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BlackBerry as a Weapon in the Fight to Commute

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BlackBerry as a Weapon in the Fight to Commute


NY Times

October 8, 2007


They were not poetry, but the e-mail messages David Blackburn received on his BlackBerry one morning in July 2006 saved him hours of frustration.



Patrick Andrade for The New York Times

Josh Crandall, right, who created

Clever Commute, and David Blackburn,

a member of the commuter information

network.[/float]The previous night, a severe storm had swept through the area, leaving downed trees in its wake, a harbinger of a potentially rocky train ride to work the next day. Sure enough, the next morning Mr. Blackburn listened to the radio and discovered that a tree had fallen on the New Jersey Transit tracks in Montclair, where he lives.


With service knocked out, Mr. Blackburn checked his BlackBerry for alerts from Clever Commute, a free service that distributes updates sent by hundreds of riders on New Jersey Transit, as well as the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad, about train and bus delays that they are witnessing firsthand. In this case, he learned that buses bound for Manhattan were being rerouted around closed streets and where they were stopping.


“I knew the trains would be down, but it got me to the right bus line, because they were being diverted,” said Mr. Blackburn, an information technology specialist who has been commuting to Manhattan for six years. “Clever Commute is hyper-local.”


Information is the lifeblood of commuters in distress, and the lack of it — which is very common — can create mass confusion, like this summer, when New York subway riders were stranded for hours by heavy rains and received little direction from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.


The transit systems here, as well as those in Chicago, Los Angeles and other big cities, have been sending alerts for several years to riders’ computers, cellphones and devices like the BlackBerry. And while these services have grown in popularity, some riders say that the messages can be too generic and occasionally arrive after problems have been resolved. In addition, there is no exchange of information, so riders are often left with questions.


But users of Clever Commute, who are able sign up for alerts on eight train lines in New Jersey, as well as other rail, bus and ferry lines, can ask fellow riders about delays up the track — or even if anyone has found a bag left on a specific train.


“I’m sympathetic to how hard it is for New Jersey Transit to give an assessment and give users accurate information,” said Joshua Crandall, an information technology specialist from Montclair who started Clever Commute in January 2006 as a way to meet other commuters. “That’s why the wisdom of the crowds is a great complement to it.”


That wisdom is parceled out in distinct bits. Take Tuesday morning on the Morris and Essex line, when a train got entangled in the overhead wires west of Summit at 7:15. New Jersey Transit sent out its first message at 7:27 saying that service was temporarily suspended and that customers should seek other transportation.


At 7:38, one Clever Commute user said that New Jersey Transit was reporting that trains on the line were running 10 to 15 minutes late. “Can Clever Commuters validate or enhance this info?” the rider asked.


At 8:21, another rider said the 8:22 express from South Orange had been canceled. “Make room for us on the local!!! :-)” the rider chirped. Presumably seeking a faster way to New York, another rider asked a few minutes later whether the Northeast Corridor line running through Newark was also delayed.


Riders like Evan R. Schnittman check Clever Commute regularly before they leave the office. If trains departing from Penn Station are behind schedule, he might take the PATH train to Hoboken and then connect with New Jersey Transit. Or he could walk to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and find a bus. Or just stay longer in the office.


“I take the 6:40 train most nights, and I don’t want to run out of here at 6:20 and get to Penn Station only to learn that the 5:45 hasn’t even left yet,” said Mr. Schnittman, who works at Madison Avenue and 35th Street. “That kind of information will change my plans.”


Dan Stessel, a spokesman for New Jersey Transit, said Clever Commute is proof of “the importance of accurate, real-time information.”


My Transit, the alert system that New Jersey Transit started in 2001, provides general information and details of specific trains and train lines.


But unlike Clever Commute, which includes information from riders at any time of the day or night, New Jersey Transit typically sends messages to its 54,000 accounts only if there are delays of 15 minutes or longer.


“What we heard from our customers is that 15 minutes is the threshold where they will start making other decisions,” Mr. Stessel said.


Still, Clever Commute has a following among riders curious about events that affect their lives but are beyond their control, Mr. Crandall said. And because friends and fellow commuters have recruited other like-minded riders, the service has turned into an informal community.


“It’s human nature that they want to connect to each other,” he said. “Connecting them was technically not the hard part. It is about getting them to act on their desires.”


The service started quite informally. Mr. Crandall asked a half-dozen friends with BlackBerrys who ride the Montclair-Boonton line if they wanted to participate. Mr. Crandall had the Web site clevercommute.com developed in India. He incorporated his company and wants to patent his technology.


In the past year, he has expanded alerts to the North Jersey Coast Line and other lines in New Jersey, as well as the Harlem Line on Metro-North, several light rail lines and the DeCamp bus lines.


While costs are low, the service does not make money yet. Ultimately, Mr. Crandall would like to sell ads on his Web site, where he hopes to develop a blog, or embed them in the messages. Sponsorships might work, too, he said.


“The jury is still out on how effective it will be for me,” he said.


On a recent ride home to the Watchung Avenue station, Mr. Crandall checked his BlackBerry about five times for news about delays and to spot messages that had to be addressed. While users generally police themselves, Mr. Crandall occasionally reminds people not to send messages that stray outside the boundaries of the service, like the rider a few months ago who sent a poem on the beauty of the New York skyline.


Still, some notes that do not deal with delays and disruptions can prove relevant. On Tuesday, one rider wrote that a Mini Cooper parked at the Bay Street station had its lights on. Barry Polen, who gets on at the station, saw the note and realized it was his car.


Already in his office in the Flatiron district, Mr. Polen called his wife, who drove to the station and turned the lights off.


“Otherwise, I would have gotten back to a car with a dead battery,” said Mr. Polen, one of the first people to sign up for the service. “When it boils down to it, it’s commuters and technology helping other commuters.”

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