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Taking Public Transit to the 21st Century

Off the Cuff with MCTS Tracker creator Evan Ricketts

May. 4, 2017
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Anyone who regularly rides the bus knows the feeling. You check the schedule and make sure you get there on time, only to find out the bus has already passed. This can add a half hour to your commute, and is especially dreadful during our grueling Wisconsin winters. Local software developer Evan Ricketts knew this pain all too well as a lifetime patron of public transit, and set out to do something about it. He put his skillset to use and created the MCTS Tracker, a mobile app available on iOS and Android that tracks MCTS busses in real time. Off the Cuff spoke with Ricketts about his app, its origins and what his future goals are.

What is the MCTS Tracker?

The goal of the app is to try and provide people with more information about public transit options, and more specifically, give them real time information so people aren’t standing out in the cold. I want to empower riders of the transit system to make more informed decisions about how they use the service.

What inspired you to create this app?

I grew up in Milwaukee and am a lifetime bus rider. I actually just got my driver’s license a couple of months ago because I was working in Brookfield. It was a necessary evil. As a lifelong supporter of the transit system I’ve lived through seeing it become less than what it was over the years due to budget constraints and all that. 

I originally made the app for myself. They had these posters on the bus that had a picture of a cell phone with a screenshot of an app that didn’t exist. I was fresh out of school and thinking it was something cool I could put on my resume. Then once I got it together I thought it might have broader appeal. So I put together the Android version, released it publicly and it took off from there.

What is your background?

I grew up on the East Side, and like I said I was a lifelong bus rider in Milwaukee. I was always a fan of urbanism and how to make a city a nice place to live. I went to school in Massachusetts and got more exposure to some of the East Coast options for transit, which kind of blow away anything else in the country. That was a big thing for me. Coming back from there I thought, “What can I do to get things up to par to make (the bus) a thing people don’t only use out of necessity?”

What are your goals for the app? Are you making money from it?

Well, it makes a little bit of money now through ad revenue, but all of that goes to paying for services that are used in the app like the directions feature. When I was putting this together I hadn’t actually had a real job in my field yet, so it was a shoestring budget. I put together a version using an open source routing framework. That ended up being unreliable so I switched to Google, but there are costs that come with that. The money thing has never been the goal for me. It’s been more about realizing the broad potential for informing the bus riders.

Really, the goal for me was to get people on the bus and to get people to look at the bus as a legitimate option. I know some people who have moved to Milwaukee and think of the bus as a last resort. My goal is to broaden the appeal and dispel the notion that riding the bus is something you don’t want to have to do. The more people who get on the bus means the more revenue they have, that means more money they have to make it attractive, and that means more people riding the bus. I want to feed into that and try and boost the cycle.

Have you heard any feedback from the County about your app?

No, I haven’t really heard anything. I was talking for a little bit with an ad agency in the area that was bidding for work and they wanted to make my app a part of the proposal, but that didn’t really go anywhere. I never thought I would necessarily get accolades or even a response at all from the County. I think they did actually email me once. Maybe it was when that strike happened. I don’t really remember. 

What about the response from your users? How many people are using your app?

It’s hard to estimate, but it’s in the tens of thousands. It always kind of blew my mind. It went from an app I wanted to use to seeing other people using it on the bus. It’s a mind-blowing experience that’s never worn off.

You can download the app by searching “MCTS Tracker” in the Google Play Store or Apple App Store.

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