coincidence," he said recently. In other words, to paraphrase John Donne, no man is a traffic island. (Shirky's an admirer of the Weeels concept, he told me, and recently talked car sharing at SXSW.)

The impulse to share, so often seen as counter to a market economy, is actually deeply tied to our progress as a civilization. When we pool our information and our resources, we don't just feel better about ourselves: we know more and we go farther.

The digital network has only made sharing easier, and reminded us, time and again, why it's valuable. Wikipedia and Kickstarter harness the power of the crowd to build robust networks for learning and "crowd-funding." Napster, BitTorrent and YouTube have all used sharing to revolutionize the way creative content gets distributed. Networks like Twitter, Foursquare and Ushahidi -- which (awesomely) maps messages from crises around the world -- are showing us the value of sharing information.

And lately, Craigslist, ZipCar and OurGoods have applied the power of a sharing network to real-world objects, promoting the idea that sometimes people are better off sharing rather than owning the stuff they need.

Public transit is already built around the premise that sharing is faster, cheaper and more efficient than private transit. As we watch public transit systems sputter and fail around us, can't we imagine a different, more social way to use the vehicles we've already got?

As old as the concept of sharing may be, this experiment is a new one, and the road may be a bit bumpy at the start. But the beauty of a social transit system like Weeels is that it gets better and stronger the more of us engage in it.

The transportation problems that afflict our cities now won't be solved overnight. But if we pool our needs and our information and our willingness to share, we can be the solution. We can get there together.

Alex Pasternack, a writer on technology, urbanism and design, blogs at Motherboard, Treehugger and Starlab, and is a co-founder of Weeels