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The Small Startup That’s Helping Hundreds Of Cities Visualize The Future

The Bay Area tech startup Remix is helping hundreds of cities and regions transform how they plan.

Public transportation is the lifeblood of cities. It enables all people–not just those who can afford their own car, taxi, or Lyft–to get where they need to go. However, transportation planning often remains stagnant due to the complexity of developing new policies. Anyone who’s waited for a bus that never shows up, or has had to pass up a train because it’s too crowded, or simply can’t get to work on public transit at all has experienced the ripple effects of insufficient transit planning.

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“Despite the always-evolving nature of cities and movement of people, agencies don’t often change their transit networks due to the sheer amount of effort involved in planning for those changes, which should never be the limiting factor,” says Tiffany Chu, the cofounder of Remix, a software platform and data visualization tool that’s changing the way cities across the country are designing public transit.

Remix, which is based in San Francisco, began as a Code for America project when Chu and cofounders Sam Hashemi, Dan Getelman, and Danny Whalen were fellows, exploring how open data could yield civic tech innovations. After releasing their first tool, a simple, gamified bus route mapper then called Transitmix in 2014, they began working with planners–asking them about the hardest parts of their jobs, and what would alleviate pain points–to improve the software and make it more robust. In essence, they were designing the data visualization tools the planners wanted, but didn’t have.

You can think of Remix as a video game for planners, which is leading to better public transit service across the country. The three-year-old startup has grown to 40 people and has consulted with over 200 different public transportation authorities across the country. Revenue at the company–cities pay to use Remix–has increased by 300% annually and most of its clients hear about Remix through word of mouth, which suggests the formula is working.

Some recent clients include Honolulu; Miami-Dade County; the Central Ohio Transit Authority; Alameda-Contra Costa County Transit, in Oakland; Torrance, California; San Antonio, Texas; Puerto Rico; Birmingham, Alabama; Detroit; and King County, Washington. Remix has even worked with planners in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory in the South Pacific, and Auckland, New Zealand; it’s currently working on plans to build out its international presence due to so many overseas inquiries.

What this roster of clients shows is that Remix isn’t just another good-intentioned Silicon Valley idea; it’s a real tool that’s making an impact.

[Photo: Job Portraits/courtesy Remix]
To Chu and the team at Remix, truly improving public transportation starts with overhauling the process by which it’s designed. The startup’s strategy is to empower planners through digital tools, use data as a storytelling tool through visualizations that show how a neighborhood could improve through transit, and promote understanding of data as a mechanism for policy change.

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What does introducing a new transit plan traditionally look like? Typically, it involves compiling dense, hundred-page reports about the proposed project, which include how much an initiative–like a new bus line–costs, what its benefits are, and what its positive and negative impacts could be. Planners use a mixture of tools like GIS mapping, Excel spreadsheets, Census analysis, and old-fashioned pen, paper, and white boards to compile the information. They present it to the public (community review is usually part of most public transit planning procedures), and eventually request approval and funding from governing bodies, like city councils.

The complexity of gathering all this information, presenting it, and incorporating changes takes time. And the fact that multiple jurisdictions are usually involved in public transit planning just compounds the complexity. While large cities might have the resources to develop their own digital tools to streamline and simplify the transportation planning process, smaller towns and agencies don’t.

Instead of reading a boring hundred-page document, imagine being able to see all that information through dynamic maps, charts, and animations. This is where Remix comes in. The company works with transportation authorities to move as much work as possible to a central, digital platform. The tool turns transit planning into an interactive, instantaneous game based on real-world data, which would normally take months to compile and visualize.

Detroit [Image: courtesy Remix]
“Our philosophy at Remix is to help and empower planners to have the tools they need to tell that story in a stronger way,” Chu says. “It takes a really strong planner with really strong storytelling skills, visualization, and understanding of how to break down [a transportation funding request] into something a city council member can understand. That’s what gets people to vote in the right direction of investing in transit.”

Remix lets planners design public transit services, like new bus routes, new bus stops, and frequency changes, on a digital platform that simulates the impacts of those design changes. That can include their cost, how they would impact travel times for individuals in the city, and how they would increase mobility for people–all in real time.

The company partners directly with cities and transit agencies, and is closely involved with its clients throughout the whole planning process. For instance, it creates a “customer success team” that consults with clients about their goals, prioritizes them, and then sets up a success plan to achieve those planning goals using their existing visualization tools or through new tools. The company is split 50-50 between people from the software industry and people from the public sector and urbanism. Since Remix views itself as a partner with its clients, and continually iterates to meet their specific needs, having expertise from both sides matters. Sometimes Remix flies out to its clients’ offices to work alongside them and get them familiar with the platform.

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“Tech startups working with local governments has never been done well before,” Chu says. “Everyone and their best friend [in Silicon Valley] has an idea to develop technology and shove it into an older industry to try and disrupt it. Traditionally in technology there’s been a very technocratic approach and that hasn’t yielded any strong impacts or any sort off empathy-led product or service design.”

[Photo: courtesy Remix]
The company’s clients most commonly use the platform for system redesigns, planning service detours (like if a street festival or parade temporarily displaces a bus route, which is how Las Vegas and San Antonio use Remix), or as a public-engagement tool. In some situations, planners have used Remix to do what are known as Title VI equity compliance analyses (Title VI is part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and mandates that transportation changes can’t disproportionately affect low-income and minority populations) since the software integrates demographic data, too.

[Image: courtesy Remix] King County–Washington state’s most populous county, which includes Seattle–used Remix as part of its Metro Connects long-range plan, the first long-range plan it’s approved in 20 years. The region has relied on buses as its primary mode of public transportation, but wants to integrate more light rail.
For instance, Seattle’s King County has a complex bureaucracy composed of 39 jurisdictions. There are more than 215 bus routes in the region and 1,115 vehicles in the system, and King covers a large area of over 2,130 square miles. By 2040, the region is expected to grow by more than 500,000 people, and accommodating the transportation needs of the incoming population is falling on public transit since the county isn’t planning to increase road capacity.

One of the Remix tools that was especially useful was an isochrone map where a figure named Jane (think of her like the man you place in Google Maps Street View) acted as a proxy for a public transit rider in the King County system. Planners could place Jane anywhere they wanted on their map to see how service proposals would impact the distance she could travel in increments of 15, 30, 45, and 60 minutes. The goal was as much mobility as possible in those increments. While the impact of granular elements in the plan–like a specific rapid transit line or putting stops on a specific block–are often challenging to grasp, seeing the cumulative impact in travel time was something stakeholders instantly understood.

“When presenting to stakeholders, a map is great but a static map only says, ‘I have this service in my community,'” Christina O’Claire, a general manager in the King County Transportation Department, says. “But it doesn’t tell you how fast the service is and where it takes you . . . It’s because of tools like Remix that stakeholders could digest the impacts of the [proposed] network. Seeing a map doesn’t explain the benefits.”

Building consensus between 39 different entities was one of the transit department’s biggest challenges. It took nine months for everyone to agree on a plan. Without Remix, King County Metro estimated it could have taken upwards of two years. On January 23, 2017, the King County Council signed off on the plan, which will add 20 new bus lines, increase service on 26 existing lines, and make it easier for riders to transfer between different systems within the county.

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While King County began using Remix for its regional transportation plan, it’s now using it to assess land-use changes, too. For example, city planners are analyzing where to construct new public facilities like hospitals, schools, libraries, and pools. Using Remix’s Jane tool, they can optimize the site for public transportation accessibility.

“In order to tell a story, you need to visually understand the benefits,” O’Claire says. “It doesn’t matter if you have a route or stop outside your house; it’s about where it will take you, how long it will take you to connect. It shows people the freedom to move.”

Denver [Image: courtesy Remix]
Part of Remix’s model is based on open-source thinking. The startup uses past successes to inform its strategy plans for new clients so that their process is potentially more streamlined. During the on-boarding process, Remix connects its new clients with past clients so they can share best practices. The idea? The more information and experience that goes into the platform, the stronger each successive outcome will be.

“It starts to become this connective tissue between agencies that normally don’t talk to each other because they’re scattered across the nation,” Chu says.

As a nation, we’re grappling with increasingly complex, nuanced issues in the public realm, like inequality, economic health, sustainability, and resiliency. Because of diminishing federal assistance and guidance–from funding mechanisms to carbon-reduction goals–the onus is falling on local governments to pick up the slack. To effectively and meaningfully tackle these problems, cities and regions need all the help they can get from their peers across the country–and from civic tech startups, like Remix.

“People’s lives are getting harder,” O’Claire says. “It’s important to connect people to their jobs, to social services, and to their families. As congestion is increasing, and housing prices are going up, it more important than ever to connect people to opportunities. That’s the role of public transportation–to provide access to the ability to move.”

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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