“Our city is addicted to cars”: This teen’s transit app rewards people for riding the TTC

“Our city is addicted to cars”: This teen’s transit app rewards people for riding the TTC

Eighteen-year-old Zarif Ali says his program will incentivize commuters to take public transit, make doing so easier and rake in millions of dollars. He’s giving the TTC and Metrolinx a chance to buy in

18-year-old tech whiz Zarif Ali designed Transit+, a prototype app that hands out points for riding the subway, allows for cross-platform trip planning, and lets commuters to pay fare digitally. He plans to pitch his idea to Metrolinx and the TTC and convince them that it could improve their much-tarnished public image.As the 21st-century adage goes: there’s an app for that. But, as far as Scarborough high schooler Zarif Ali is concerned, some of those apps could be improved. The 18-year-old tech whiz designed Transit Plus, a prototype that doles out points for riding the subway, provides cross-platform trip planning and allows commuters to pay fares digitally. He plans to pitch his idea to Metrolinx and the TTC, hoping to convince them that it could improve their much-tarnished public image. We asked Ali about his new app and how transit agencies can win back public trust. 

How does an 18-year-old get into improving Toronto’s transit system? Did you spend your childhood on the TTC?
Not even. I immigrated to Scarborough from Bangladesh with my parents in 2010, when I was five. I lived close to my school, so I never needed to take the bus. But I developed an interest in transit by talking to friends who were commuting from Durham or Pickering and wanted to use one app instead of two or three to plan their trips into the city.

In December 2019, I was in Grade 9 geography class. Our term project was to think of a way to improve quality of life for people living in Toronto. I’m a big fan of American comedian Hasan Minhaj and his show Patriot Act. On it, he has railed about how underfunded the US public transit system is. I wondered if our own network could be improved, and after browsing the Metrolinx app, I realized it definitely has issues. You shouldn’t need to consult multiple apps—Presto, the TTC, Metrolinx and Google Maps—to get a full picture of train or bus routes.

Related: This teenage urban planning prodigy designed a fantasy map of the TTC

Fast-forward three years and you’ve designed a prototype to address some of those problems. How does it work?
Basically, Transit Plus is a one-stop-shop for all of your commuting needs in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. It has a map of all the region’s transit routes, which includes real-time traffic updates. It allows users to buy tickets from their phones. And it has an incentive program that gives out points for taking the subway or train. The idea is that people could then redeem those points for food, drinks or experiences from eventual partners.

If you had unlimited transit points, what would you do with them?
I’d use them for coffee, but I think people would mainly get free rides and passes to save money.

How long did it take to design the app?
I used a prototyping tool called Figma and put it together using YouTube tutorials. Overall, it took me a few weeks. To make it functional, though, I would need Metrolinx, the TTC and Presto on board. I’ve spent a lot more time crafting my pitch.

Did you look to any existing transit systems for inspiration?
They have something similar in Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway system. It’s really cool—they call it an Octopus card. It has essentially caused the flagship train stations to evolve into malls, where most stores participate in the points system.

Has anything like this been attempted in Canada before?
Montreal piloted a project a decade ago called STM Merci. It was a loyalty program for subway riders. Within five years, Montreal’s transit revenue went up by nearly $100 million and ridership increased by 15 per cent. The program fell through after the pilot period due to a change in leadership. But, considering how much bigger Toronto is, there’s an opportunity to raise a lot of money. And that’s not even mentioning the environmental benefits. Ninety-four per cent of all commutes in Toronto happen in cars—that’s a lot of carbon emissions.

Montreal beat us to the punch! Why didn’t we get there first?
I think our city is addicted to cars. It’s difficult to convince people to switch from something that’s convenient and familiar to public transit, which isn’t as comfortable or luxurious.

18-year-old tech whiz Zarif Ali, who designed Transit+, a prototype app that hands out points for riding the subway, stands in front of King street subway station

Maybe all we need is a shiny new app. When are you pitching it to the city?
I’ve pitched an earlier version already. I reached out to my councillor, Paul Ainslie, and he connected me with two TTC directors. I think they were shocked to enter the Zoom meeting and realize they were speaking to a teenager. Given my age, they were impressed by the design and the presentation. They were really honest with their feedback.

Related: Behind the scenes of an $11-billion subway war 

Which was?
That I was pitching it wrong. They told me to look at making transit services more accessible rather than just trying to bring in more revenue. I’ve now restructured to show that bringing in more money could help build new stations—a 15 per cent increase in ridership means you’re raising something like $50 to $100 million additional dollars.

I heard that you’ve been getting advice from Leslie Woo, the previous chief planning officer at Metrolinx.
Leslie has been amazing—she shared Metrolinx’s 2041 Regional Transportation Plan, which she designed herself. One of their goals is to create a streamlined app, which makes me hopeful. I think that, between violence on the TTC and the slow pace of new projects, public trust in transit has eroded. People speak poorly of it, which deters others from what is truly one of the best systems in North America. It’s very difficult to find another city that has such diverse transportation options that more or less seamlessly interconnect with one another. The TTC even won the title of North America’s best transit agency in 2017. I think my app could help restore the brand.

Can you design an app that would speed up the Eglinton Crosstown construction?
Unfortunately, nothing can address the communication mess that is the Eglinton LRT. It’s easy to blame Metrolinx, but none of us saw the pandemic coming. On top of that, a transit line of this magnitude is very difficult to execute. Honestly, I think the biggest issue with the TTC and Metrolinx is a lack of transparency toward their ridership. Providing clear and timely information about service disruptions, delays and planned maintenance would really help reduce frustration.

As you wait for your Shark Tank moment, what’s next?
I’ve applied to the University of Toronto’s computer science program for the fall semester. I really hope I get in. After that, I don’t know. All I can say for now is that I want to design something that has a positive impact.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.