Mobile apps are changing the way we live and work in our constantly growing cities. They have influenced our w of doing shopping, ordering food and above all hire taxis at will. Apps of prevalent taxi aggregators provide instant gratification and seamless accessibility to the otherwise expensive and painful to obtain taxi services.

That said, public transport seems to be lagging in this space, often losing ground to privately run aggregators. While the rich can pay for expensive rides, the shrinking proportion of people on public transport are making it difficult for the cities to run mobility services for the bottom of the pyramid. While the developed country cities have well run passenger information systems, enabling such access, the emerging market is only opening to such systems.

The Concept

A typical mobile app for public transport aggregates multiple modes of transport in one unified map-view. This data can come via crowd sourcing, however GPS based real time data gives the much needed accuracy and visibility of modes.

The market has several public transport information systems which provides intelligence about public transport to passengers, and in some cases to transport agencies and third parties. The core objective of such apps, however, remains to make it convenient and attractive for people to use public transport, thereby reducing traffic, accidents, green house gases, and resulting health issues that our cities face every day.

Enhancements may come in form of:

o   More easy to understand through scientifically designed route-search

o   More predictable results through advanced analytics and real time information (where available)

o   More enjoyable through dedicated community management and news and alerts section

At the core of it, the apps run on the premise that better accessibility, instant gratification and scientific recommendations help people overcome the last hurdle in using public transport efficiently. The growing market and resulting users of public transport are clearly a good sign for the forgotten story of public transport.

The multi-modal, real-time and context specific advantage

The market’s leading applications put a lot of emphasis on authenticated, aggregated and real time information. Public transport in emerging markets has to constantly compete with taxi aggregators and para-transit modes like auto-rickshaws and mini-buses.

The former provides instant gratification by not only bringing the transport to one’s doorstep but also showing it clearly on a map as a car aimed for its destination, making it easier on the users to factor for uncertainty and derive comfort from.

The latter bridges the last mile connectivity gap and is often the mode of choice given the uncertainty around the arrival, routes and navigation around a complex combination of modes of formal public transportation. Para-transit is also more approachable and context responsive, a difficulty in our context light connected world of apps.

Such apps enable the platforms that brings the much needed aggregation of all possible modes of transport e.g. in Turkey, the mobile app covers bus, metro, metrobus, ferry, fenicular, tram, tunnel, dentur, turyol, dolmush and minibus, which combined with its advanced big-data analytics and machine learning based pattern recognition can deliver solutions, optimized for cost, convenience and time, which are otherwise not intuitive to a human mind.

Apps also unlock the power of real-time by using the GPS coordinates of transport modes to show moving buses (and other modes) to the waiting users. This information is often stuck in the control centers of our cities, never makes it to the public. The accuracy of arrival times, with on real time accuracy, has been found to be more than 200% of that of conventional passenger information systems. (e.g. Istanbul official transport website’s ‘get there’ section is powered by TRAFI).

As emerging market cities are not only driven by systems but also the context of the local, authentic local information is rare and hence the response to emergencies, delays, congestions, blocks etc. is less than ideal. Leading apps bridge this gap by not only getting crowd sourced information but also having a dedicated community management function, triangulating information and feeding official news feeds based on location and user needs.

Apps have been constantly emerging to meet the emerging market needs, and taxis, private operators, non-motorized transport etc. are all seen as a part of the wider multi-modal ecosystem, welcome to the app for the benefit of the users. The apps have also evolved to meet the less than perfect connectivity challenges, allowing, for example, for downloads of optimized schedules based on past patterns.

What can cities do to get such apps?

While market is open with options, the competition is being played out between applications that are free to use, advertisement free and working with freely accessed real time data. The cities must consider two key enablers for the apps.

 Make data open and accessible

The apps live on data, and the better and more accessible the data, the better the results and services for the citizens. Cities should see the potential in opening up transport information, particularly real time data. Our experience has demonstrated that more the options and accuracy, more the likelihood of people using public transport.

Put accessibility as high as transport infrastructure on their priority agenda

Modern applications have demonstrated that transport management infrastructure can be asset light, scalable and incremental. The real value remains in unlocking the access to the complex web of public transport for people to understand in an easily understandable format. With the objective to provide accessibility first, command and control functions become secondary, relieving the cities from turnkey solutions and asset heavy investments.

Case Study - TRAFI

TRAFI, a new entrant to India market, is one of the mobile applications for commuters to comfortably access the most optimized, comprehensive and context specific public transport solutions, making navigation of cities smarter. TRAFI actively engages with transport agencies to fundamentally disrupt the resource intensive, unnecessarily complex and closed systems that run public transport in the emerging nation cities.

Key feature of the system are:

  • Low cost, incremental solutions for cities to go live with real-time public transport information

Using a cloud based analytics platform, the application has been providing its host cities and transport agencies with dashboards, analysis and alerts on the operation of public transport. The dashboards have the capability to replace the conventional hardware, computing power and cost heavy control centers with just a cloud based feed. The system can run it in parallel with conventional systems and it is completely scalable, untying cities/agencies from the turnkey approach. 

  • Making public transport more accessible, delivering more committed users

Multi-modal transit Apps are enabler for public transport. By aggregating and showcasing transport modes in their entirety, the mobile app makes it possible for people to shun cars with the convenience otherwise demonstrated by taxi aggregator/ride share apps. The apps have enabled more committed users and have unlocked the multi-modal potential in public transport systems, otherwise limited to developed world cities.

Contributor: Rajarshi Rakesh Sahai |