The Most Important Transportation Innovation of the Decade Is the Smartphone

So why don't cities and transit agencies take more advantage of it?

Image momentcaptured1 / Flickr
momentcaptured1 / Flickr

In the most recent New York City mayoral election, supermarket mogul John Catsimatidis bragged that he was the only candidate with a vision of the future worthy of the city. While Catsimatidis's grand scheme of outmoded monorails and anachronistic world fairs failed to resonate with voters, he was right about New York's lack of imagination when it comes to transportation. For the most part, the people who run the city's myriad transportation organizations still haven't figured out how to deal with the most important, most obvious innovation in transportation: the smartphone.

Almost all movement in a major city now begins with a phone. Mobile apps and interfaces help people do everything from sort through route options to locate an approaching bus or hail a taxi or for-hire vehicle. While cities and transportation regulators have released data and encouraged innovation through contests and hackathons, no U.S. city has aggressively pursued development of an integrated app that enables users to plan, book, and pay for trips across multiple travel modes. Instead, it's the likes of Uber and Google Maps and CityMapper and RideScout that have demonstrated what is possible, and controlled the movement market to date.

Even in New York, the city with the largest transit ridership and taxi fleet in the country, local officials have allowed the private sector to lead the mobility app charge. The Taxi & Limousine Commission considered app development, says spokesman Allan Fromberg, but ultimately decided to let the market "step-up and determine which services people want to see and use." The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has postponed plans for an integrated app for similar reasons (despite a recent series of meetings about the authority's future). App development "isn't our focus," says spokesman Adam Lisberg. "We do encourage the use of our data, and from there, let a thousand flowers bloom, so to speak."

But public agencies are inextricably involved in urban transportation and should take a leadership role in the development of technologies that affect how we move through our cities. Cities and states build, repair, and maintain roads, provide bus and rail service, and regulate taxis. Transportation services—unlike streaming music or combining tiles until they reach 2048—are critical to cities because they provide valuable access to jobs and schools and take place on crowded city streets. They need careful monitoring, lest that jockeying for scarce road space lead to bitter confrontations, as it has historically. "We regulate because we don't want to see taxi wars, gangland regulations, and the overproduction of transport services," says urban planning professor Elliott Sclar of Columbia University, who sees transportation as a public service or collective consumption, rather than a good that should be produced and controlled by the private sector.

By Sclar's logic, cities should be lining up to develop apps and usher in a new regulatory regime that reflects the smartphone's primacy in urban mobility. But logic and reality are often at odds, and with each successive week it appears less and less likely that any American city will mount a credible challenge to the taxi apps. (Uber's decision to hire David Plouffe, a high-powered political strategist and an architect of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, sends a strong message that it isn't resting on its laurels.) By failing to take a leadership position on mobility apps, cities are ceding valuable ground and data to private companies who are most interested in their bottom line.

The result is a huge missed opportunity to upgrade urban transportation networks by making them more unified. As more and more of the transport system falls into private hands and becomes fragmented, multi-modalism risks declining and cities will lose out on valuable data on where people want to go, how they travel, what's slowing them down, and how the network is operating. A publicly-operated unified mobility app has enormous potential to eliminate barriers between modes, use existing infrastructure more efficiently, and bring the entire transport network to the smartphone.

The most obvious advantage to simplifying the network is attracting more riders by making travel without a car easier. This isn't speculative; 20 years ago, the introduction of the MetroCard eliminated the additional cost of transferring between buses and subways and truly unified New York's transit system. Riders faced fewer barriers, be it an additional fare or cumbersome paper transfers, and ridership surged. (An expanding economy and unlimited passes also helped.) With an integrated app, access to taxis and commuter rail schedules and walking directions becomes equally effortless, and will help stitch together a much vaster transit network that few realized existed. In a time of constrained budgets and ballooning expenses, extracting more rides from the existing network is a virtue.

But not all of the benefits of a single app accrue to the individual rider. Better data about movement makes it easier for officials to site bike-share docks, or re-route buses to fit travel patterns, or add an extra train during rush-hour to meet demand. Instead of operating on a static schedule that forces users to adapt to it, a transportation network that's monitored and adjusted in real-time can adapt to users. Just as the paved road launched a transportation revolution by enabling point-to-point travel via the car last century, networked technology can shift the paradigm again by making the user and infrastructure dynamic actors who respond to one another. This isn't a trivial improvement—it's a dramatic reimagining of how transportation systems operate.

Adam Greenfield of the London School of Economics, author of Against the Smart City, agrees that mobility apps have the power to transform the relationship between transportation networks and travelers. "We're about to undergo a wholesale redefinition of what urban mobility is, and how it is provided," he says. Greenfield recently approached Transport for London—the organization that oversees London's tube, commuter rail, buses, taxis, bikeshare, sidewalks, and roads—about developing its own integrated app. The idea is that users could plan and pay for a trip through the city, even if that trip involved several different forms of transportation.

While these talks are in their infancy, Greenfield is undaunted by the head start that apps like Uber and Lyft have enjoyed. "The taxi apps are just sorting algorithms," he says. "A design team of two or three could replicate these services in a month." Greenfield isn't being blithe; his point is that the barriers to entry are minimal—there's no secret sauce or meaningful proprietary advantage. Building a fully integrated app that allows users to choose among or combine multiple options requires more planning and problem-solving than, say a taxi app, but Greenfield targeted the TfL because they've proven their ability to embrace technology and adapt to a shifting transportation climate for more than a century. "The TfL has everything they need to do this, and even supplant some very good apps," he says.

The breadth of the TfL's portfolio gives it a distinct advantage over its American counterparts, which often share regulatory and operational oversight with other agencies. But if U.S. cities can move past the fractured transportation landscape and embrace the challenge, their slow start isn't necessarily a bad thing; it might even help officials avoid the mistakes of bad apps and refine the successes of good ones. "The taxi apps illustrated a possibility, and that's great, but now we need public entrepreneurship to integrate these new technologies with our older technologies to improve public transport," says Sclar. The key, he says, is for cities to coordinate the resources and talent to put this technology in place—to truly discuss the future of transportation in a proactive way.

"Cities will only see real gains when they build an integrated system that makes travel as accessible and inexpensive to as many people as possible," he says. "That takes public leadership and vision, and hopefully someone is up to the task."

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

About the Author

  • Eric Goldwyn is a doctoral candidate in urban planning at Columbia University. His writing on cities has previously appeared in New York magazine and the New Yorker online.