Remix Is Helping Design Tomorrow’s Cities by Applying the Startup Ethos to a Civic Mission
The SF-based company is making public transit faster, more efficient, and more accessible in cities around the globe.
For this story, we spoke with Remix’s founders — Sam Hashemi (CEO), Tiffany Chu (COO), Daniel Getelman (CTO), and Danny Whalen (VPE) — about the company’s origins at Code for America and their vision for livable cities. In this related post, we talked with the team’s six engineers about the problems they’re solving, from classic algorithm design to building complex visualizations. (The engineering team is hiring, BTW. See open roles here and email the team if you’re interested: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
What is Remix and why does it matter?
Tiffany: Remix is a platform to help cities plan transit. We primarily help city planners design routes and get an immediate understanding of the cost and demographic impact of any proposed changes. Currently, we’re working with about 200 cities around the world, primarily in the U.S., but also in nine other countries. They use Remix to plan everything from day-to-day operations and short-range service changes to long-range transit visions reaching decades into the future.
Sam: Before Remix, there was no effective way to demonstrate the impact of public transportation on the people in a city. Now, a lot of agencies and individuals are using Remix to convince their city councils that specific routes should exist. For folks who live inside cities, public transit is the single biggest thing determining what kind of opportunities they have, how many jobs they have access to, even the kinds of relationships they can have. We’re helping cities realize, “Hey, if we make these changes, we can have a real impact on thousands of people.”
“Public transit is the single biggest thing determining what kind of opportunities people in cities have.” –Sam
How did you come up with the idea for Remix? Give us the genesis story.
Sam: We were all fellows in Code for America, which is where we met. The fellowship included time together in San Francisco, as well as each of us working independently in different cities. We sat near each other in the San Francisco office, and discovered we are all passionate about transportation and building more livable cities. On the side, we started talking to urban planners and we learned one big, universal truth: most of their important decisions happen on giant sheets of paper. They literally sketch it out, look at it, and use their best judgment to figure out what’s best for their city.
It’s really challenging to make those decisions without responsive visualizations and the ability to cross-reference multiple data sets. So we started a side project that we didn’t think too much about at first. We built something so you could sketch a bus route on an online map and see how much it would cost, who would ride it, and whether it’d be a good investment. Somehow it got picked up by this planning blog and — almost overnight — all these planners started using it and emailing us saying, “Oh my god, I have been dreaming about something like this for years.”
Dan: One guy literally said “I love you.”
Sam: And then, of course, each email would have a dozen feature requests. The whole thing started out as a little side experiment, but when we saw planners actually using it to map out city bus routes, we thought, “What would happen if we started a company?” That was two and a half years ago, and here we are.
What drew you to public transportation in the first place?
Dan: I’m originally from New York City. I had this really fun hour-and-40-minute subway commute each way to and from high school, which would have been a 20-minute drive. So I spent a lot of time wondering why that was. After studying business and computer science in college, I kept coming back to an interest in government infrastructure. I think it’s so cool that you can walk outside of our office, and almost everything you see was originally built by the city. After college, I applied for transportation planning internships and was rejected by all of them.
Tiffany: Really? You never told us that!
Dan: Yep. Then I came across Code for America. I realized I could use my software technology and product skills to make a difference inside government. I thought government is where I’d end up. If you asked me what I would be doing after Code for America, living on a sheep farm on another continent would have come before working for a startup.
“I realized I could use my software technology and product skills to make a difference inside government.” –Dan
Tiffany: The fact that I grew up on a cul-de-sac in suburban, central New Jersey very much cemented the importance of access to me. It was really hard for me to get around my community unless I had access to a car. When I’d visit New York, it was a whole new world.
I went to school to study how cities are built through architecture and urban planning. One of my first jobs out of school, I ended up working for Zipcar as a user experience designer, where I saw how challenging it was for companies to work with cities. There were some cities that welcomed Zipcar, and others that made things impossible. That piqued my interest in the intersection of cities, design, and technology. Then I learned about Code for America, which completely changed my trajectory. It helped me realize the huge potential for impact when you work at the city level.
Danny, what about you? What interested you about transportation planning?
Danny: I grew up in the suburbs too, in Phoenix, which also meant limited access to public transportation. At college in Ithaca, New York, I relied on transit every day for my commute.
After school, I started my career in software engineering, working for a startup on their backend API’s. I learned a lot, but I knew I wanted to work on something a bit more meaningful. I had been interested in this idea of open data, where governments publish their data proactively rather than waiting for public records requests. The potential benefits of that were exciting to me, in particular, what cities could do with municipal-level data.
Tiffany: Yeah, I recently heard the Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, say that local government is the most actionable level of government.
“City governments are large enough to impact a lot of people, but the people making the decision are truly part of the community.” — Dan
Dan: Cities are a really powerful level of government to work with. They are large enough to impact a lot of people, but the people making the decisions are truly part of the community — they care deeply about solving the problems they see around them.
Danny: Exactly. So that led me to Code for America. I was excited by the idea that I could be inside local government and see how it operates. I got interested in transit specifically because, in a lot of ways, it’s leading the pack with open data. Making data available to be pushed to mobile apps helps increase ridership, which has led to things like the general transit feed specification. I saw it as a virtuous cycle full of rich problems to work on.
Believe it or not, I first recognized the potential of open data through my interest in baseball statistics. There was this nonprofit organization, Retrosheet, that published pitch-by-pitch historical data of every Major League Baseball game for the past 100 years. The organization had a really strong governance model, and this community built up around it. That enabled a wave of statisticians to come in and explore the sport in a way people hadn’t before. I think you can apply that same idea to public transit — you can dig into this data and learn so much.
Sam: I never wanted to work for a startup. I read Hacker News and thought startups were mostly mean people yelling at each other. So I went directly to government. I joined this top-secret lab in the middle of the desert doing the coolest work I can never talk about again. And I would have stayed there, but I didn’t love living in the desert. So after about a year, I moved out to San Francisco and joined NASA. My biggest project was designing an iPad app for astronauts onboard the space station. Before that they were using old ThinkPads running Internet Explorer 6. Seriously.
As cool as that was, I felt like my impact was limited. There were only six astronauts on the space station, and two were Russian and didn’t use anything the U.S. designed. I knew government was filled with big, interesting problems, so I joined Code for America and met these folks.
How did you go from “never wanting to work at a startup” to starting one?
Tiffany: I personally had two criteria for what I wanted to do: number one was to work with people I really liked, and number two was to work on a problem I really cared about. I was agnostic to the format. When we stumbled upon Remix and got something like 250 emails saying this was a dream come true for so many people, we knew the demand was there. We even had a paying customer before we incorporated. I just wanted to continue working on it, to see how far it would go.
“We knew the demand was there. We even had a paying customer before we incorporated.” –Tiffany
Danny: We did consider starting a nonprofit instead.
Tiffany: Yeah, but talking to people who run nonprofits, we realized a significant portion of the organization is dedicated to fundraising, often from unsustainable sources. When we thought about all the resources that would go towards fundraising, we realized there wouldn’t be much left to devote to making an impact.
Aside from paying customers, are there other things that make Remix different from the average startup?
Danny: Having city planners as our primary users. They are solving long-term quality-of-life problems for millions of people.
Sam: Planners are the nicest people. No one joins the planning profession for the fame or fortune. You do it because you care about the community you live in. Probably the coolest thing about this company is being able to talk to those types of folks every day.
Tiffany: We also learned how much pent-up demand there was for this stuff. Of course, there are challenges and constraints associated with partnering with governments. But unlike a lot of government contractors who seem to be primarily self-interested, we come from a place of deep empathy and genuinely wanting to help them provide strong public services for their city.
Dan: We were coming from zero government sales background — or any sales background — and are now working with 200 cities. I think that’s proof in itself.
“We were coming from zero government sales background and are now working with 200 cities.” –Dan
Tell us more about the product and some of the technical issues you’re working through.
Dan: One of the features I built early on was Jane. You can place Jane on a transit system map and see how far she would be able to get in 15, 30, 45, or 60 minutes. Until that, everything was just a line on a map, which doesn’t tell you anything if the bus only comes every three hours. We heard from a lot of cities that Jane made it easy to explain the impact of changes to their transit systems.
One of the coolest things has been hearing that Jarrett Walker uses Jane. He’s an author who writes about human transit and has served as a huge inspiration for us. He actually came and did a transit workshop for us last month where he explained how he’s used Jane in cities all over the world to make a case for a major network redesigns.
Danny: Another core part of the product is being able to provide value to a customer on day one, rather than requiring an arduous integration process. By building on top of open data, like OpenStreetMap and GTFS, it just works — anywhere in the world.
Transit is full of really interesting algorithmic problems, and there’s tons of peer-reviewed research on transit systems and how they work. Everything from the operational side and optimization of the buses to service design and the interactions people have when they’re riding.
What are the biggest challenges Remix is facing as you look to the future?
Sam: One reason we were able to have a fast impact in transit is because it’s supported by lots of publicly available, standardized data. As we start to move into other city departments, that’s bound to decrease. The truth is, the government has this huge wealth of data, and a lot of it is not in great shape. We are already addressing that problem with an offshore team that cleans up a lot of transit data. As our reach widens, the scope of that work will increase.
What about autonomous vehicles? Is public transport even going to exist in the future?
Tiffany: No question — of course it will. There is a limited amount of space on our streets, so as populations continue to grow, we will need to figure out how to get the most people to the most places in the least amount of space. As Jarrett Walker puts it, it’s an issue of geometry. From that perspective, vehicles for mass transit will always be important — whether there’s a person driving them or a computer.