We are in a period rife with experiments in transportation, from the top down, from the bottom up, from government, large corporations, and individual entrepreneurs.
One fresh effort is DC Commute Times, started by Jeff Wong in October of 2016 to integrate information about a regional transportation system many perceive as broken. Wong’s site includes both real-time passenger information and short news articles about things such as gas prices, bizarre incidents on transit, and intersection problems.
While developing and maintaining the site, Wong is simultaneously working as a consultant and taking care of a newborn. Nevertheless, he found time this summer to concentrate on improving the site, putting more effort into “building my network with information sources across the [Washington] D.C. area,” he says.
The fledging enterprise remains small, generating some 70 subscribers to the newsfeed and 4,000 users on the website monthly. Wong is subsidizing DC Commute Times with his own funds, but employs a combination of advertisements and sponsored content to keep the site going and growing.
Mobility Lab interviewed Wong to find out more about the ins and outs, and aspirations, of DC Commute Times. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
ML: What led you to start DC Commute Times? What need are you filling?
Wong: I’ve been living in the D.C. area for about 12 years now. The other big metropolis where I lived was Los Angeles, which is where I’m from. The big thing that I saw here: there is inevitably going to be a transit or traffic interruption that ends up ruining your day.
On Interstate 95 trying to go north, you end up seeing a big volume slow down or there is inevitably some Metro maintenance issue that you might not necessarily have known about. And so you’re stuck on the Metro. So the next thing you know, your commute gets that much longer and you’ve wasted that much more time.
What I’m trying to do is create commuter communication, and allow people to share information that’s most pertinent to them for their commutes to and from home, work, and wherever else they want to go. I try to aggregate as much information as possible about commuting by car, bus, Metro rail, commuter rail, and bicycle lanes.
On the editorial side, you see some stories about the biggest events, the biggest disruptions going on, and you also see real-time transit updates via the feed on the homepage of my website.
So there are two main platforms that I’m using: the website and the newsletter that I send out on Monday mornings and Fridays to give people a preview of what might be going on for the workweek and for the weekend.
So people already have real-time data available, they already have Metrorail announcements, but you aggregate them and make them more easily available?
Your site has several stories featured, such as urine being thrown at a bus driver. How do you select what to cover – whatever is interesting, or what people might find most useful?
For certain stories, I’ll choose to cover what drives the news cycle of the day. I’ll also try to find some of the most impactful events to throw out there.
Is L.A. similar to D.C.?
I would say Los Angeles continues to hold the crown for unexplainable traffic stupidity. [Major roadways] are seemingly continuously clogged. It will take at least a half hour to get from one place to another, from one side of town to the other. There’s a certain predictability to L.A. traffic; sometimes there is not as much predictability here in D.C. Such as, a couple weekends ago, the Beltway got shut down just because of a camper fire.
Things like that happen in any big city, but on a Saturday you don’t exactly expect something like that to strand hundreds or thousands of people in their cars on the Beltway.
Do you have a philosophy of transit? For instance, do you support a multimodal system of biking, walking, and transit? Or are you kind of agnostic about that and just trying to help people with the existing system as it functions, or fails to function?
I think a multimodal system makes the most sense, because regardless of how much infrastructure you build into a big city, ultimately volume will overwhelm it. You have to balance it out with as many options as possible without creating too much of a disruption for the main modes that people use to get from point A to point B. So it’s good to have many effective options.
But at the same time, you have to kind of tip your cap off to reality. Most people in the D.C. area drive or use some type of rideshare to get to work and to get home. So, whatever infrastructure you establish to try to support that, you’ve got to acknowledge reality.
So, you’re not trying to nudge changes, you’re basically working with an existing system and helping people?
I’m working with an existing system and I’m trying to better understand how the system is evolving and how people can adjust the way they commute to that system.
What about future plans? What do you foresee for the site in the coming weeks or months or years?
We have a couple things going on. As we start to come to a better understanding of the things that might be more useful to people, we’re going to cater our content to them. With the Redskins season starting, we want to provide something as simple as how to get to the game and information about game-day traffic and transit management for Metro. That’s the near term. And then other big events that are coming around the corner, such as a national youth bike summit that will be occurring in the D.C. area. We’ll be devoting our energies to providing coverage.
For the site itself, I’m trying to create a two-way street to try and create a community. I’m trying to build something that is useful to people, something that is readily accessible, whether they’re looking at it on their mobile phones or they’re seeing the newsletter in their inboxes in the morning. I want to try to get people to interact with the site and provide thoughts on what they find useful.
Photo by Elvert Barnes/Flickr.