Loyal readers know by now that Citymapper is one of my all time favorite apps. It offers the best public transport route planning I’ve seen with delightful features such as a recommended car to be best situated at the end station and what exit to use from the station that’s closest to the final destination.
Last month, using New York’s Subway, I discovered a new feature, the GO button, that breaks down the route into easy-to-follow steps. Each step has its own detailed description, map, and a notification card, visible from the lock screen. The part of the journey that includes the ride also has the option to receive a “get off” alert, which is a great feature for tourists. Citymapper also added a GO dashboard to keep a tally of calories burned and trees and money saved per trip vs driving a car. The gamification was a bit redundant as a feature but cute nevertheless.
Little did I realize that one reason for the new feature to enable data collection based on real travel. By knowing full routes, not just when a rider got on a bus or train, Citymapper can better understand actual transportation needs, not just the compromises riders made due to route availability. With this more accurate data, Citymapper hopes to optimize public transportation routes when data shows there is a need. It can also show what new routes might work. To test that hypothesis, it launched a short bus service in London today and said “while the service will not get passengers very far, it is seen as a test of the technology that could lead to something much bigger.”
The implications of such a service are interesting. First, the flexibility and dynamic capabilities: transportation authorities could decide spontaneously that they want to add a route based on an event that they didn’t know about or a problem that they didn’t anticipate. They don’t have to reprint the transit map and hang signs, they only have to integrate with Citymapper so that the app can suggest the new route to travelers in need. For users, the trust in Citymapper is such that if the app suggests a route, it must exist. It’s a much quicker way to set up alternative and temporary transportation when things go wrong.
Citymapper said it best: “We’ve helped people figure out which bus to take. When it arrives. How long it takes. When to get off. Now it’s inevitable that we help make them work better. We don’t have to do it all ourselves, we’re glad to partner with others. We built an easy to use app by being users ourselves. So we feel the best way to build software for buses is to run buses ourselves. And learn from running some public experiments.” The first part I agree with, they’ve built a better app for existing transport systems than any of those transport systems (I’ve tried New York, Bay Area and Berlin.) Whether they need to be the ones to run buses remains to be seen, though I appreciate that they are running these London ones to prove a point.
Bus routes are based on historical data and political decisions. While transport authorities might have current usage data for existing routes, they don’t know much about what routes outside their system riders actually need. That’s why we see companies running private shuttles to and from their offices – those routes were needed and were not served by existing public transportation necessitating private vehicles. Just as a point of comparison, our local transit agency, the VTA, is also planning a route overhaul. They’ve asked for input from college and high school students, commuters and other community members. They’re having community town halls and trying to get feedback from as many entities as possible about the changes. This is honorable but falls short of getting actual usage and, better yet, desired usage data such as Citymapper has.
Can Citymapper leverage its fantastic app to make a real difference in how city transportation works? Can they anticipate need and help cities plan accordingly? Will they tie their system into private transportation such as the carpool options on ridesharing apps and help everyone travel faster? Regardless, it’s a very interesting first step and I’m waiting to see how it works in London and other cities around the world and what cities will embrace Citymapper’s help.