Pitt Smart Living project hopes to ‘democratize,’ incentivize transportation


Alexandros Labrinidis (left) and Kostas Pelechrinis are leading the Pitt Smart Living project. (Photo by John Hamilton | Editor-in-Chief)

A Pitt research project is attempting to “democratize” and incentivize public transportation in Pittsburgh using public information screens and a mobile app.

The Pitt Smart Living project is currently in the pilot phase, according to Alexandros Labrinidis, the Pitt computer science professor leading the project. This phase involves installing screens, powered by startup company TransitScreen, displaying data from multiple feeds — including Port Authority buses, Pitt and UPMC shuttles and Healthy Ride bikes.

“What it does and why it’s cool, is that it aggregates multimodal transportation information,” Labrinidis said, adding that the real-time aggregated feeds allow commuters to decide how to get around without “pulling up five different apps.”

Recounting something he was told by Karina Ricks, the head of the city’s new department of mobility and infrastructure, Labrinidis said the screens are “democratizing information because now it becomes available to everybody, not just people with smartphones.”

The project has two phases, Labrinidis said. The first, which is in progress, involves installing screens around the city and gathering data — namely whether people have flexibility in their schedules concerning transportation. They hope the data they’ve gathered from this “pilot program” will secure them a National Science Foundation grant, allowing them to implement phase two — an app with an incentive program, where discounts will be offered to travelers at local businesses.

After their first NSF proposal fell through last year, Labrinidis and co-principal investigator Kostas Pelechrinis went to Pitt for funding, which they received, to implement the pilot program. Pitt is paying for the TransitScreen subscription for one year — which retails at $3,000 per year — and for the physical screens. However, most of the screens are located off-campus — three at UPMC, one at SkyVue Apartments, one Downtown at City Hall and the single campus location at Sennott Square.

Labrinidis said there are plans for a screen at Carnegie Library in Oakland, but there aren’t any concrete plans for more campus locations — though he said the Cathedral of Learning or Litchfield Towers would be good locations.

They hope to have about 12 screens up by the end of the summer, with a total of 20 if their funding is approved. But the more in-depth and research-based part of the project involves personal, not public, screens.

If they get funding, the project will include developing an app that will allow for multimodal trip planning, a feature Labrinidis says is not currently available on apps like Google Maps. It would allow a user to plan a trip where they take a bus for a segment, then switch to, for example, a bike share or a Pitt shuttle.

Additionally, they hope to implement an incentive program with the app. For example, if you’re waiting for a bus but the app says the bus is full, it will offer a small discount for a nearby coffee shop while you wait for the next bus.

“My quality of life is a little bit better because I was not a sardine on a big bus,” Labrinidis said. “The rest of the [bus riders’] life is also better. They were a little bit sardinized, but it didn’t get worse.”

They hope to subsidize some of the discounts at first, but expect that local businesses will be willing to provide the discount in exchange for the additional traffic. Pelechrinis sees the businesses fitting into the this new approach to public transit.

“[We’re] looking at the holistic way. Local businesses rely on public transit to bring people there, Pelechrinis said. “Now they’re also trying to help improve the quality [of life] for these people.”

The Oakland Business Improvement District agrees with the researchers, in a press release calling the project a “business development initiative” that would help attract people to Oakland businesses. Georgia Petropoulos, the executive director of the OBID, said the incentive program will benefit the neighborhood’s business.

“Our retail and restaurants will benefit from new promotional activities designed to take advantage of transit riders waiting time,” she said in the release.

The discounts will work by way of push notification, Labrinidis said. After inputting your destination, the app will ask if a user is willing to skip with upcoming bus and opt for the next one, offering a small discount in return.

Though they aren’t at the stage of implementing the incentive program, the researchers hope the knowledge and data they’ve gained from the pilot program will secure the NSF funding needed to move onto the next step.

“As soon as the funding hopefully comes through, we’ll hit the ground running,” Labrinidis said.