Reinventing the User Experience in Transportation

In an age of anytime anywhere access to our virtual destinations, and ever greater expectations of near instantaneous communication for work and play, our everyday experience with physical mobility continues to deteriorate—from crumbling antiquated infrastructure to crippling congestion, long waiting lines to crowded planes and transit vehicles, the quality of the user experience is falling across the spectrum of transportation systems and services. By most measures, highway congestion in our cities continues to extract a huge cost in wasted time, burned fuel, strained physical and mental health, and missed opportunities (meetings, performances, flights). Travel by air, once considered an experiential luxury, has long ago become a prime opportunity for extended delays, cancellations, and cramped seats, before it got compounded by the baffling stages of progressive humiliation through security screening. Public transportation, essential to the mobility of most in large cities around the world, frequently subjects its users to long and unpredictable waits under inclement weather. Freight service is subject to disruption and delay due to a variety of factors, increasing logistics costs and interfering with timely supply chain operations.

Yet in many other realms of personal consumption, new technologies and devices continue to please and delight consumers. Through clever design and a keen focus on the user experience, personal communication devices have become virtual hubs for social interaction, instant connectivity and context-specific information, and common products (e.g., coffee) have become the center of community oases, succeeding at providing, paradoxically, personalization to a mass audience. Might there not be something to be learned for transportation system providers from the approach followed by leading companies that have succeeded in these other realms of the everyday user experience?

Drawing upon the lessons of highly successful consumer products and service concepts, reinventing the user experience might call for rethinking the very definition of the output of a transportation system, or of the nature of the service provided by a transportation company. This means rethinking the total experience—from origin to final destination, recognizing that travel is part of a more elaborate activity pattern, and exploiting the contribution of personal communication and information devices and technologies in that process. This kind of thinking calls for a multidisciplinary perspective that blends the creative contributions of product/service designers, the insight of behavior researchers, along with the skills of planners and transport system specialists.

The next wave of intelligent transportation system development holds the promise of customization and personalization— delivering information and services that better meet individual conditions and user preferences. NUTC researchers, for example, are devising novel operating concepts and advanced methodologies that provide the intelligence required for flexible real-time operation of transport systems, and can deliver personalized information to travelers. NUTC researchers have also teamed up with the designers at the internationally renowned Bruce Mau Design firm, based in Chicago and Toronto, and the Massive Change Network (led by Bruce Mau and Bisi Williams) in addressing the challenge of reinventing the public transit user’s experience. This effort has gathered momentum in the past year, eliciting media recognition and coverage, and has engaged several leading industry providers in productive discussions. It has also captured our students’ imagination, resulting in smartphone apps and movie clips (http://www.transportation.northwestern.edu/news_events/2011/Bustamante_TrailBlaze.html, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gN0wDDiaTiY).

On the freight side, quality-of-service issues are paramount to system users and logistics managers. Tracking technologies have made considerable inroads in certain segments of the industry, enabling visibility through all stages of the transport process and beyond. Companies that take a complete logistics perspective are able to provide market responsiveness while controlling cost. Electronic platforms that dynamically match loads with carrier assets are transforming some sectors of the industry. NUTC researchers are partnering with selected BAC member companies in pushing the frontier in freight service design and reliability through advanced methodologies that exploit real-time tracking and transaction records to better design and control all aspects of the transportation and logistics process.

Leading this effort at NUTC is Dr. Hani Mahmassani, with involvement of researchers at the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern. Other researchers include Drs. Marco Nie, Joseph Schofer, Noshir Contractor, and Wei Chen. Key BAC industry partners include Teradata and Echo Global Logistics.