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Tiffany Chu: The Designer Transforming Transit Planning Through Tech

With the creation of her program Remix, Chu changes the game for transit planners

Roughly two years ago, San Francisco-based designer Tiffany Chu lived through the dream scenario for aspiring developers and programmers. After months of work hacking together different programs and slogging through code changes, she and a small team of friends set their ambitious demo program live. On a whim, someone tweeted a link to a few friends. Less than 24 hours later, their project was splashed across the homepages of a dozen tech publications, including Gizmodo and TechCrunch. A write-up on the BBC's website soon followed.

A few days later, hundreds of emails started arriving from overjoyed users. "This is amazing." "I want to partner with you." She said they received literal love letters: "I love what you’re building."

What indispensable tool had Chu and her colleagues created? A simple drag-and-drop map to plan bus routes.

While the Remix program, initially called Transitmix, may seem like a boring version of SimCity, it was a revelation for the city planners and officials who, having spent decades hand-drawing routes on paper printouts, were its target audience. The program draws from numerous open-source libraries, maps, and data sets to create a seamless view of new transportation options, noting the demographic data and cost of potential pathways.

The program’s singular focus and outpouring of support not only gave the side project enough momentum to become a 20-person startup, but suggests a deep public fascination with transportation and our cities, and technology’s role in helping fix a shared source of frustration.

"There’s a whole set of opportunities to show the tradeoffs and benefits of different transportation options, and help city officials be better planners," says Chu. "We’re just starting with transportation. There are so many ways technology can empower city planners."

Like many of the bus routes Remix can help fix, Chu’s path to transportation tech was a circuitous one. Her focus on design and technology had led her through a series of related jobs: user experience designer for Zipcar, writer and contributor to Dwell magazine, urban planner and consultant. But it was an opportunity to participate in a Code for America Fellowship in her hometown in 2014 that caught her attention.

"I’ve always been in search for one focused area to make a strong impact, and saw Code For America as an opportunity to dive in deeper with the public sector," she says.

Focused on iterating and developing technology for the government, Chu, Sam Hashemi, and a team of Code for America friends including Danny Whalen and Dan Getelman started a side project after hearing new visitors to San Francisco, confused by the transit system, suggest new bus routes. Intrigued, Chu and her colleagues created a program for planners that would allow them to chart and map potential bus routes, balancing factors such as cost and who these new routes would impact.

Launched in June of 2014, the program quickly caught the attention of the transit and city planning communities. Chu and Hashemi, who would co-found Remix based on the prototype, saw the potential for a useful, profitable software-as-a-service company. Despite the instant fanfare, they still had to figure out its core appeal (Chu, who has a 15-minute bike commute, needed to understand bus routes firsthand).

"We knew people wanted it, but we needed to figure out why," says Chu. "We spent months in user testing. At one point, we called up every transit planner in the Bay Area we could find and invited them out for coffee."

Their biggest discovery was the complexity underpinning transportation planning and policy. Even something as seemingly simple as shifting a bus route a few blocks requires debates and discussions with countless players. Public transportation has so many players, according to Chu, from state and local agencies to community groups, that it can seem like a "many-headed hydra."

"We’re just starting with transportation. There are so many ways technology can empower city planners."

That realization taught Remix designers that simplicity is key. Planners need to make their case with the help of a clean, crisp layout that focuses on who is affected and at what cost. When the real world is so complicated, data and design need to be as simple and straightforward as possible.

"We’ve been very intentional about focusing on the specific slice of the transportation pie that we’re trying to solve," she says.

User research, and time in the Y Combinator startup program, has helped Remix refine its business model and attract clients from more than 100 cities and municipalities worldwide. Chu is proud their product has simplified commutes around the world.

Miami-Dade County planners used the program to analyze its current systems, and after redrawing a few routes, was able to increase efficiency and service without having to purchase new buses, saving $4 million. Officials in Torrance, California, used Remix to discover service redundancies, and was able to redirect half a million dollars in funds to improve weekend service.

Chu sees an even greater need for Remix as cities begin to diversify their transit systems with light rail, bike sharing, and other forms of multi-modal transportation. The new modes of transportation are popping up everyday that can give riders and commuters more choice; it’ll take programs like Remix, that can perform quick, impartial cost-benefit analysis, to help planners figure out what’s best for everyone involved in transportation, not just the ones who yell the loudest.

"I don’t think technology is going to save us all, but what it can do is lower the barrier to understanding and collaboration for all who sit at the table and plan the future," she says. "Ideally, it’ll help them act and move faster in a way that less reactive and more proactive."

See the full list of 2016 Young Guns here

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