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Imagine a world where intra-city travel is completely controlled by the tap of a finger on a mobile device. Catching a ride is as simple as pulling up an app or hopping into a personal car and zipping around while suspended over the roadways.

Some of the Triangle's emerging startups are trying to make this world a reality, and they are doing it by putting the traveler's needs first in public transportation.

The Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina focused its monthly RTP 180 event last night on transit, inviting speakers from various backgrounds to talk about transportation innovation in the area. And giving consumers power over their travel is the common theme.

"People want more," says John Mickey (pictured below), marketing and external communications representative for TransLoc. "We have demands. We want control."

TransLoc started 10 years ago when the company put GPS tracking on public buses. The company created an interactive online map which showed all eight Triangle Transit agency buses moving in real-time. But a new TransLoc mobile app gives travelers precise visibility on bus locations and alerts on arrival timing. This information gives the rider confidence in travel plans, and flexibility in planning rides.

Mickey says this is an important trend in transportation. "We are beginning to use technology to put people at the center of transportation," he says. Instead of people being flexible, the transportation needs to be flexible.

The same idea is behind Uber, which opened a Raleigh branch (featuring uberX: the low-cost Uber) in April. Uber connects people quickly with inexpensive and reliable rides through a mobile app. But underlying the technical purpose is a commitment to consumer control.

We want to "give them anything they want, whenever they want," says Arathi Mehrotra, Uber Raleigh's general manager, of its riders. Uber has an on-demand service providing more than simple car rides. In other cities, drivers have delivered kittens, helicopter shuttles (via an UberCHOPPER) and ice cream to their customers.

This level of consumer centrism can be seen in other transit ventures as well. The UNC startup Buzz Rides gives ultimate control to passengers by offering free rides to students around campus at the touch of a button. The founders, UNC students Joey Skavroneck and Parker Draughon, were inspired by the small, three-wheeled tuk-tuk vehicles on a trip to India. They used the idea of this efficient transport to create a fleet of compact electric vehicles and a mobile app which connects riders with the driving service. The cars are all wrapped in advertising messages, affording the riders the luxury of a cost-free trip when they need it.

Another radical design also takes advantage of a small footprint. Marshall Brain and Dr. Seth Hollar, both faculty members at North Carolina State University, are trying to disrupt the transportation industry with a revolutionary idea. The EcoPRT system (pictured above; PRT means personal transportation system) provides a solution to insufficient rapid transit systems in cities by making extremely narrow, lightweight compartments that run on suspended rails and cost much less than traditional public transit.

Because of its affordability ($1 million per mile of track and $10,000 for each vehicle vs. $50 million per mile for light rail and $8 million for a typical PRT system), the system does not need government funding. In fact, there is interest in building this lightweight rail system on NC State's campus, with funding coming from private sources.

The convenience factor is huge with EcoPRT. Travelers are able to get from point-to-point with no stops, at a cost estimated around $.50 per mile. It will be available during all hours of the day and night. Here's a video that explains it:

With all of these new offerings, people are beginning to expect more from their transport options. Mickey says there has been a shift in the way people approach travel.

"Now, it's more about convenience. People want to save time and money. They want a real-time face to transit," he says.

And they are getting it. These new Triangle transportation ventures are using technology to deliver flexibility, control and affordability to travelers in a way that has not been done before.

"We are thinking about how to change the core of transit," says Mickey. "We move people from an origin to a destination. Transportation, especially now, is about bridging the gap."

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