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Expat creates new site to aid urban mobility

November 13, 2011

Driven by a desire to combat climate change and promote urban mobility, a longtime U.S.-born resident of Guadalajara has come up with a website to help users navigate the city’s public transport routes with ease.

Tom Kessler, the creator of “Ruta Facil,” was inspired by past travel abroad, a passion for carpooling and his father’s concern over global warming. With a simple interface, is an extremely useful tool, especially for those not born here and blessed with a sixth sense of how to find their way around the city’s many unmarked bus stops and unmapped routes.

The seeds of Kessler’s interest in practical solutions to environmental transport problems were sown many years ago. “My dad was a meteorologist. I was a global warming brat,” he jokes.

“When I was a little boy my dad used to put me up on his shoulders and he showed me a graph of the carbon dioxide level on Mauna Loa, a famous measurement station in Hawaii, and he said, ‘you can see the carbon dioxide is going up and we’re screwed.’ That was 40 years ago and I realized we needed to do something about it.”

Kessler was “born in Boston, raised in Oklahoma and married in Mexico in 1981.” He studied in Austin, Texas and first came to Guadalajara over 30 years ago on an electronics project. The idea for Ruta Facil first occurred to him after taking a vacation in Argentina in 2002.

“We had just gotten off the trans-Patagonian railroad. We were going to get a bus to our flight but we couldn’t because the buses didn’t leave until that afternoon, so we had to take a taxi about 200 miles,” Kessler explains.

“The taxi driver was very worried about filling up the taxi and using it efficiently so we drove all over town asking people if they wanted to go with us on this 200-mile taxi trip. It was so bizarre and I realized then that other cultures might be interested in car-sharing, so I decided this would be a hobby I wanted to commit myself to.”

Continues Kessler: “I’ve been working on this for many years but I have a full-time job as a manufacturing director in the electronics industry, so this is strictly a hobby.”

While this may have hindered the pace of the project it has not dented the creator’s ambition: “You could go to any city in the Americas and load the bus routes and have a useful public service.”

Although Kessler admits that “few people in the United States would be seen dead on public transport,” he says Mexico and Latin America lend themselves perfectly to the project. “Developed countries tend to have developed public transportation, at least in Europe … but in developing countries you have a different social dynamic.”

Not just a one-man project, Ruta Facil has also provided great experience for a local student whom Kessler hired to help develop the software. “The kid is a student in school, I kind of rescued him. He was being used as cannon fodder by software development companies who would hire him, exploit him and then throw him back on the street.

“He’s had a wonderful ride. We basically pulled him out of this environment, paid him a salary, put him in the incubator with the ITESO (the Western Institute of Technology and Higher Education – a private Jesuit-run university in Guadalajara) and he’s had nothing but two years of totally stimulating software development work in geospacial programing, and that’s how Ruta Facil has been progressing.”

Putting his experience from a career in the electronics industry to good use, Kessler first developed a prototype called Aktalita for car-pooling between drivers and passengers. “It worked well but certain requirements came along,” he says. “It has to be seamless with mobile phones because no one is going to declare their trip on a desktop.”

Users “need to be connected all the time. That mobile technology has been evolving and there’s been a huge revolution in the last year or two with Android and iPhone and now this technology is completely possible and we continue to work on it,” he explains.

Kessler plans to release Ruta Facil as an application on the Android operating service, while not ruling out the possibility of later releasing it on Apple’s iOS. “We’ve always developed in Java for the mobile application. Android is an extension of Java, and iPhone too, so it’s really no problem for the mobile platforms.”

Although “up and running,” the website has yet to be formally launched. “Hopefully it can just go viral,” says Kessler, who aims to “define a business plan by the start of next year.”

The site will generate revenue via a special form of internet advertising. “With Ruta Facil we’ve been developing geolocalized advertising. When you display a route we have an algorithm that will pull up the adds of the businesses closest to that route,” Kessler explains. “If you’re new we’ll give you a free campaign and then to renew it you’ll have to have a paid campaign.”

Ruta Facil works on a similar premise to Google Transit, says Kessler, but the latter site has “a huge backlog, Google is way behind on adding cities.”

Kessler reveals they are currently developing software for users to trace their own routes via GPS, which they will then be able to upload to the website.

“Hopefully it will become completely user-driven,” he says of the website, which already features a comments page, Twitter and Facebook links, and an option for user-uploaded content.

“It could be a franchizable model,” Kessler adds. When a client wants a city’s transport routes mapped out, “we could set them up on their own server, they sell their own ads and load their own content. They simply pay us and we take a cut for the software service.”

The developer is passionate about his adopted city. “Given the climate, Guadalajara could be one of the most desirable places in the world to live. The lack of social mobility is a tragedy,” he says.

Ultimately, Kessler wants Ruta Facil to become a tool for carpooling, with drivers declaring their routes online ahead of making a journey, and those with a similar destination applying to share a ride.

“My whole objective with this project was something called real-time carpooling,” he explains. “It all started with something called the ‘empty seats problem’ which is all these cars going somewhere with just one driver and no passengers.”

For now the site is a work-in-progress. Kessler says he “decided to bring the public transportation routes into the picture” so that even if there are no private routes available the passenger requesting a trip will at least be shown the public routes on offer across the city.

If Kessler can fulfill his ambition, Ruta Facil will offer both a practical solution for traffic congestion and a vital tool in the fight against climate change.

“There’s one problem that’s bigger than all of us,” he says. “Fossil fuels are a finite resource and it is simply foolish – it is not even sound economic theory – to take a non-renewable resource and price it at its extraction cost instead of its replacement cost.”

Kessler argues that “it may only cost ten dollars to pump a barrel of oil, but that’s not the price to society of burning a barrel of oil. The cost is maybe 50 times that, but it’s not reflected in the current economics. It’s simply stupid to base an economy on burning non-renewable resources and it’s going to catch up with us – and that’s aside from the global warming costs, which are very real.”

Spoken like a true “global warming brat.”

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