12 Innovative Urban Transportation Apps
After World War II, North America entered its golden age. Everything seemed possible, including clearing neighborhoods for highways and parking lots. Ever-bigger cars sprouted up in driveways across the continent. New roads became the cure-all for congestion while public transit services around the US and Canada spiraled into oblivion and neglect.
Today, in every large and prosperous city, residents love to complain about congestion. Where the economy is strong, more residents go to work, to meetings and out on the town, and new residents and businesses arrive with the same demands. Infrastructure struggles to keep up. The result is daylong mayhem on roads and transit.
In the meantime, in rural areas, small towns and suburbs, leading a happy and fulfilled life generally means driving. Transit services are often infrequent, inflexible, not appealing to anyone with a car, and on top of that frighteningly expensive to run as local governments face dropping revenue and competing priorities.
The crux of the problem with transportation is that everyone wants the same thing at the same time, feels entitled to it and doesn’t want to pay more, or differently. We face no incentives to shift our demand to match available capacity because cities cannot behave like mobile operators who eliminate unlimited data plans, throttle usage and jack up prices – all effective but unpopular measures.
Also, we typically don’t know where to find a street with light traffic, a taxi looking for a fare, a truck returning empty, a vacant parking space, empty seats in a car, or a car that could be used. All this road, freight, vehicle and seat capacity goes to waste.
There’s (really) an app for that
ICT continues to revolutionize the way we work, the way we shop and the way we interact with each other. But for most of us, the way we move around town has not changed a lot in 50 years. Smartphones, however, are fast changing the way we live:
- Ubiquitous Internet access and Geolocation
- Ubiquitous access allows for real-time, two-way information flow about supply and price to flow to the user who can then signal and confirm demand in real time.
- Each device acts as a tracker that provides information on the user’s location, which can be used for real-time optimization of supply and demand and long-range planning through data mining.
- Secure access to reservation systems and micro-payments
- Users can finalize a transaction in the field, allowing providers to confirm availability, adjust supply and even price accordingly, all in real-time.
- Social networks
- Social networks build trust networks among strangers and therefore remove barriers to sharing available capacity (e.g. getting in a stranger’s car or trusting an unknown truck with one’s cargo), which allows us to much better match supply with demand.
Some well-known precedents
Think about some well-known precedents that use these building blocks already:
- Ebay matches supply (sellers) with demand (buyers) with a system to establish trust (stars).
- Airlines and hotels use yield management to adjust prices in real-time to fill perishable rooms and seats to avoid them going to waste.
- LinkedIn matches professionals through a trust network.
Putting it all together
Thousands of transportation apps are already transforming the way we think about mobility. In the background, cities, transit operators and their technology partners are busy implementing infrastructure and systems to generate the on-the-ground knowledge that powers some of these apps and can be used to optimize traffic in real time (for example in Lyon, France).
Following are a number of apps that have gained the public’s attention and paved the way for the future of transportation.
Apps to outsmart traffic
The following apps do not involve behavioural change but better allocate scarce road and parking capacity by sharing available information in real time and using smartphones to match supply with demand.
- Where: anywhere, but reliability increases along with the concentration of users.
- Why it matters: Waze helps direct traffic where the road network has spare capacity, and helps direct drivers away from congestion or chokepoints, without the need for expensive cameras or sensors.
- Where: San Francisco
- Why it matters: SFPark directs drivers to available spaces instead of needing to circle to find one, and maintains good access by increasing or decreasing prices in line with demand.
Apps to get in a stranger’s car
Social ratings have been instrumental in enabling behavior that would have seemed irrational just a few years ago: just like airbnb that allows travelers to live with strangers sight unseen, a new crop of services allows urbanites to driven by strangers or just borrow their car.
- Where: United Kingdom
- Why it matters: the majority of cars sits idle most of the time, but could be used by others in need of a vehicle.
4 & 5. Lyft and SideCar
- Where: Europe
- Why it matters: it allows drivers to fill their seats and thus make more efficient use of available capacity. However, there have been accusations that services are often provided by “professionals” without adequate screening or insurance, leading to concerns about safety and competition with more sustainable modes such as trains and buses.
7. Avego Real-time Ridesharing
- Where: anywhere with sufficient supply and demand. Officially supported in several communities, e.g. in the states of Washington and California.
- Why it matters: as people’s lives become more complicated, traditional ridesharing services based on recurring commuting patterns can be too rigid. Real-time ridesharing is more flexible.
Apps to hail taxis
Using taxis had not changed for decades. Hail or call the cab, give the driver an address, pay cash. New apps summon available cabs and charge the ride to the user’s credit card.
8 & 9. Hailo and Uber
- Where: over 20 cities in the US, Canada and Europe (Uber); 9 cities in the US, Canada and Europe + Tokyo (Hailo).
- Why it matters: these services streamline the ordering process and introduce a level of quality control that most taxi and limousine commissions cannot guarantee. Presumably, these services, by matching supply and demand, can reduce cruising for fares. Cab drivers can park and wait for rides, and save on gas.
Apps to rent vehicles by the minute
Car sharing was an evolution of car rental. New services use geolocation and real-time booking systems to put a vehicle at your fingertips for one-way trips in urban areas. While many of us like to be chaurffeured, there is a vast constituency of do-it-yourselfers – the same types who prefer self-checkout even if it takes twice as long as the cashier line.
- Where: 16 cities in the US, Canada, and Germany + Vienna and Amsterdam
- Why it matters: car2Go is essentially a self-driven taxi at a fraction of the price.
- Where: Boston, London, Melbourne, Minneapolis, Montréal, Ottawa/Gatineau, Toronto, Washington, D.C./Arlington, and the campuses of Washington State University and Research In Motion. Several other systems exist around the world.
- Why it matters: removes barriers to cycling by removing worries about bike parking, theft and being caught in inclement weather.
Apps to research all your options
The challenge faced by lucky residents of big cities with a plethora of services is how to put it all together. An emerging crop of sites provides the full range of options between two points.
- Where: Sweden, although equivalent systems exist in several countries and cities around the world.
- Why it matters: a lack of information is often an obstacle to choosing more sustainable modes, especially for occasional trips.
What could happen next?
There are many more possible combinations of the following building blocks:
- cars, transit, taxis, bikes and even trucks
- roads, parking, seats and entire vehicles
- with and without a driver
- alone and with passengers
- trust ratings and integration with social media
- real-time information and online booking
- support for monetary transactions
Dynamically- routed shuttles
- Why it matters: in low-density areas, there may not be predictable and consistent demand to run frequent service. As a result, service is caught in a death spiral of low supply and low demand, with buses driving around empty. Dynamically-routed shuttles allow for a better match between supply and demand, mirroring informal taxi sharing arrangements among students in campus towns. Advance booking can be encouraged though pricing and service guarantees.
Station Taxi app
- Why it matters: it can be difficult to find a taxi at a suburban or rural station, especially during quiet times of day.
- Why it matters: a shocking percentage of trucks run empty or below capacity. While large, sophisticated companies like Walmart have long mastered the intricacies of logistics, small users and truckers have not embraced technology to optimize their shipments or available capacity.
What can governments do?
- Governments need to remove barriers to the above services while ensuring that basic principles of fairness, environmental protection and safety are met. Rules and regulations defining and governing taxis, ridesharing as well as urban and long-distance passenger transport likely need to be re-examined and based on performance. Regulatory objectives must meet the demand of the consumers rather than be focus on market protection and competencies between various levels of government must be clarified.
- Transit providers can embrace new technologies to improve the efficiency of services in low-density areas, or even replace them altogether with new demand-responsive services.
- Governments need to further liberate their data and form partnerships with private firms to implement infrastructure where necessary, for example parking sensors and Connected Vehicle systems.
- Where a new service requires a critical mass of users to operate efficiently, for example matching suppiers and users of a ridematching service, governments can develop a partnership with a single provider for a limited time to build a critical mass of users. In other cases, a market leader emerges rapidly and no intervention is needed.
The road ahead
Apps will not, by themselves, solve urban transportation woes. To compete on the world stage, large metropolitan areas must step up investment in new commuter train lines, subways, light rail and bus rapid transit. They also need to think about the incentives and disincentives needed to help us all make the right choices when we decide how to get somewhere. New apps can give us the information we need to make decisions that benefit us and other users of the transportation system at the same time. Despite the need to overcome some cultural barriers (getting in car with a stranger comes to mind!), apps fit well with the zeitgeist of more immediacy, choice and control, and allow providers of roads, parking and transportation services to squeeze capacity from their investments, a boon in an era of austerity. The building blocks are there – some assembly required.
The author wishes to thank Zach Arnold, Philippe Bellon and Larissa England for their valuable input.