Transit Wire: BART's ELERTS Help Riders Get on Board

A smartphone app is helping keep San Francisco’s transit safe.

By William Cruzgriffith on July 6, 2015

The goal of any good app developer is to design a program that provides both a necessary service and ease of use for the consumer. This becomes an even greater requirement when the app is used for something as sensitive as reporting suspicious activity to law enforcement without endangering the user. Thankfully, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and ELERTS See Say Communication systems partnered to create BART Watch, a smartphone app that serves as a direct line of communication between passengers and transit officers.

In the post-9/11 world, the Department of Homeland Security’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign has been at the heart of public safety initiatives nationwide. ELERTS, the company behind the BART Watch app, has already successfully implemented similar systems with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), and Buffalo’s Niagara Frontier Transit system. San Francisco, with nearly 400,000 daily commuters, is the largest city so far to adopt the ELERTS See Say app.

Powered by the Community

Law enforcement agencies rely on regular reports from the community, however, the “Say Something” aspect of the Homeland Security campaign has proven a bit challenging. Public transportation is heavily used by tourists, many of whom are non-English speakers who have difficulty communicating potential issues. Trying to specify an exact location of an abandoned bag or injured person, especially in the heat of the moment, can be difficult as well.

Upon opening BART Watch, available on iOS and Android, the user is given the option of placing a traditional call to BART police or scrolling through a list of reportable crimes. Using the camera on the phone, you can submit a photo to the dispatch office for added reference. The app automatically disables the flash as a safety precaution. Once submitted, a dispatcher prioritizes the incoming requests and sends an officer to respond. The straightforward interface makes BART Watch incredibly easy to use.

BART Watch’s bi-directional dialogue occurs in real time, and for added discretion users can report anonymously. The photo and GPS location mapping options are particularly useful in reporting issues without dependence on text or verbal messaging. In addition, BART Watch comes programmed with English, Spanish, and Chinese to help bridge any potential language barriers. The app is designed to work in low-bandwidth settings, and if there is no signal available for transmission, ELERTS has a built in “Store and Forward” mode that saves the report until the signal is sufficient enough to send.

Zooming in on Security

The app is just the latest step in BART’s attempt to increase passenger safety. In 2012, the California State Assembly passed AB 716, a safety bill that gave BART authorities the ability to issue “prohibition orders,” banning riders who engage in illegal, unsafe, or otherwise disruptive behavior. The bill was first proposed in response to increased numbers of safety complaints from both riders and transit employees. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, while the violent crime rate had reached its lowest level statewide since 1967, San Francisco saw a 20.7 percent increase in 2013. In addition to the stricter laws, the hope is that widespread use of the BART Watch app will serve as a deterrent and lend valuable insight into the rider experience through the crowdsourcing process.

Implementing the ELERTS app is one of several ways San Francisco is looking to modernize the city’s transit system. The National Association of City Transit Officials (NACTO) held their third-annual Designing Cities Conference this past October in San Francisco. The non-profit group focuses on transportation issues nationwide, encouraging the exchange of ideas and practices that could potentially lead to more efficient 21st-century transit. The event kicked off with Transportation Innovation Day, featuring seminars on developing urban environments conducive for innovation, establishing a results-driven government planning approach, and finding new transport services that fill needs for both the private and public sector. The city is making a point of emphasizing the role private companies, government projects, open communication with the public, and apps like BART Watch will have in transforming San Francisco’s transit system.

True public safety occurs when communities join together in the common cause of bettering the world around them. The BART Watch app not only gives citizens a secure and reliable method to keep crime at bay, but the lines of communication flow both ways. Authorities are confident that the app can be used to send service interruption and delay alerts, be-on-the-lookout messages and could even assist in finding missing persons. BART Watch looks to be a beneficial addition to the Bay Area travel experience.

Tags: Transit App, transit technology, public safety, public transportation apps, Transportation