Navigation apps the keystone of future urban mobility?

By November 18, 2015
Navigation urbaine

Successfully increasing the number of transport options in towns and cities calls for the development of smart navigation systems that enable users to design their own journeys.

Google-owned GPS-based geographical navigation app Waze, which helps drivers navigate the urban jungle by providing them with a map enriched with real-time information from the user community, has just seen its most far-reaching update in the last three years. Some users had complained that the app was not all that easy to use when driving and Waze has now taken this feedback into account. New features include the option of choosing an alternative route, of sending geolocation details and an easier facility for transmitting information to other users.

The Waze user interface has now been entirely reworked for greater visibility and clarity, while still retaining the cartoonish icons which are part of the app’s DNA. A ‘smart calendar’ option enables you to receive an alert whenever an accident along your route is likely to cause a delay, advising you to leave home earlier as a precaution. Last but not least, Waze claims to have done everything possible to make the app less power-hungry.

Google Maps has also just had a facelift, adding new functionality, including the option of displaying petrol stations in the neighbourhood, indicating fuel pump prices, plus suggesting places where you might like to make a stop – restaurants, convenience stores, cafés and so on. You can also add a detour to your itinerary, which avoids having to re-enter all the information if you have to squeeze in a last-minute stop.

The Waze app is a navigation interface which incorporates information sent in by users

Juggling the various transport options

Among other available smart navigation apps, we also find CityMapper and Urban Engines. These play a key role in improving mobility in urban areas, a role which is set to grow as cities become more complex, as new ways of moving around appear on the scene, and as journeys rely less and less on a single means of transport and increasingly on interdependent complementary networks which citizens will have to juggle.

 ‟Our aim is to enable people to get from point A to point B more easily, incorporating a range of personal criteria into their itinerary,” explains Urban Engines General Manager Karen Roter, pointing out: ‟The ‘Internet of Moving Things’ is a wonderful opportunity to improve urban mobility and enable people – and indeed local authorities and private companies – to take the right decisions.” In addition to its app aimed at individual users, Urban Engines is collaborating with a number of local authorities worldwide, helping them to improve mobility in their cities, and also works hand-in-hand with transport and delivery companies: ‟Companies which are part of the on-demand economy need to optimise every minute of their journeys, have to make every mile they travel count. So we handhold their drivers throughout their journeys, from departure to delivery, and help them manage their itinerary in an optimal manner,” says Karen Roter.

The future looks set to bring new ways of getting around town to complement the existing public transport networks and holds out the promise of gradually replacing private cars with ridesharing along the lines of the Uber and Lyft models and solutions that come midway between public transport and shared vehicles, such as the Bridj and Chariot minibuses and autonomous electric taxis. But how can you get the best out of this ecosystem, enabling the various components to work together to achieve an optimal outcome?

Centuries ago, German mathematician, philosopher and polymath Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz devised a metaphysical system in which the universe comprises a multitude of fundamental, indivisible ‘monads’, which converge and aggregate to form the ‘supreme monad’ – the absolute totality of experience. In a similar way, navigation apps are aggregators which enable a range of available modes of transport – public transport, private and shared vehicles, bicycles etc – to be juggled and combined, each building on the other to form the ideal itinerary so that the aggregation of ideal itineraries in a city results in optimum mobility, i.e. where people flows are managed in the most efficient way.

The boom in Big Data and the Internet of Things has led to the harvesting of an unprecedented amount of information relating to mobility. Models can be extracted from this data to improve our journeys. Citizens enjoy cheaper, more efficient and more pleasant journeys, while local authorities benefit from a more fluid circulation of transport and people, less congestion in traffic lanes and on public transport, and thus a better overall system.

Urban Engines has been working with the Republic of Singapore to improve urban mobility

Combining smart navigation and incentives

Last year Californian startup Urban Engines got together with the authorities in Singapore to look at how to improve urban mobility in the crowded city-state. The firm used Big Data technology, harvesting a large amount of publicly available data on bus and train lines, routes, timetables, passenger numbers, location of and waiting time at stops, time required to get from a given train station to the nearest bus stop, daily commutes between home and workplace, commuter numbers on the various routes, traffic jams and bottlenecks, and so on.

The firm used all this information to build up an analytical map showing the public transport network, the location of each bus and train, with gauges indicating how full they were, and with each station/stop displaying the number of people waiting. This tool made it easy to spot the lines where more buses or trains were needed, where it would be useful to install new lines and, if this could not be implemented immediately, to see how people might be incentivised to alter their journey or travel outside the rush hour.

Among the solutions they looked at was to offer a monetary reward to people who agreed to switch their route or to travel outside the rush hour. Research into behavioural economics has shown that, contrary to classical economic theory, people often behave in rather irrational ways and are especially prey to a range of cognitive and emotional prejudices. So it is not a good idea to count on each person rationally weighing up all the costs and benefits in order to make the best choice of journey and thus help the authorities to manage the city’s population flows more efficiently. On the other hand, reckon the experts, it is worth thinking about introducing a system of incentives and rewards.

Accordingly, the Singapore authorities set up a reward system based on allocating points, which people can accumulate and then take part in a prize draw with the chance of winning a free public transport pass for a certain period of time. This approach, points out Karen Roter, has enabled the authorities to reduce by some 15% the pressure on certain transport lines during the rush hour.

One of the work priorities at the Google Campus is urban mobility (Photo taken from the official Google page on Google+)

Some winning formulae from Silicon Valle

A report published by the New York Times highlights the pioneering work in the field of mobility that the city of Helsinki is undertaking. With a view to doing away with individually-driven vehicles in the future, Helsinki has set a target of having an on-demand transport system in place by 2025. The idea is to use navigation apps to link together systems of minibus-on-demand, shared cars, conventional bus services and town bicycles, ensuring easy and convenient journeys without the need for private cars.

Meanwhile the town of Mountain View, in the heart of Silicon Valley, which is noted for hosting Internet giants including Google and LinkedIn, has also achieved some useful progress in this field. Its North Bayshore district, which is several miles away from the nearest train station, is largely composed of office buildings lined with huge parking lots. Only half of the 21,400 people who commute to work there every day make the journey driving alone in their car. This compares with a national average figure of 75% single-occupancy car commutes in the United States.

The reason for Mountain View’s greater efficiency, says the New York Times report, is a smart mix of public and private transport, coordinated by the company staff themselves.  In addition to public transport and services such as Uber and Lyft, they have access to private buses provided by their employers. Google for instance transports some 35% of its workforce in specially-laid-on buses. “The proportion of Google employees who drive alone to and from work, in an area where there is no public transport and nothing but office buildings, is the same as the rate in San Francisco,” claims transport consultancy expert Jeffrey Tumblin in the New York Times.

In fact Google and neighbouring companies such as LinkedIn and Intuit are taking steps to remove any reason employees might have for preferring to drive their personal vehicles to and from work.  Cyclists among the staff have access to showers equipped to ensure full comfort following their physical exertions, all three companies named above provide an emergency transport service should their staff need to get home fast in the middle of the day when the standard transport is not running regularly. Google also keeps a fleet of 80 rechargeable solar-powered electric vehicles for the use of employees and the Internet giant is moreover about to test on its new campus a small fleet of self-driving vehicles to take staff from one building to another.


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