It’s been two years since CoAXs – a tool that allow commuters to act as transit system planners – was released and tested. The tool was designed by a group of researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2015, giving users the chance to display the changes they want to see in transit systems in their cities. The designing platform is scaled on a live map, allowing users to alter transport and check the results, which are calculated based on real data. Earlier this month, the coders and researchers behind CoAXs released a report evaluating how the transit tool has fared during these tests.
Between October 2015 and June 2017, the tool was tested in workshops in Boston, London, Atlanta, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Santiago. Additional projects are being planned in Concepción in Chile, Bogotá in Colombia and Pretoria, South Africa.
“The original place we deployed the tool was a project supported by the Barr Foundation here in Boston in 2015 to enhance bus rapid transit (BRT) in Boston,” says Chris Zegras, a professor at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, who is leading the team behind the tool. “The community we focused on was Roxbury, which has historically been disadvantaged in terms of public transit but is quite dependent on it.”
According to the report, the Boston workshop helped participants learn about the features of BRT in their city, recognizing CoAXs as a relevant tool that generated credible results. It also supported dialogue between participants, and the dialogue quality indicated some likelihood that participants would revisit fundamental goals, values and objectives.
A year after the workshop, CoAXs was awarded a grant by the TransitCenter, a U.S. foundation dedicated to urban mobility, to test the tool as a way to build enthusiasm for public transportation projects among advocacy organizations. “In the Boston area we partnered in a series of face-to-face workshops with the LivableStreets Alliance [of Cambridge, Massachusetts],” Zegras says. “Beyond seeing whether the tool generated support for transit improvements, we also aimed to test for differences in presenting benefits to users in terms of accessibility [to more jobs through public transit] versus travel time.”
However, Zegras was not satisfied with the results. The 2016 version of the tool that reflected relationships between public transit and job accessibility generated richer conversations, but people didn’t find it easier to use. Moreover, the overall levels of enthusiasm among both groups did not vary significantly.
After testing the tool in six cities, the researchers found that people engaged less when using it on their own. When tested in workshops, people engaged much better. Accordingly, Zegras describes CoAXs as best used in face-to-face, group workshop settings. “That said, I can also imagine a hybrid approach: having workshops, using it at home, and then reconvening,” he reflects.
The dilemma of engaging the public in transit planning is an age-old challenge, says Zegras. He argues that being “fair” in engaging the public is particularly challenging. “Not everyone can afford to, in terms of time, and energy, and ability to participate, physically or otherwise,” he says.
The coders and researchers are looking to find out how they can use digitalization to improve public processes. They also try to build on the idea of top-down co-creation, which has become increasingly adapted in the public realm. Zegras explains that the team looks up to the Swiss, who have worked directly with users to design better services for the Swiss Railway.