Driverless cars and Mobility as a Service can improve our world – so long as they're properly regulated

Uber-branded driverless cars in Pittsburgh. Image: Getty.

New technology has the potential to improve public transport and increase mobility – but we won’t reap the benefits without the right intervention by government. If new technologies are not implemented properly they will potentially worsen health outcomes, reduce safety, increase congestion and make it harder for the government to achieve their objectives.

Electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles and Mobility as a Service (MaaS) are intrinsically linked issues that will develop together to provide an on-demand autonomous vehicle service (“Uber without drivers”) alongside other public and private transport modes. This will sit alongside the private ownership of electric and autonomous vehicles which continues the conventional model.

We are already seeing journey planning apps evolve from merely providing travel information to linking through to transport service provision. This will evolve to a full MaaS model, where various public and private transport options are presented alongside each other, with ordering and payment for any services used handled by the app. This will include on-demand autonomous vehicle rides.

MaaS has potential to help achieve the health, wellbeing, air pollution and congestion objectives of government, but only through good user interface design where active and sustainable transport are included and prioritised. But if not planned properly, active travel options, which cannot currently earn revenue for the app providers, could be deprioritised in the app user interface (that is, shown with less prominence, not ‘front-and-centre’).

Citymapper, for example, shows Uber alongside other modes and allows booking from within the app. Government will therefore need to influence third party app design to prioritise walking and public transport use in order to achieve their sustainable transport aims. This could be achieved by restrictions on the supply of transit data – for example, requiring journeys that can be completed on foot in under 20 minutes to have walking as the first or most prominent option. It could also be achieved by purchasing prominence in the user interface in much the same way advertising is purchased.


Autonomous vehicles, arranged on a shared basis, could allow more people to stop owning cars. In a positive scenario walking, cycling and public transport would remain the main public transport modes with autonomous vehicles used on rare occasions for specific reasons, such as visiting places with poor public transport or collecting large items.

However, if the pricing of autonomous vehicle rides is set too close to that of public transport fares there is potential for mode shift away from sustainable transport to autonomous vehicles. If the autonomous vehicle ride cost is too low relative to public transport fares this will also encourage low occupancy levels. This negative scenario would cause increased congestion and have worse health outcomes as active travel stages of journeys decrease.

Electric and autonomous electric vehicles are not zero emission: air pollution is generated in their production and when the electricity for their operation is generated. More significantly, they are responsible for roadside particulate matter (PM) pollution from braking systems and tire wear. Therefore, the introduction of electric vehicles and autonomous electric vehicles should not be permitted to facilitate an increase in private or private hire vehicle trips.

Autonomous vehicles are presented as being safer and requiring less road space because they can drive closer together. However, to achieve these benefits all vehicles on the road will need to be autonomous and coordinated. Complete adoption of autonomous vehicles is unlikely any time soon, without an intervention such as banning conventional vehicles.

The benefits of autonomous vehicles will not appear automatically. As with any technology, we need to ensure it is regulated properly – and we don’t lose sight of the healthier society we were hoping to achieve.

Steve Chambers is policy & research coordinator at Living Streets, the charity for every day walking, on whose blog this article first appeared.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.