After losing his eyesight, Christopher Baskins knew he would depend on public transportation for the rest of his life.
But Baskins, 34, remembers how he used to get lost at nighttime when the public buses he used wouldn’t call out his stop.
“It’s always my worst nightmare to get off and start venturing off into a neighborhood that you think is yours, and you find out it’s not,” Baskins said.
Baskins moved to Bloomington in 2009 and later enrolled in Indiana University, hoping that a smaller town’s transportation system would help him work and study at the same time. Two years later, IU partnered with DoubleMap, an Indianapolis-based company that provides transit software to universities, hospitals, corporations and airports.
The contract included fitting buses with automatic voice annunciations of every bus stop to make sure that visually-impaired riders like Baskins would never get lost on their way home.
Today, DoubleMap has expanded its markets across 35 states nationwide and three continents, acquiring about 200 customers so far.
“It speaks to you,” Baskins said. “I can be more independent, I don’t have to bother anybody, I can mind my own business like anybody else on the bus.”
DoubleMap started in 2010 as a GPS bus tracking concept for riders to see real-time bus locations. Peter SerVaas, grandson of the late Beurt SerVaas, an Indianapolis community leader and serial entrepreneur, pitched the idea alongside Eric Jiang and Ilya Rekhter while serving in IU’s student government.
DoubleMap now offers a mobile app for riders to track their buses through GPS and know exactly when the bus will arrive at the bus stops, a feature also included in IU’s contract. Bloomington Transit followed the university’s footsteps in 2013, expanding DoubleMap’s mobile app and prerecorded voice annunciations across the entire city.
“I really think it’s the mission of our company to move people to the most important thing,” said SerVaas, now the company’s president. “Whether it’s their job, a special event, a test for them to graduate from college, we enable them to use it efficiently and effectively.”
IU still wanted SerVaas, Jiang and Rekhter to continue supporting the system even as college graduates. After getting contracts with four or five more clients, all three quit their jobs and moved in with their parents to transform DoubleMap into their full-time job.
The company also offers TapRide, another mobile app were students at college campuses can request free rides as escorts to promote campus safety, and passenger counting systems to know more about client volume at each bus stop.
The passenger counting system helps manage crucial components to run the transit systems as efficiently as possible, SerVaas said.
“Someone who’s operating the system wants to know where are people getting on and off or when are buses too full,” SerVaas said. “That’s the information we’re trying to gather because you’re not going to want to use the bus if every time you come out it’s completely full.”
SerVaas said each feature has a separate hardware and functionality, and contracts can range between $500,000 and multimillion-dollar agreements. The company does not receive any private investments.
“No investors, no venture capital,” SerVaas said. “My grandfather gave us a working capital loan that we repaid for our first contract so we could buy the hardware. He gave us the short-term loan to help things get started in the early days. That’s the only loan we took.”
Now with about 30 full-time employees based in their Indianapolis headquarters and 20 chief members across the country, the startup earned more than $100,000 in annual revenue in 2011. Last year, it reached $3.5 million in revenue and a three-year growth of 3,415 percent.
The company won the Scale-up Company of the Year Mira Award, given to companies with $100,000 to $5 million in revenue by TechPoint, which aims to accelerate the growth of the state’s tech industry.
As students, the company’s founders pitched their idea to Perry Maull, Indiana University Campus Bus Service operations manager. Maull said bus tracking services were already in the marketplace for hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the students funded it as a student project.
Maull said he now receives calls from future clients across the country for references. The bottom line, he said, is that the campus’ bus service is spending less than what they used to spend when they were printing schedules for more than 45,000 students.
“We’re giving the students something that’s not just a schedule,” Maull said. “That schedule was printed months ago and it rained today or it snowed today so the buses are late. With the bus tracking, you can actually look at your smartphone and know where the bus is.”
Maull said the university adopted the automatic voice annunciation system in 2012. Federal regulations require bus operators to make announcements for every bus stop through a public address system with internal and external speakers, but the DoubleMap feature takes one more thing away from drivers to worry about, he said.
“I just think it makes sure it’s happening,” Maull said. “One of the problems about relying on drivers is, did they remember to announce it? They get distracted and it wasn’t that they didn’t mean to, they just forgot. Whereas with the automatic system, it makes it, period, all the time.”
In 2009, IndyGo, Indianapolis’ public transit system, adopted automatic voice announcements on their fleet provided by Trapeze Software Inc. Bryan Luellen, a spokesman for IndyGo, said the bus system also uses Trapeze products for real-time bus operations monitoring.
But SerVaas said their competing strategy is based on creating systems to serve universities that are cost-efficient, since university systems have a smaller budget to afford innovative transit solutions.
Baskins said that voice annunciations are crucial for blind riders like him to navigate the system. During daylight, he manages to decipher shapes and colors of buildings close to his home, but he is not able to see anything in the dark, especially during winter.
Before a similar system was implemented in Indianapolis, Baskins said bus drivers rarely remembered to tell him where his stop was. During winter, he waited for hours at a bus stop because drivers would forget to call out their bus numbers even when they saw him with a cane, he said.
“This is a huge safety issue,” Baskins said. “You don’t know who’s going to remember and who won’t. You kind of get deterred from speaking up sometimes and you end up getting off in the wrong stop.”
Baskins now holds a degree in social work from IU and plans to get a master’s in special education. And, with the help of DoubleMap in Bloomington, he can get wherever he needs to go.
“I can now take my son to day care, I can go anywhere I need to go,” he said. “It’s safe. It all comes down to providing transportation where it’s not a chore to go somewhere.”
This article was published in The Indianapolis Star July 7, 2017.