In the final weeks of 2018, I caught a glimpse of transportation’s future on my way to an appointment. I was walking briskly to catch a bus I knew had 20-minute headways. If I missed it, I’d be late.
I fired up a trip-planning app on my phone, which gave me a real-time countdown to when the bus would arrive. I had five minutes to go three blocks. Crap! Now walk-jogging, I toggled over to the ride-hailing option, ready to reluctantly summon a car as a fallback.
But then my thumb glanced over a new button that had recently been added to the app’s home screen. Of course! I only had to veer a few steps out of my path to grab an electric scooter (since I already had an account, scanning the QR code to unlock it takes a few seconds). I rolled off the sidewalk and zipped the final two blocks to the stop.
Yes, I made my bus.
As the shifting transportation world brings more choices to our streets, trip-planning apps are serving as the invisible catalysts for changing how people get around cities, offering routing tools, real-time transit information, and even the ability to compare different modes.
Plus, newly announced fare integration with services like Apple Pay, and the ability to pay for a wide range of services in-app, are making riding transit even easier, too.
Just in the last few months, behemoth Google Maps has added directions for scooters, while nimbler apps like Transit, Citymapper, HERE Mobility’s SoMo, and TransitScreen’s CityMotion have created a slew of new features that allow users to make seamless multimodal connections.
“The goal is to simplify trip planning and payment, whether it involves a black car, a purple bike, a green scooter, or a red bus,” says Stephen Miller, communications lead for the app Transit. “The key is open data from transport operators—it’s why we work so closely with cities and transit agencies to make sure people can access all the options for getting around.”
Thanks to extensive coordination and data sharing between cities, transit agencies, and micromobility companies, our smartphones are now able to coordinate real-time information between multiple transit operators, and even between multiple modes of transport. The Google spinoff Coord, for example, built a bike-sharing tool that helps users transfer from public transit to bike share, with real-time availability of bikes and empty docks at hubs.
But the landscape of trip-planning apps is about to change, fast. In the past year, Uber and Lyft have added the location of their electric bikes and scooters to their apps, as well as directions to nearby transit. After launching a pilot program in Denver powered by a partnership with Masabi, Uber plans to allow all users to access real-time transit data, create multimodal itineraries, and pay for trips, including bikes and scooters and public transit segments—all in its app. Lyft is also touting a redesign that shows all those modes on a single screen, including real-time transit information, for all its app users.
According to a Pew Research Center study, 36 percent of Americans reported using ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft in 2018, up from 15 percent in 2015. Now that these apps offer access to more than just cars, there’s a bigger opportunity to shift users onto other modes. Both Uber and Lyft have existing partnerships with transit agencies and offer discounts for trips that start or end trips at transit stops, but now the apps have the power to incentivize micromobility and position car-use more as a supplement to buses and trains, rather than a way to avoid them.
“It’s very easy to get people to take a multimodal trip if none of those modes are a car,” says Jemilah Magnusson, global communications director for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. “People find it very easy to go from bikes to [a] scooter to a bus or a train. But once you get in a car, you’re probably going to stay in a car.”
My walk-scoot-bus trip experience is the perfect example of how a transportation app done right can help users save time, spend less money, and reduce emissions. I was faced with a choice of waiting for the next bus and being late to my appointment or getting into a car and paying more. But by using all the information available to me, I was able to make a snap decision that saved me money, got me there on time, and kept one more car off the road.
Of course, I also should have used the technology at my fingertips to plan ahead—and left my house earlier. Here are six ways you can make better transportation choices today using apps available on the market.
Optimize your daily commute
The Google Maps app has a great new tool that allows you to plan and monitor daily commute trips. Just program your route—or have it create one for you—mixing between modes including walk, bike, transit, or car. The app tells you exactly when to leave the house to get to work on time, including pinging you about potential delays and suggesting alternate routes.
Mix ride-hailing with transit
To help you compare and book last-mile connections without cannibalizing transit ridership, the app Transit launched Transit+, the ability to plan, book, and pay for rides to and from train and bus stations. It not only tells you when to leave, it will also coordinate any delays in your transit with the arrival of the ride-hailing ride. Plus, the beauty of Transit+ is that you can toggle between Uber, Lyft, Via, Ola, and Téo and see which provider can get you home fastest and cheapest.
Split a ride to the subway
Cities have been using microtransit to fill gaps in service or connect underserved communities. Now, the on-demand rides are being integrated with traditional transit. Ride-hailing startup Via just launched a new partnership with LA’s Metro, offering flat-rate, app-summonable rides within specific geographic areas one to two miles around rail stations. The pilot program will start with three stations, with plans to expand.
Use your phone like a fare card
Across the country, dozens of apps have been created specifically for local transit systems. Now, some apps like Portland, Oregon’s Hop Fastpass, give you a “virtual fare card” with the ability to pay within an app and validate the fare using a smartphone. Portland’s TriMet partnership with Moovel and INIT allows you to load fare with a credit card or pre-paid debit card, or pay fares using Google Pay, Samsung Pay, and Apple Pay. Waving your phone over a scanner validates the fare. Other cities like New York have launched limited contactless fare systems as well.
Find dockless bikes and scooters
Locating the various brands of dockless scooters, mopeds, and bikes that blanket cities normally requires downloading each proprietary app—then constantly monitoring them, since the tiny vehicles are always in motion. Citymapper has combined vehicle discovery and route optimization for what it calls “floating transport” into one feature.
The app calculates walking time and route to the nearest vehicle, recommends a route, and provides a total travel time estimate to the destination. In addition, the app can survey local no-parking zones and tell you the best place to leave your rides behind once you’ve arrived.
Get a mobility “subscription”
The holy grail for transportation apps is an option called “mobility as a service,” or MaaS, where you can pay a monthly subscription for unlimited trips across all modes, including public transit, ride-hailing, bike share, and even car rentals. One of the most robust MaaS apps, Whim, first launched in Helsinki, where the service cost $280 per month. Whim recently announced it will be coming to the U.S. later this year and launching in one of these cities: Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, or Miami. Portland, Oregon, has something similar called a “transportation wallet” being tested in several neighborhoods. The future is on its way.