Transport utopianism is stupid, and Elon Musk should shut up

No. Image: Getty.

One of the things that’s most irritating about politics in 2018 – and goodness me, aren’t there a lot of choices – is the utopianism that’s crept into the transport debate. There is an apparently endless supply of people who wouldn’t be seen dead on public transport, or using any other service labelled with the word “public”, if they can possibly help it, yet who have come to the conclusion that they are the people the staid and dusty world of transport policy has been waiting for. 

And the message they are keen to send is that the old ways of doing things is over: shiny new technologies are going to disrupt the transport sector, just as they disrupted the music industry or retail. Why bother investing in mass-transit, when autonomous vehicles (AV) and ride-hailing apps are about to take over the world? Why waste money on high speed rail, when Elon Musk’s exciting new hyperloop will be along any minute? Silicon Valley types ask these questions, even as they earnestly suggest some kind of fixed route, ride-sharing service based on vehicles larger than the private car, blissfully unaware that they’ve just re-invented the bus. Again.

It’s true that new technologies will have huge, and occasionally unexpected, effects on our transport systems. AV, for example, could reduce the need for parking spaces, freeing up huge amounts of land for other uses, and may eventually make roads safer, too. As sci-fi as it sounds, the hyperloop – pods in vacuum tubes, travelling at up to 760 miles per hour – is, technically, feasible; if it happens, it could radically reduce demand for carbon-spewing short-haul flights.

But these two technologies have something else in common: low capacity. The pods on most of the – still largely theoretical – hyperloop designs can carry only a few dozen people each. And however clever AVs are, they don’t change the rules of geometry. A world in which every journey involves a private car, travelling at a limited speed, means continuing to give over a load of space in our cities to roads. If cars end up taking longer routes to avoid traffic, we might even need more.


There are transport technologies that don’t face these problems – that can carry a lot of people, at decent speeds, while producing relatively little pollution and taking up relatively little space. But they aren’t excitingly sexy and new things like AV or Hyperloop: they’re boring ones, like trains and trams and buses.

New technologies will improve those, too. Smarter and more integrated payment systems will make them easier to use. Big data will help planners spot gaps in the network, that could be usefully or profitably filled. Apps will help users to plan more efficient journeys, and spread them out so they don’t all travel at once.

But the point remains: if you want to move large numbers of people around limited space in the most efficient way possible, you should invest in fixed and predictable high-capacity routes. The solution is the same as it ever was: decently run mass transit networks. There is a reason Silicon Valley keeps re-inventing the bus.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

This article first appeared in the New Statesman’s sister publication Spotlight.

 
 
 
 

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.