Why the iPhone Makes Ditching Your Car a Lot Less Painful

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A recent study found that real-time transit info accessible via mobile devices makes public transit a much more attractive option. It’s a finding I can personally vouch for, thanks to ample experience using my iPhone to help me get around my home city of Toronto. Mobile devices and apps can help drastically improve the appeal and usefulness of public and shared transit options, but only if companies and legislators take a cue from some of the good examples already out there.

Eliminating the Uncertainty

The study I mentioned above was conducted by research firm Latitude in Boston and San Francisco, and involved asking drivers in both cities to give up their cars for a week and then respond to survey questions about their experiences. The results of the study indicate that what makes switching from car ownership to public transit options more appealing is the easy availability of real-time information regarding transit services. Think about every time you’ve ever waited for a bus. Wouldn’t you be much more comfortable doing so if you knew exactly where it was and when it was scheduled to arrive?

In places where public transit is much more popular than in North America, like Western Europe and Japan, transit schedules tend to be more exact. In Japan, trains generally arrive on schedule to the minute, and if they don’t, you can even get a train conductor to issue you a note explaining your tardiness to work. Eliminating the uncertainty involved in public transit goes a long way to enabling a sense of control for transit users, making the entire experience more pleasant.

If we can’t mimic the efficiency of transit systems across the ocean here in North America, we can at least attack the problem from the other end and provide real-time information about when buses and trains will arrive, rather than when they’re supposed to.

A great (albeit city-specific) example of this idea in action is the Next TTC app for iPhone. It uses your device’s location services and data shared by the Toronto Transit Commission to tell you exactly when the next streetcar is arriving at the stop nearest you. A simple tap allows you to switch directions, and you can also favorite frequently used stops or manually select any stop of your choosing to see real-time streetcar info from around the city.

The developer notes that the TTC (which is publicly run) will be releasing the same info for bus routes in the near future, so that those stops can also be added to the app. Streetcars in Toronto are notoriously unpredictable (they share the road with cars on many routes) and I’d actually given up on using them out of frustration before the arrival of this app. Now I can check when the next four are due to arrive from the comfort of my apartment and plan accordingly, so I use them all the time.

Information and Control

Public transit is one option for shared transport, but car sharing services like Zipcar (which performed impressively during its IPO filing last week) is also a good way to escape car ownership, and also one that benefits from the growing popularity of smartphones and mobile data. The Zipcar app, for instance, offers iPhone users the ability to book, extend and cancel reservations, and to find available cars in their immediate area. You can even use the app to lock and unlock the car, and to honk the horn to make it easier to find. Zipcar is the biggest name in car sharing, and the smart, sophisticated and easy-to-use design of its iPhone app and the convenience that it brings no doubt played a role in its success.

Since I started using Zipcar earlier this year, I’ve used the iPhone app to make and change reservations almost exclusively. I actually opt to use the app even when I’m within easy reach of a desktop or laptop, simply because it makes doing so incredibly easy. Having the option to quickly book anytime, anywhere from my mobile means I’ve often gotten a car in situations when I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to. Without the app, I’m not sure I’d even get enough usage out of the service to justify renewing my membership next year. With the app, it’s become a service I can’t really see myself doing without.

Two more recent Zipcar competitors that use a peer-to-peer sharing model, Spride Share and RelayRides, don’t yet offer iPhone apps to help make the process simpler, but it’s something users of the services are asking for. Both CEOs will be at Green:Net tomorrow, and it’s a good bet that plans for mobile service offerings will come up for discussion.

More Than Maps

There are countless transit map applications out there, that tell you locations of subway stations and posted schedules and much more. These are useful, and no doubt alleviate some of the confusion that comes with using an unfamiliar transit system. But they are also mostly static, and don’t fully leverage the unique advantages available to smart, data-equipped mobile devices. As the examples mentioned above illustrate, there’s a tremendous opportunity with mobile apps when it comes to making shared transit a more attractive option to more people, but it will take targeted investment and intelligent coordination between government, the private sector and developers to make it happen.

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