The Pitch: A One-Stop Mobile Information Shop for Transit Services

A study conducted by Latitude asked regular drivers in Boston and San Francisco to go car-free for one full week. The results point to many opportunities for mobile information to reduce dependence on driving by improving the experience of taking more sustainable transit.

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Recently, Latitude released the results of its Tech for Transit: Designing a Future System open innovation study (published in collaboration with Next American City). The study, which asked regular drivers in Boston and San Francisco to go car-free for one full week, uncovered opportunities for mobile information to reduce our dependence on driving by improving the experience of taking more sustainable transit.

The study results are available here:

The Concept

We found that many of our study participants wanted a similar tool to help them make decisions about transit: a “one-stop information shop”—a mobile or Web application that would enable users to choose among multiple options (bus vs. car-sharing vs. train) by comparing schedules, cost, availability, and convenience. In most cases, this would involve a collaboration between government entities and businesses (public transit agencies and Zipcar, for example), and would potentially require sharing and integrating competitive information.

As one participant put it…

“I’d like a ‘how-to-get-there-using- alt-transit transit-app or web site. Plug in where you have to be when, and detailed parameters on what you will and won’t do, and have it crunch through train, subway, the patchwork of urban and suburban bus services, biking, walking, local taxi service numbers and fees, Zipcar and other car-share options, and so on and give you a list of options, including when they’ll get you there and how much they’ll cost.”
—Jean M., Boston, MA

Industry Leaders Who Weighed In

  • Michael Kuhn, Senior Manager of Business Innovation at Daimler and Project Leader of car2gether
  • Josh Robin, Director of Innovation at the MBTA

When we asked Michael Kuhn of Daimler’s car2gether ride-sharing program (piloted in Germany) what he thought of this concept, he told us: “I think this is an awesome idea! We would want car2gether to participate. And I am sure that my car2go [Daimler’s car-sharing program, which integrates with car2gether] colleagues would like to join in, too.” Car2gether was recently hailed “The Twitter of Ridesharing” by the New York Times, since it sends all information about available ride offers and requests to a live online ticker. Users can share details about upcoming journeys and allow the software to match them with prospective carpoolers; the service requires that passengers pay a suggested 9.5 cents per minute to the driver and plans to implement a fully Web-based payment feature in the future.

iPhone screenshot of car2gether app

“Car2gether is like cloud computing for cars, providing empty seats on demand,” Kuhn explains. “But we should offer even more to customers: mobility on demandas easy as possible, anytime and anywhere. Linking several services might be a challenge, especially those from different providers.”

In Boston, the MBTA has taken its own approach to help fill this gap by making its data openly available to third-party developers, though it doesn’t have any plans to develop applications of its own. “The T is not fundamentally a technology company. We feel very strongly that third parties do a better job than we do at developing apps,” said Josh Robin, Director of Innovation at the MBTA. “I really think there’s a lot of power in the idea that citizens can be engaged in making the transit system better.” As a part of the Massachusetts Open Data Initiative, transportation-related data has become readily available for developers to create Web and mobile apps. To date, more than three dozen apps have been built using MBTA data.

iPhone screenshot of openMBTA app

So who might create a comprehensive transit app? “I think it’s up to those companies like Zipcar, Relayrides, and Zimride to really develop those tools, and there’s nothing that prevents them from using our data in their apps,” says Robin. “There’s a lot of possibilities for opening up data and sharing data with one another in creative partnerships to find a way to make it work, and we’re always looking for ways to partner with people. If one of those third parties came to us and said, ‘how can we work together?’ then we’d be more than happy to help them think through ideas to help make people’s commutes easier.”

Last month, Google announced that Google Maps would integrate real-time alerts for public transit in six pilot cities around the world—Boston included. This partnership with the MBTA will offer real-time transit updates for bus information including departure and arrival times, delay notices, and station information. “A big piece of what we’ve been trying to do for the last couple years is make transit data ubiquitous—we see getting real-time data available through Google as part of that initiative,” Robin told us. “Now our transit information is being made immediately available to hundreds of millions of people in tools and applications they use already.”

Car2gether is taking a leadership role in piecing together transit information from various sources—such as cities and taxi companies—for its users. “If a suitable ride is not found, car2gether is able to show other ways of reaching the destination,” explains Kuhn. “In the Aachen pilot, car2gether has been linked to the regional public transport provider and offers information referring to the respective individual mobility needs. In Ulm and in Aachen, a taxi symbol takes the user straight to the central taxi switchboards.” Though not fully integrated with data from other providers, car2gether certainly has the right idea.

“I think this is where the value in being open comes in, at least for public agencies; it can allow other services to better connect up with public transit options, and ultimately complete that transportation picture for people,” says Robin.

Latitude’s Take:

The Benefits

  • high demand as indicated by study participants
  • potential for increased use of more sustainable transit generally
  • few existing competitors
  • increased engagement with specific services through partnerships (e.g., sharing and integrating data across services so individuals can choose different services at least some of the time—
  • whatever serves their varying needs best)
The Hurdles

  • hesitancy to initiate partnership conversations
  • proprietary nature of some companies (“this is my customer”)
  • concerns about divulging information that could harm a company’s competitiveness
  • opening, standardizing, and developing from multiple data streams could be time- and resource-intensive

The hurdles can be addressed, but creating these kinds of partnerships requires moving beyond a zero-sum definition of opportunity. It’s clear that people want, and increasingly expect, options across a variety of situations; offering this choice—and a sense of “best fit” in any specific situation—not only facilitates a more frictionless transit experience (which should enhance the perceived value of all participating operators), but also allows operators to be considered in situations where they might previously have been invisible.

Latitude is proud to have partnered with Next American City on Tech for Transit: Designing a Future System. Latitude is an international research consultancy helping clients create engaging content, software and technology that harness the possibilities of the Web. To learn more about working with Latitude, fill out this form or contact Ian Schulte (

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Tags: new york cityinfrastructurepublic transportationsan franciscobuilt environmentgovernancebostonopen gov

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