Steve Young, VIA Metropolitan Transit's vice president of technology and innovation, speaks during a press conference on VIA's smart transit initiatives. Credit: Edward A. Ornelas for the San Antonio Report

VIA Metropolitan Transit demonstrated a new app Thursday to promote multimodal transit, unveiled plans to roll out 24/7 customer service via a chatbot, and announced sales of its day passes have gone up 500 percent since launching a mobile payment system.

U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Helotes) and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff were on hand for the event as VIA officials ran through a list of what they touted as smart transit initiatives the transit agency has introduced in the past few years.

“VIA has been a trendsetter in data transparency and willingness to think outside of the box, or even to think outside the bus, on engaging the community to make public transit more efficient and accessible,” Hurd said.

The transit agency hosts an annual coding event called GoCodeSA in which web developers cram into a room for three days to build technological solutions to public transportation issues.

At this year’s GoCodeSA, the winning participants built VIA Quick Trip, an app that helps users plan their trips with multiple modes of transportation, including on foot, by bike, and using public transit. The app, which is not yet available for download, estimates how much users will pay in fares and how much time it will take to get to their destination. VIA expects to make the app available to iOS users in January, said Lorraine Pulido, an agency spokeswoman.

Besides just plotting a route, an app user looking for lunch options on a public transportation route can type “sandwiches” into the search bar and receive a list of restaurants serving sandwiches along a VIA bus route. The data then feeds into one’s GPS navigation app, such as Google or Apple Maps, to complete the trip.

“We really want to help people move around our city as we grow,” said Steve Young, VIA’s vice president of technology and innovation.

VIA hopes to employ an artificial intelligence-powered chatbot to respond to customer service issues online at any time. Young said the agency plans to launch the service in the first quarter of next year.

In September, the American Public Transportation Association awarded VIA its 2018 Innovation Award for its collaboration with the local software developer community.

VIA will seek more innovative transportation solutions from the public at its next coding marathon in February. Coders and people with ideas for app development projects can register at the GoCodeSA website.

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.