One App to Rule them All

It’s a sign o’ the times …

The number of transportation apps for smart phones (taxi hailing apps, bike sharing apps, real-time transit info apps, etc.) has multiplied to the point that a new app has been created just to manage all the other apps! Zvika Krieger brings us news of this exciting development in The Atlantic Cities, where he describes the roll out of the new app, called RideScout, at the recent South by Southwest music festival in Austin.

Now, let’s state right off the top that, as a person who is rapidly approaching middle age, there is something profoundly silly and trivial-sounding about many of the new mobile technology-enhanced transportation options that are sprouting up at the moment. I mean, could there really be, as Krieger reports, someone trying to create a “Zipcar for Scooters”? Do drivers for the on-demand ridesharing service Lyft really put fuzzy pink mustaches on the front of their cars? And could any of these really be the “next big thing” in transportation?

There are three important things to keep in mind before writing off the wave of new transportation apps as the lightweight equivalent of the adult hide and seek league in Portlandia.

First, we are right now at the very dawn of the technology-enabled transportation revolution. It is hard to fathom that the iPhone, which has been so transformative, is less than six years old. We are smack in the middle of the “what the heck do you do with this thing” phase of technological development – the equivalent of that time during the early days of the Web when people thought that putting flashing fonts and animations on your Geocities web page was cool, just because you could. Things will shake out, and with a technology as powerful as mobile Internet-connected smart phones, you can bet that something important will come from it, even if the exact result isn’t clear.

Second, when it comes to these apps – as Krieger’s article deftly notes – the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. When an individual has the choice, at any given moment, to walk, or bike, or take transit, or car-share, or ride-share, or hail a taxi or limo, or rent a truck, or get a pedicab, or power up a Zip-scooter, or whatever, it becomes much easier to construct a lifestyle in which owning a car is unnecessary. In other words, any individual new app or service may have only a small impact, but the combined effect on transportation could be profound.

Last, while the bulk of the experimentation taking place right now is among young, reasonably well-to-do urbanites in a few big metropolitan areas, it won’t be long before people find ways to put these tools to use in other contexts. According to MIT’s Technology Review, smartphones are now being used to help transit planners in Africa develop more efficient bus routes. One could imagine, for example, new services arising that serve the mobility needs of aging Baby Boomers in the suburbs, or the arrival of truly effective flex-route bus service – extending access to cheap, reliable transit to places that otherwise could not be served.

The young, reasonably well-to-do urbanites who have had access to these new technological tools are using them. A recent survey by Zipcar found that 25 percent of those 18 to 34 have already used mobile transportation apps to reduce their driving.

If you care about transportation policy, you really need to pay attention to the multiplicity of new mobile technology-enhanced transportation options coming onto the scene, seemingly on a weekly basis. If you can look behind the pink mustaches and rented Vespas, there are some powerful and profound things happening.