Transportation

Alt Modes checks out apps for the car-free and car-free curious

One of my previous posts looked at how LA is embracing technology to enable transportation choice, improve the mobility of its citizens and helping them leave the car at home. I recently attended the LiveRideShare conference in Downtown LA and from the buzz it was clear that smartphone technology is opening up a new market place – that of ‘shared’ mobility and personalized modal options for the ‘here and now’. The suggestion is that in the near future, people will be purchasing (via their smartphones and not a smartcard) a transportation service based on their individual needs, situation and network conditions.

There are now a number of user-focused, multi-modal trip planning apps that aim to make getting around a city easier and make people more aware of their travel options that might help them leave the car at home. I was speaking with attendees at the conference about how these apps mean you don’t have to wade through different websites before you visit a new city – you can just use the app once you arrive at the airport. It’s all about confidence with the car-free! I have to confess that Uber has been my main app of choice since I arrived in LA as a stranger, but I’m trying to open up my options further and work out those little short cuts that help me explore LA. Plus, a decent smartphone app will allow you to plan your life around real world conditions – with so much real time information available there’s no need to wait around at a bus stop any more and spend more time doing what you love.

All of these apps have been made possible by the availability of data. End of. Without the data these apps would not exist. The more interesting discussions at LiveRideShare focused on how shared mobility could help fill service gaps – such as a carpool ride to your local Metro station and a bikeshare at the other end – there is huge potential for data sharing amongst service providers to allow for truly real time and multi-modal trip planning. But, let’s focus on some of the main players who are offering innovative ways of accessing mobility information in LA, including shared modes. I spent some time with five free iOS apps that offer this type of functionality, using them for my daily walk/transit commute, planning leisure cycle routes and getting around LA by awesome alt modes. Oh and I purposely avoided Google. Because.

CityMapper (iOS/Android, $Free)

The most recent kid on the LA block is CityMapper, an iOS and Android app that has taken the world by storm – its goal is to make a large city more easy to get around, using real time information to show the user what their best options are for a given journey – be it transit, bike, walk or taxi (inc. Uber). It’s currently available in 17 cities around the world, and it’s just arrived in LA. I used to use CityMapper a great deal in London and it gave me confidence to use the bus network – especially where real time information was available – you didn’t have to rely on timetables, you just scanned the app to see when your bus would arrive and plan accordingly.

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It had its limitations – it often made journeys out to be quicker than they actually were – but it was still the best way to navigate what is a complicated city. At the LiveRideShare conference, Ben Plowden from Transport for London was explaining how the opening up of London’s data led to the development of CityMapper – it just goes to show how important quality data is to apps and their users. In LA, CityMapper is a different beast altogether – whilst the super easy to use user interface is familiar, the results it produces just goes to underline how long it takes to get around LA by transit, and how more attractive it is to take an Uber somewhere, or even jump on your bike. But, things will improve as more transit opens up and bikeshare becomes available – especially in the Downtown area. Oh and it’s super solid when you use it – I’ve never had it crash when I didn’t want it to. It will be interesting to see how CityMapper improves over time in LA.

What Alt Modes liked:Well thought out user interface, good focus on the ‘here and now’ and the best multi-modal options for frequent journeys, results that make you feel confident about jumping on that bus and just giving transit a go (including weather at your destination), fantastic ‘follow me’ feature for cyclists looking to navigate a city by map and directions, super fast customer support response.

What Alt Modes would like to see:  Real time for Metro doesn’t seem hugely accurate – around 3 minutes out in some cases, For some reason it ignored a bike lane route along Sunset to Downtown LA, instead sending me down a busier road – I ended up using Google Maps for cycle routing instead.

Go Metro (iOS/Android, $Free)

This is LA Metro’s own transit app and I have to admit that I gave up with this one. I did used to use the older version, but a recent update has seriously impaired its performance. It took me an age to find any live departures and then noticed that it has no real time for the Red Line (unlike the rest of the apps I tested). It does offer a Live Map showing vehicle progress, but there’s no way of telling which vehicle is approaching the station – eastbound or west bound. Deleted.

RideScout (iOS/Android, $Free)

RideScout is a similar app that shows your available options for navigating a city in a single view. It’s available in many more cities than CityMapper (US only at the moment) and offers some excellent user features such as notifications when you should leave to catch your bus, when there are no bike docks available at a destination rack (London needs this!!) and a way to set your ‘ride preferences’ – so if you don’t really care for biking you can remove it from any results. RideScout also provides information on nearby carsharing services such as car2go (owned by Daimler, who also have a stake in RideScout) and zipcar. Like CityMapper, it also presents all your options for a given journey and you can rank them by depart time, arrive time or cost. Unlike CityMapper, RideScout doesn’t offer Uber rides and instead provides Flywheel, Curb and Sidecar (and other) options – an impressive array I must say (it actually made me aware of shared services that I hadn’t heard of before). Unfortunately, it crashed every time I tried to access transit details, which didn’t give me a huge amount of confidence, but an email to their customer service team resulted in a quick and friendly response, plus a fix.  RideScout tends to be more of an ‘aggregation’ tool than a full-on city navigation app like CityMapper (it kind of reminded me of Expedia or Skyscanner) but I can see its appeal especially when you’re looking to try new services and weigh up costs.

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I spoke to Rachel Charlesworth, VP of Brand at RideScout. I was interested in what makes RideScout unique and where it is heading:

“What makes RideScout unique is that we develop our product with the multimodal user in mind. When the first version of RideScout launched, we brought a lot of different transportation options together in one place and made it easy for the user to retrieve relevant information. We are now going one step further, using predictive analysis to provide information about the transportation option that works best for a particular user right now.”

Rachel Charlesworth, RideScout.

What Alt Modes liked: Clearly shows what ride options are available in your local area, offers up options you might normally would have considered, excellent presentation of options based on departure time, hooks into your calendar to provide ride options to get you to meetings and events (loved this), notifications, super fast customer service response.

What Alt Modes would like to see:  I’d prefer to have live trip planning rather than ‘options’, kept crashing (but I received excellent and rapid response from RideScout customer service and it now works), real time information for nearby transit is tricky to understand, couldn’t find a way to get real time departures for my local Metro station, no way of saving favourite journeys or stops.

Urban Engines (iOS/Android, $Free)

Urban Engines‘ new app has just been released and it uses an innovative ‘map deck’ UI to quickly plan transit journeys to or from your favourite or frequently visited places. Tim Hohman, Urban Engines’ General Sales Manager, sees the UX of the app’s user interface as an evolution similar to the way web browsers have had to adjust to user needs:

“The Deck of Maps is a game-changer for speed, real-time travel estimates, and ease of use for public transit users.  Think back to when all browsers only had one window — it seemed fine at the time but once you added Tabs there was no going back!”.

Tim Hohman, Urban Engines.

The app also has an interesting ‘X Ray’ augmented reality feature that overlays the transit network to your camera view.

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The app’s other USP is dynamic routing, based on real world network conditions – both on or offline. I really like this idea, especially in LA when the network can become congested at any time. Urban Engines’ approach is interesting, as it appears that they are taking things to the next level – especially with providing the user with the most ‘reliable’ transit options based on real world data, which may mean that you’d use a commute option that isn’t necessarily the most familiar. This might mean sending you to a station which, based on historic data, isn’t as busy at your normal commute time and means you will get on a train quicker. Or a route that takes a less direct bus route, but is normally more reliable at peak hours. But, it’s not quite there yet – so if your first train is delayed, the trip planner still recommends getting on a connecting bus that you are likely to miss. It’s this type of insight and functionality that will provide cities like LA with viable options for citizens, especially when roads are busy. You can read more about Urban Engines’ approach to network conditions monitoring in this article.

What Alt Modes liked: Claims to prioritize the ‘best’ route based on network conditions, offline routing and maps, personalization features, builds in local events to alert you about possible delays to the network, ability to feedback on the directions or information you were given.

What Alt Modes would like to see:  No travel costs yet, no other modes apart from transit, the map stack takes getting used to, the trip planner does not take into account real time – , it would be great if it offered cycle routes based on accident rates or road speeds, travel times seem a little optimistic right now.

Transit App (iOS/Android, $Free)

Another app that I’ve started to use is Transit App. None of the other apps do one thing well for me – tell me on my app home screen when my nearby Metro train or bus (inc. the correct direction of travel) is leaving the station or stop. However, the Metro station closest to home does not instantly show up, as it’s out of the map view range. Damn, So the emphasis is on local – with Transit the user is presented with all of the ‘nearby’ services and routes and when they are departing. You can filter to only show particular modes and also show nearby Ubers (including if there is a surge). It’s not multi-modal in that it offers all the world’s options, but it handles and presents real time in a very user-focused fashion – something that is perhaps more useful. Also, and to me this is fantastic, you can tell the app that you don’t mind walking far (or even tell it which modes you don’t want to use).

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You can see that there’s a lot of CityMapper in Transit – not just the green color used across the app, and the little arrow and dot icons (have they seen this??) – they have borrowed quite a lot from the user experience. One to watch.

What Alt Modes liked: Super simple user interface, very easy to grab ‘at a glance’ real time, the feature that allowed me to maximize walking and ignore certain modes, nice inclusion of Ubers

What Alt Modes would like to see:  The option for your favourites view not to be limited by your location, perhaps a multi-modal trip planner with cycling and walking – this might make it a serious CityMapper competitor, transit costs.

Summary

All of these apps have something to offer the car free and could be a very powerful took to convince those who are looking to sell their car and move on to better things. However, I found that the real time and trip planning aspect varied between the apps. Considering they are likely to be using the same data set this is a concern – this raises the question of how much we can trust third party apps? Real time departure information for a station on all of these apps differed by one or two minutes, so you still need to build in a little time to make sure you don’t miss your bus or train. I expect this to improve as relationships between developers and data providers grow and accuracy becomes top priority for busy users looking to get from a to b as quick as possible.

So where is all this heading? Personally, I would like to use a personalized travel assistance that requires limited user interaction. It knows your travel patterns, where you live and work, your regular haunts. It learns as you travel. It recognizes what modes you use, including the ones you are using right now, and provides dynamic multi-modal shared mobility options plus the means to pay for it electronically. It presumes you know your regular journeys and only butts in when things go wrong – during periods of disruption for example (which should be crowd sourced via Twitter where possible). it switches out tickets when you need to change modes. When you arrive in a new city or part of town, it offers up your transport menu and bases it’s recommendations on the ‘here and now’. Then, and this is the kicker, providing all this user generated data back to the city to help improve its network and transportation planning – a truly private/public partnership? Challenge accepted?

Thanks to all those who contributed, including Tim from Urban Engines and Rachel from RideScout. For a good thought piece on shared mobility in North America, check out this article by Susan Shaheen.

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mobility, shared use, technology

Live/Ride/Share – LA’s first Shared-Use Mobility Summit

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Hi all. On Monday I’ll be attending Live/Ride/Share – a conference that will be focusing on shared-use mobility in Southern California. Shared-mobility is a catch-all term for transport modes that can be shared amongst citizens – think Uber (ride-sourcing), bikeshare, carshare (such as zipcar) and carpooling. With the increased uptake in smartphone technologies, open data and a desire to reduce the cost of driving, shared-mobility is an exciting way forward for LA. It looks like the day will provide insight into how shared-mobility could mean lower car ownership and provide viable options for the tricky ‘first mile, last mile’ element of a journey. Excited.

Looks like the conference is sold out – which is awesome!

I’ll report back on how it went, and if you’re going, please be sure to say hi!

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air, Transportation

Do we rely too much on real time information?

Greetings from Washington DC! I’m here to present at the Transportation Research Board’s annual conference. I’m presenting on my experiences in the UK with ‘open data’ and how it’s been used to create really useful mobility tools such as CityMapper and a ‘smart column’ we recently installed at Ealing Broadway station.

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On my flight over it struck me how much we are starting to rely on real time information to plan our daily lives – up to the minute information on traffic conditions, when your bus or train is due to arrive, where your UPS parcel is and when your plane is due to take off. It’s the latter that I’d like to talk about today….

At airports we rely on the departure boards to tell us when our plane is ready to board and from which gate. It’s a pretty standard approach around the world – there’s a flight number, a destination, a status (such as delayed or go to gate) and an estimated departure time. You can use these boards to plan your brief stay at the airport and not miss your flight.

I missed my flight. First time ever.

I was sat in front of a screen in the AA lounge (frequent flyer before you ask…) casually keeping an eye on the 12.25 American Airlines flight 52 to Washington Reagan. The status didn’t say anything, so I presumed the flight was delayed. The clock hit 12.10  and still nothing. But, it’s OK, these systems are designed to update us. It got to 12.20 and I decided to head to the gate. They’d closed it. No way of getting on. I checked the nearest board and the flight status said ‘flight closed’. Simply put, the board I was looking at wasn’t updating. The gate had been calling me, but those messages don’t reach the lounge.

I went to customer services to see what my options were. Luckily I was booked on the next flight (via Chicago), but when I mentioned the board issue the lady replied ‘oh that happens, we’re speaking to the guys who look after the screens to fix that problem’. I questioned the lack of audio announcements and the reply was ‘oh sometimes we get those in the lounge, but not always’.

Massive lesson learned and I definitely think I’ve become too reliant on electronic information – especially when there are things at stake! It just underlines that with all the best data and technology in the world, there is always a human involved – and if that human isn’t paying attention (both passenger and system provider) bad things happen.

I’ll be talking more about this and user centred design at my presentation at TRB today – I’ll get my slides up on the blog for you to check out.

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Transportation

10 cool things about being car free in 2015!

1. You can take your bike on the subway and on buses.

This is great and something that is sorely lacking in other major cities around the world. I see lots of people hucking their bikes onto the front of buses and wheeling them on to subway trains. This sets up infinite multi-modal journey options – it’s just a shame that the LA Metro trip planner doesn’t offer this as an option.

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2. You can save money – transit is really cheap to use and walking/biking are free

$1.75 for a one-way trip on the subway, 50 cents for a local LADOT community bus service. Bargain.

3. There are some great cycle routes in LA to enjoy, plus you might see some wildlife…

Aside from bike lanes (the one on Sunset is pretty good) there are some awesome bike trails to take in. If I worked in Burbank this would be my commute of choice for sure.

4. You’ll get to see cool street art like this

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5. If you build a walk into your day, you get to burn calories and listen to some really great podcasts

I walk about an hour everyday – which leaves me to listen to some great podcasts such as Marc Maron’s WTF, This American Life and Serial. Yeah you can listen to them in your car, but there’s something about walking and listening….

6. LA transit has real time via smartphone – no need to wait at the bus stop any more

While there is some progress to be made on the user experience side of things, both LA Metro and LA DOT offer real time arrivals information for bus stops and stations in Los Angeles. This makes travelling much easier for a new-comer and helps me understand the network a little better.

What they really need is a smart real time powered trip planner – more on that later….

7. Try rideshare – it’s everywhere and has really competitive rates

We use rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft to get to gigs, the supermarket, the beach and the movies. Without it we’d have to spend much more time on transit. Never had to wait more than 5 minutes for a ride. Just download the app and you’re off.

8. It’s a great conversation opener! You’ll always get into a good debate….

Saying that you don’t have a car at a party really gets the conversation going. You’ll get different responses ranging from ‘how on earth do you manage that?’ to ‘that’s awesome, how can I do that?’.

9. You can enjoy the splendid weather that LA has to offer…

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10. Never have to worry about parking, unless it’s your bike…

Valet parking? What’s that all about? I can’t park my own car? Weird and expensive (plus you’re throwing your keys at a stranger).

For the cyclist, Santa Monica has got this wrapped up with a great Bike Center. You can store your bike securely, use a locker, get a shower and even get your bike fixed. It’s like valet but far more useful. Check it out here. More of these please – I’d love one in Downtown as my building doesn’t have these facilities. Pretty please?

Over to you…got any of your own?

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Transportation

Hitting the streets – the deal with LA

To kick off I thought I’d give a quick run-down of what it has been like to live in LA without a car so far. We get asked a lot why we don’t have a car. The main reason is the hassle and impact on our quality of life – driving in LA can be a pain and finding parking is really boring (we rented a car during the first month of our move). I also like to walk, bike and use transit – it’s cheaper, I get to enjoy the magnificent weather and, hey, I get to interact with normal people! Plus, cars are expensive and we’d rather do without the cost. Plus, I guess it’s good to practice what I preach….

By and large we really haven’t needed one, mainly because we chose to live in an area (Los Feliz) that is walkable and that has good transit links to Downtown (where I currently work). If we didn’t have these two things, I think it would be trickier to get around without a car. But, you CAN get around LA without owning a car and spending a fortune on taxis – technology makes this possible (to the smartphone owning person of course).

Oh and we absolutely love living in LA. With or without a car.

‘Well, good for you!’ – confessing the car free life to locals

Our LA friends are genuinely shocked that we don’t have a car. They are really concerned for our well being. We once told our friends that we walk to the supermarket (it’s less than a mile) – I thought they were going to recommend a therapist.

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LA has a pretty good public transit system.

I take LA Metro’s Red Line to work everyday. It’s cheap ($1.75 per trip), not particularly crowded and I have a station nearby which I can walk or skateboard to. It’s 1.3 miles away (see above for normal Angeleno reaction to this). At the other end of the journey I can walk 5 minutes to my office. Why would I drive? Looking at it from a different angle, if you want to get to somewhere that doesn’t have decent transport links (such as the beach), prepare to spend a long time on a bus.

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Technology is making city mobility easier.

Admittedly, if it wasn’t for Google Maps and Uber I think we’d be in trouble. Both of these tools provide us with viable options – be it transit, walking or carsharing – for getting around the city. Uber in particular has been a huge bonus. If you’re not aware of Uber, check out an article I recently wrote – I’ll be updating this soon, including an update on how much it costs to switch to using transit and Uber to get around. LA Metro also has a pretty decent smartcard system, but it’s poorly integrated (i.e. not really at all) with other operators in the city – for example, I can’t step off the Red Line and hop on a LA DOT bus and pay for the trip with my TAP card. Well, not as far as I’m aware!  LA also has online real time information for most transit services, but the user experience side of things has to be carefully reconsidered – at the moment it’s just not that good and accessing information is a tricky process. Again, all of this information and guidance is only really available to those who have smartphones and are computer literate – I’ll be picking up on this in an upcoming post.

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The weather encourages you to get out and about.

You can pretty much rely on the sun shining when you leave the house in the morning, so walking is a viable option. Same goes for biking. We have friends who walk everywhere in LA – even better, the sidewalks tend to be pretty quiet so skateboarding is also a great option! Just watch out for the uneven surfaces. Using my iPhone Health app I’ve noticed that I regularly hit 10,000 steps a day (well, my average is just under 9,000 – thanks Holidays), so I’m keeping fit at the same time.

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The roads are by and large terrifying places for cyclists – but things are changing

I ride a bike in London, but nothing has prepared me for LA roads and the drivers. Plus, most people I’ve spoken to who bike in LA have been knocked off their bike at least once – the roads are a scary place for cyclists. Drivers seem to be permanently glued to their smartphone screens. But, things are starting to improve – LA currently has around 300 miles of bikeways and the plan is to deliver over 1,600 miles of bikeways over 35 years. Cities such as Santa Monica, Long Beach and Pasadena are really leading the charge with making their roads more bikeable. Bikeshare (Boris Bikes) are also coming to Downtown LA, and Santa Monica (and others) are leading the charge with a proposed bikeshare system in the works. Importantly, cycling is starting to crop up in the mainstream media and the debate over sharing space is getting louder. We also have CicLAvia – where LA’s streets and roads get turned into awesome bike festivals. If you want to check out some of my rides in LA – I’m on Strava.

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There’s an appetite for change in LA

We speak to a lot of people as we travel around LA – the general impression that I get when I tell people what I do is that LA is ripe for change. Something needs to budge as gas prices get higher and roads more congested. Younger people also appear to be more receptive to change – they see transit as a viable option and not one that is solely for the carless who live in the city. I recently presented at an LA Metro digital event which also got me thinking that LA could be following other major US cities and really thinking about how multi-modal mobility could be enabled by using technology and focused urban planning.

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When you leave the car at home, you see some cool stuff.

There are a huge amount of amazing sights and sounds in LA. The city has art and culture ingrained in its streets and if you walk around places like Venice you can see how this has been sewn into the very fabric of the neighbourhood.

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Transportation

A New Arrival in the City of Angels

I’ve recently moved with my wife to Los Angeles from the UK to change the way people move and live their lives. Crazy, right? Luckily I’m working for a company that has a vision of a smarter transportation future for LA, using behaviour change methods, technology and urban planning to improve mobility and lower daily reliance on the car. Even luckier I have a passion for all types of alternative transport modes – especially the bicycle – and how we can use digital technologies cost-effectively to make it easier and more attractive to use them. Even writing that makes me nervous – what a challenge!

I’m planning to use this blog to share my thoughts and perspectives of a Brit living and working in LA – I’m planning on making my posts insightful and based on real world experiences getting around LA. I’m also hoping to get some guest interviews and links to interesting podcasts, videos and conferences. There will also be photos (Join me on Instagram – there will be transport geek shots with interesting filters).

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Most importantly, we’ve decided not to buy a car.  Yes you read that right. Again, pretty crazy, but our experiences so far suggest that it could be done. My blog will provide advice and insight on living in LA as a transportation minority and hopefully try and debunk a number of transportation myths. To get off on the right foot, I walk and use transit everyday to get to work in Downtown LA and survive to tell the tale.

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If you’d like to get in touch, please feel free to do so by using comments below – I’m looking to build up a network of alternative mode advocates in LA to share ideas, go on bike rides and eat cake with (maybe all at the same time). Oh and I love music – there will also be some gig and album reviews (just to placate the inner music critic in me).

Oh, one final thing – here’s some interesting trips I’ve done so far using alternative modes:

  • Hollywood to Burbank (and back) on horseback
  • Venice to Santa Monica (and back) by skateboard
  • Los Feliz to Disneyland by transit and Uber without losing my mind (more on this soon)
  • A loop of Griffith Park on my mountain bike, avoiding a coyote.
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