In October 2016, I watched my car lease company come and drive my vehicle away. No, I hadn’t defaulted on payments. I’d decided to go #CarFree in Los Angeles—a crazy (though admirable) move, according to most Angelenos I meet.
A fellow geek gifted me a Transit Access Pass (TAP) and explained how the interconnected train, light rail, subway and bus system worked. The pass sported a 1939 vintage photograph of Union Station’s ticket hall, the location for the police station in the original Blade Runner, so I was sold.
I’ve tested a bunch of mobility apps since then and am currently sticking with Google Maps since it now has live bus/train times. I’ve lived in cities with mass transit before—including London and NYC—and traveled widely. I even enjoyed getting lost on the Milan Metro and being hustled onto the platform by someone shouting through a megaphone in Beijing.
In Los Angeles, going carless is not always as smooth a journey as one might hope. But that’s what ride-hailing apps are for. And as the city builds the Metro Purple Line Extension to connect east and west LA ahead of the 2028 Summer Olympics, it’s getting easier and easier.
My monthly transportation costs have been reduced by 75 percent, but I’d like to know my stats on the other quality of life aspects, too. For example: how has my decision mitigated climate change? What’s my carbon footprint as a result? Are there better routes than the ones I’m using? Could I support local businesses along the way in a more considered manner by taking more time?
Meet the Next-Gen Transit Hackers
I arrived on Saturday afternoon, just in time for the quick-fire pitch round. The 49 participants, grouped in eight teams, looked burned out, but in a good way. Some had slept under work tables, others grabbed naps in the FlexLA rideshare vans parked outside; others subsisted on energy drinks.
Surrounded by Raspberry Pi kits, bits of wire, power cables, laptops crunching geo-spatial and time/location data, caffeinated beverages and half-eaten snack packs, the hackers had been given 24 hours to come up with new apps and services to get the city moving.
“The average LA commuter spent over 100 hours sitting in traffic last year. This costs each driver $2,408 annually or aggregated, $9.7 billion city wide,” said Markus Haegele, Head of [email protected] and one of the event’s judges.
Fellow judge, Sophia Maletz, moovel’s R&D Program Manager, added: “So we challenged the participants here today to create ideas which do the following: help bridge the physical world of transportation with the world of tech; be technically feasible and scalable with a working prototype; address the needs of underserved people; and have a real business case.”
Entrants had come from all over the US to compete, but the majority appeared to be students from Southern California. As I wandered around, peering over shoulders as final tweaks were done to prototypes, students from California State Fullerton, UC Irvine, and Claremont Graduate University told me they’d learned about the hackathon through college bulletin boards and suggestions from professors.
Points Mean Prizes
Rather than cash prizes, everyone was competing to win a free trip to TOA, Europe’s leading tech conference, in Berlin next summer. Second prize was a Blue Duck Scooter for each team member; third prize winners would receive drones.
Each team got three minutes—strictly observed—to present their idea, with a minute for Q&A from the judges. There were several great ideas, including:
- Autopark, which hacked together beacons and a cloud-based app to track the availability of and earn money from unused parking spots. Designed as a peer-to-peer network, individuals could let Autopark rent out space in their driveways while they’re at work.
- CAREride offered social connections to allow people to travel together and feel safer on buses, while providing positive reinforcement in the form of local business coupons and notifications on carbon footprint improvement stats.
- Settle wanted to change how people find, reserve, and pay for parking via an in-curb sensor powered by a Raspberry Pi (pictured above).
Then a couple of teams extended the customary transit app UX into more whimsical territory. Quarterly Experience hacked time and location data onto a “select random” button, offering an alternative to the normal commuting route. Goodmoov addressed the Waze app issue (where everyone gets the same shortcut and traffic clogs up) using smarter real-time feeds to generate interventions and improve traffic flow. It also built in “extra time” suggestions, such as dropping into local coffee shops or listening to peer-curated playlists.
Geek (Talent) Spotting
For the industry professionals at the hackathon, the event was less about finding disruptive business ideas and more about talent spotting.
“We have a summer intern program at our Portland, Oregon, HQ,” said moovel’s Maletz. “So this is a great place to find suitable candidates who have the sort of smart thinking we’re looking for.”
Daimler now holds five major hackathons across the globe each year, to recruit international talent. “We’ve learned that, with startups, the core success factor is the team,” said Hagele. “It’s not really about the idea—it’s the people. We’re looking for innovators who are motivated to find smart solutions to the problems we now face with transportation around the world. I’ve been impressed by the ideas, and people, we’ve seen and heard from today.”
After much deliberation, the winning team was goodmoov, who will be heading to Berlin next summer.
As everyone was packing up, I grabbed my TAP card and walked back to Little Tokyo to catch the Gold Line light rail before transferring to the subway system. I was home in no time—unlike the LA commuters who were still bumper-to-bumper on the I-10 freeway who had no idea that a bunch of innovators had spent 24 hours dreaming up ways to release them.
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