12 Innovative Urban Transportation Apps

By Antoine Belaieff

Antoine Belaieff is Director of Regional Planning at Metrolinx. He is a Professional Planner and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Management from McGill University, a Master’s degree in Planning from the University of Toronto and a Master’s degree in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability from the Blekinge Institute of Technology in Sweden.

Dec 3, 2012 | Mobility | 8 comments

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

1. Waze

Waze is a free app that provides turn-by-turn driving directions and gas prices based on crowdsourcing: users can input information about accidents or other exceptions, but also automatically upload their actual driving times.

  • 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.

2. SFPark

SFPark uses sensors in parking spaces to provide real-time parking availability information to motorists and uses demand data to adjust parking prices.

  • 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.

3. Whipcar

Whipcar is a peer-to-peer car sharing service that allows individuals to make their personal vehicle available to other drivers when not needed and earn extra income on the side.

  • 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

Lyft and SideCar (video) are two services that allow any driver with a good driving record, a decent car and smartphone to provide rides following a screening process. Drivers and users are rated and money is exchanged through voluntary donations.

  • Where: San Francisco
  • Why it matters: Lyft and SideCar represent a response by entrepreneurs and a tech-savvy population to a taxi market which they feel does not meet their needs in availability, quality or price. The fuzzy pink moustaches affixed to the front of Lyft cars don’t hurt, either.

6. Carpooling.com

Carpooling.com is Europe’s largest ridesharing site, matching cars with available seats with travelers who need a ride, earning the driver extra income.

  • 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

Avego provides real-time ridesharing services, with a rating system to build trust and the ability to exchange funds.

  • 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

Hailo and Uber are taxi and limo reservation apps.

  • 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.

10. car2go

A subsidiary of Daimler, car2Go provides car sharing services with a fleet of electric or gasoline Smart cars which can be tracked and booked through an app. The service is charged by the minute. Unlike conventional car sharing services, car2Go allows one-way trips.

  • 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.

11. Bixi

Bixi is a bike sharing service for short one-way trips in dense, mixed-use urban areas. Stations are located on the street or in private fleets, for example to allow employees to go to meetings.

  • 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.

12. Resrobot

Resrobot is a multimodal trip planner for the entire country of Sweden. It returns alternative routes with different modes, allowing travelers to make an informed decision about how to travel.

  • 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

A hybrid between a taxi and transit service, these shuttles do not run on specific routes, but respond to user demand through reservations both in advance and in real time.

  • 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

While on a train, riders can book a taxi at their destination station based on their actual arrival time. The app detects the user’s location, determines the arrival time and books a taxi accordingly.

  • Why it matters: it can be difficult to find a taxi at a suburban or rural station, especially during quiet times of day.

Freight apps

Freight-focused apps could do to freight what they have done for passengers, offering available freight capacity on trucks providing guarantees through rating systems.

  • 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.

Discussion

Leave your comment below, or reply to others.

8 Comments

  1. Odile

    Great post!
    About carpooling.com: offers from “professionals” do happen but they are eliminated from the system promptly and they do not happen often when you consider that we give daily access to 750,000 rides. Also we do not compete with trains and buses. Instead we partner with transport carriers and integrate their offers on our platform so when users do not find a suitable rideshare, they can look at other sustainable transportation options.

    Reply
  2. Paul Minett

    Great post, very interesting. My concern with the approach here, and it has been consistently a concern for several years, is that these are all ‘technology push’ solutions, in the theme of ‘if you build it they will come’. And the challenge is, so far, at least with regard to commute trips, they are not coming in the sorts of numbers that make a difference to the traffic. (Please, if you disagree with me, point me to where it is working).

    The convenience of a self-drive vehicle that is ready to go when you are and as you leave home you take with you the means of your return whenever you are ready to return, is very difficult to beat. We need to beat it, or to give a sufficient reason for users to do something different at least some of the time.

    What would it take, for example, for people to ‘choose’ to be a passenger (instead of a driver) one day a week? What sense of community would be needed? What rewards should be offered? If we could answer this, and implement it, then demand would be created for many of these alternative solutions, and massive benefits would flow to society. Has anyone been working on this front? I’d be pleased to hear from you.

    The Ridesharing Institute (www.ridesharinginstitute.org) has been formed to help find the answers to these questions. We are solution-agnostic. Check us out, and if you agree, please consider supporting our work by becoming a member.

    Reply
  3. Antoine Belaieff

    I don’t really agree that these apps are solutions looking for problems… Many, if not most of these apps were created in response to real problems encountered by people trying to get places every day.

    The article was more about exciting potential outcomes than demonstrated results in large numbers. What I like is the emergence of a large and complex ecosystem of options available to people. In my own experience, I have noticed a real difference in the last 2-3 years in my quality of life thanks to the range of options available to me, using tools covered in the post and others:
    – I can plan my trip online and get a comparison between options.
    – I know exactly when the next transit vehicle is coming.
    – I can use a bixi or car2go
    – I can book an Uber or Hailo car
    – I can use a local site (carpoolzone) to share a ride

    This reflects my experience Downtown Toronto, but the same likely happens in other large tech-savvy cities. In terns of impact on traffic, it’s hard to tell what traffic would have been like without these tools.

    I also have to take issue with the statement that the convenience of a self-drive vehicle is very difficult to beat. Although it continues to be true in too many places, more and more people, especially young and urban, are realizing that cars are expensive and can actually be quite inflexible. The range of new services give residents who can make them work the convenience of a car without the headaches of parking, insurance and ownership.

    People are choosing alternatives all the time, otherwise these services would not exist… the challenge is to get more people to try new things. This is where governments and employers can help, for example through TDM programs, which are run successfully all around the world.

    Reply
  4. Jared Brick

    Thanks for posting this Antoine,
    I am a driver for Lyft and we also use Waze app to navigate. It is great to know more apps out there to use.
    Check out Scoot, for electric scooter rentals in SF, Wheelz and Getaround for personal car sharing.
    Zimride is the founding company of Lyft for longer distance ride-sharing.
    Some of the taxis are using, Taxi Magic and Cabulous plus Lyft-like Sidecar in Seattle and SF.
    Thanks again and feel free to check out my future app – TraX Action ~ Rewarding you Everywhere for Reusables!
    http://www.traxactions.com
    Jared B.

    Reply
  5. Manuel Merki

    I’m part of a small company in Switzerland (Zürich) that provides shared parking spaces. It’s called parku and is a platform that enables parking space owners to share their spots with people who are looking for a parking space.

    Our goal is to reduce inner-city traffic by locating and reserving a parking spot at the travel’s destination. At the same time, parku provides drivers an alternative to expensive parking lots and eliminates time consuming, stressful and polluting circulation while looking for parking. Users can log on to our website (www.parku.ch) or download the app to find a parking space in advance or on the go.

    On the other side, the owner of the parking space can register his spot, upload a picture, and start earning money. He receives two-thirds of the parking fees whilst parku provides the necessary services.

    We believe that parking space sharing is a good step to the city of tomorrow. What do you think?

    Manuel M.

    Reply
    • Dave Hahn

      Interesting model. I understand it can be difficult to start this kind of service because you need to sell to people on both sides of the problem – 1) you need to convince people to list their spots and 2) you need to convince people to rent the spots through your service. What’s been your experience with this challenge?

      Reply
  6. John Porterfield

    Great!
    First, I’ve provided extensive suggestions to local transport planning efforts –
    Illinois Department of Transportation Region One/District1, and Senior Regional Planner, Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, – including
    > Pilot testing of “share a ride” using smart phone tech and “couch surfing” model should be top priority. <
    though with no reply (or even quick thank'ya! . . . sob!), so this clear list of options is a great platform for re-suggesting alternatives to concrete & rebar planning that remains in vogue in GtrChicagoMetArea.
    Second, I'd like to contribute to an exploration of the relative sustainability of building and urban design practices (my “ace”). In recent travel to Ecuador, Peru and Mexico, my wife and I observed numerous elegant and effective practices. I’m sure that descriptive study would make more sustainable practices, commonplace elsewhere, easier to adopt in US. Please let me know about work in progress and a template for capturing total energy impact (exergy) of urban design and building construction, systems, and patterns of use.
    I observed fairly comparable mobility of our brothers and sisters in Ecuador and Peru with 1/12 as many four-wheel vehicles as US (Wikipedia – vehicles per capita). Virtually every bus stops for every person flagging a ride, and virtually every vehicle has two or more persons.
    Third, I’ll be in Cuenca Ecuador for 3 weeks beginning Jan 22, 2014 and will observe construction of light rail now in construction. I will be happy to provide feedback on how Tranvía de los Cuatro Rios is progressing.
    Thank you for this great platform for “alternative head bang’in!”

    Reply
  7. Nimesh

    Great read, Antoine! A fully custom mobile application can do wonder for the businesses. In terms of customer satisfaction, reputation building and profits too.

    Reply

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