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Smartphone mobility: Directing the future of transport

Category: Technology
Published: 04/11/2016

Earlier this year, we wrote about a seismic shift changing the way people travel, noting how technology is transforming the way we move.

The increasing availability, capability, and affordability of intelligent transportation systems, global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), wireless, and cloud technologies – coupled with the growth of data availability and sharing – are causing people to increasingly turn to mobile devices, mobile internet, and smartphone apps for numerous transportation functions such as: vehicle routing, real-time data on congestion, information about roadway construction and incidents, parking availability, and real-time public transit arrival predictions.

Four types of apps taking us forward

In particular, four types of apps are having a notable impact on transportation. These include mobility apps; courier network services (CNS); vehicle connectivity apps; and smart parking apps:

  1. Mobility apps assist users with routing, booking, and payment of single and multimodal trips. This can include shared mobility (business-to-consumer and peer-to-peer sharing apps), public transit apps, real-time information apps, taxi e-Hail, and multimodal aggregators
  2. Courier network services offer for-hire paid delivery services for monetary compensation using an online application to connect couriers using private vehicles, bicycles, or scooters with freight
  3. Vehicle connectivity apps provide vehicle diagnostic information and enable remote access and dispatch emergency services (e.g., accident and roadside assistance, unlocking a vehicle)
  4. Smart parking apps provide information on parking costs and availability. This can include “e-Parking” services to reserve and pay for parking and “e-Valet” services that connect vehicle owners to valet drivers to pick-up, park, and return vehicles

More powerful and relevant real-time information

mobility as a service is accessed through apps

The dissemination of real-time information to mobile users immediately after collection is the most important aspect of smartphone transportation apps. The availability of real-time information (e.g. traffic conditions, roadway incidents, parking availability, and public transit wait times) distinguishes newer smartphone apps from many early mobile services. Early mobile transportation apps tended to provide static data only, such as public transit timetables. Today, 71% of transportation apps incorporate some type of real-time information into the application.

Gamification is applied to transportation 

In addition to providing real-time information, transportation apps, like Waze and GasBuddy, are increasingly employing gamification and other incentives to increase user engagement and retention, as well as encourage/discourage particular behaviours (through employing leader boards, badges, levels, progress bars, and points).

For example, a user might receive points, increased rankings, or rewards for environmentally conscious behaviours – such as carpooling or riding public transit – instead of driving alone or using an alternative mode on a “spare-the-air” day.

Gamification is also often closely associated and paired with “incentives”. Apps may reward users with incentives such as: 1) installing the app for the first use; 2) a first or second use; 3) a particular frequency of use over a period of time; and 4) a behavioural change (e.g. using public transit during off-peak times). Incentives for ongoing behaviours can include discounts, coupons, gift cards, and other rewards.

Beyond transforming how people make mobility decisions and travel, mobile apps/services offer a notable opportunity to improve our understanding of traveller behaviour, identify gaps in the transportation network, and guide future infrastructure (physical and information technology) investments.

Insight from such data is invaluable.

Facilitating open data and data sharing


It is critical to promote open data and data sharing, as data are the basis of app-based services. The public and private sectors are instrumental in facilitating data sharing through public-private partnerships.

Examples of this include success stories from the 2014 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro where the government obtained driver navigation data from Google’s Waze app and combined it with information from pedestrians who use the public transportation app Moovit. The aggregated data provided local authorities with valuable real-time information about the transportation network. Previously, the local transportation department had been reliant solely on road cameras and roadway sensor data.

Incorporating data from Waze and Moovit allowed local officials to use aggregated mobility data on 110,000 drivers (half a million over the course of the month) and to identify thousands of operational issues ranging from congestion to roadway hazards. In exchange for sharing user mobility data with governmental authorities, Waze asked for transportation network data (e.g. sensor data, construction information, etc.), exemplifying how the public and private sectors can mutually benefit through data partnerships.

Providing open data can also allow public agencies to disseminate real-time transportation information to their communities, without the cost or responsibility of developing or maintaining their own smartphone apps. Public agencies can support data sharing by establishing data sharing policies, adopting acceptable use policies, and developing terms and conditions for data use. Opening data and developing sharing standards can improve transparency and accessibility, while simultaneously encouraging the private sector to develop new features and apps that take advantage of data feeds.

Many factors are changing the way people route, book, and pay for travel and goods delivery, including demographic shifts, improvements in computing power and mapping technology, the use of cloud computing, changes in wireless communication, concerns about congestion, and increased awareness about the environment and climate change.

This article was co-authored with Adam Cohen.

Shaheen and Cohen, along with Ismail Zohdy and Beaudry Kock, are co-authors of the US Federal Highway Administration primer Smartphone Applications to Influence Travel Choices: Practices and Policies.