05/09/2012 12:53 EDT | Updated 07/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Social networking comes to your favourite bus stop in Vancouver and Toronto

VANCOUVER - Bus stop 50771 sits outside a coffee shop in Vancouver's trendy Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, where on a recent weekend, a transit rider with a smartphone witnessed a simple act of kindness.

"I was sitting in (the cafe) last weekend and a girl was at the stop," an anonymous poster writes on This Is Our Stop, a new social networking platform dedicated to bus stops.

"She didn't have any shoes or a jacket. One of (the) staff walked over, gave her a coffee and had a chat. It was a lovely gesture."

The four-sentence scene is one of hundreds of brief entries that have been posted in the past several weeks on This Is Our Stop, which invites users to post updates, leave reviews and list nearby points of interest for their regular stops.

The site, which has already spawned a clone in Toronto, is the work of Vancouver developers Tylor Sherman and Todd Sieling, who say they wanted to explore how communities and relationships — even fleeting one-time encounters — are built around public transit.

"Communities are often anchored to physical locations in the city — they form around these pieces of physical infrastructure in ways we don't even realize," says Sieling.

"We pass these spots or use them every day but we don't really think much about them as places where we see some of the same people. It's part of the tissue of everyday life, especially in the city."

This Is Our Stop is a simple mobile-optimized site designed to be accessed primarily on smartphones while people are accessing the public transit system.

When users punch in the number listed on the sign next to their stop they can see a map of the area, a bus schedule and list of comments from other transit riders.

"I watched my neighbourhood grow up around this stop," writes one user at Surrey's bus stop 55926. "It used to be trees and a four-way stop, then a high school came, and then one summer, I watched the last of the trees turn into a Starbucks."

And a word to the wise at stop 51362 in Vancouver's Strathcona neighbourhood: "Watch out for curb puddle. You will get soaked by traffic hitting the puddle if you wait under the shelter in the rain."

The entries are all anonymous and users don't need to register before leaving a comment. Unlike larger social networks such as Facebook, there are no users names, profiles or "friends."

"We thrive on loose connections," says Sieling.

"Ours is as casual as getting off and on the bus. You get on, there are some people there, you get off and they might never see you again. We're not setting up any kind of permanent association between individuals."

Sherman says the goal was to keep the site simple and as accessible as possible.

"We have a lot of these large social networks like Facebook and Twitter — they're kind of the big box stores of the Internet," says Sherman.

"They do what they do well, but they're not as personalized, so in our case we see this as a boutique shop where you're catering to a very specific audience."

Sieling and Sherman say their goal right now is to build communities and encourage copycats in other cities by making the software that runs the site open-source.

The first clone has popped up in Toronto, where a group of software developers didn't wait for the open-source code for This Is Our Stop before building MyStop.TO.

The site looks and feels similar to This Is Our Stop, although there aren't many posts online yet. Like the Vancouver site, it uses stop and schedule information provided by the city as part of its open-data initiative, which gives the public free access to all sorts of electronic information.

Joe Savoie, one of the developers in Toronto, says the site is one part social network, one part public service.

"The relationships you have on public transportation — those regular people you see on the GO train, at the bus stop or on the bus — you don't know their names, you don't know what they do, but you do have a small micro relationship with those people," says Savoie.

"On the other side, everybody has gripes about whatever public transit system they use. We're looking at it as an opportunity to more immediately pass on information and hopefully the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) will eventually pay attention to us."


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