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Our car-free future will be blocked by Comcast tactics

Monopoly-seeking behaviour and closed data policies will impede the shift away from cars… can our cities help prevent it?

November 1, 2018

Cars are turning the planet into a rotten hellbiscuit but you gotta hand it to them: they’re pretty convenient for getting around. You don’t have to walk to a stop. You don’t have to wait for anything to show up. There’s no transfers. You just turn the key, press the pedal, and go. So while we might all want a detox from our gas-tippling, exhaust-spewing congestion machines, that’s never happening. At least not until an equally-convenient alternative presents itself.

Lucky for us — in 2018, those alternatives started appearing all over the place.

JUMP. Bird. Lime. Lyft. Skip. Scoot. Spin. The last ten months have added thousands of car-killing arrows to the traveling urbanist’s quiver.

First launched stateside in 2017, dockless scooters and e-bikes are the most promising solution to the stranglehold cars have on cities. In a recent Portland survey, 6% of scooter riders said they got rid of their cars in the last three months. Another 16% considered it.

Today, those micromobility companies are growing faster than Uber and Lyft ever did.

Bird & Lime 🚀 vs. Uber & Lyft 🏎. Source: Horace Dediu.

Yet we still need to figure out how to turn that 6% into 60%.

And not just in Portland —in every city.

How will we convince those billions of city dwellers they don’t need a car?

Open infrastructure: it’s the only way to make alternative modes as convenient as owning a car.

It’s not rocket science: to get people out of cars, cities need to do everything in their power to make car-free transport as convenient as possible. For that, we need better physical infrastructure: bike lanes, bus lanes, subways that actually work.

But we need the right digital infrastructure, too.

Bad digital infrastructure will make it harder for riders to make car-free trips. It will encourage monopolies, higher prices, and introduce needless friction. It’s the Comcast future of mobility.

However, with open digital infrastructure, we would get a competitive, vibrant mobility market.

Cities are at a crossroads. Which track will they take?

Option 1: Xerox-style “multi-modal” consultant apps
  • Price for cities: 💰💰💰
  • User experience: 💩 💩 💩
  • Effect on car usage: Little to no effect.

Cities love the word “multi-modal”. (OK it’s not one word it’s two.) Multi-modal commuting promises to let you seamlessly stitch together different modes, à la carte. Public transit for long jaunts. A scooter or bike for short ones. And ridehail, for trips in between. “If we can show our riders more options than JUST transit,” cities reckon, “we’ll be able to lure more drivers out of their cars and onto alternative modes.”

Right. The problem is lots of cities insist on building multi-modal apps themselves. Consider Los Angeles: In 2016, they got the young, frisky innovators at Xerox to build a multi-modal app for their citizens: GoLA.

The press went wild. The mayor pitched it on TV.

Then after a few months… the app got killed.

Pictured: mobility-loving Angelenos.

What went wrong?

Bluntly: one-off consultants don’t build good apps. Navigation apps like Google Maps, Apple Maps, Uber, Lyft, and Transit have been built over years of iteration, competition, user research, design, development, and marketing.

GoLA… was not.

Ugly apps can be redesigned. But ugly data infrastructure? That’s something not even Jony Ive can help with.

Fatally: Xerox couldn’t get all of LA’s mobility companies to show their vehicles in GoLA. The result was a grotesque “multi-modal” app that showed an incomplete motley of modes (for instance: it showed Lyft, but not Uber.) You couldn’t even book trips in the app!

Los Angeles wasn’t the only city to fall into that trap, though. Denver had a near identical experience with Xerox. And the city of Columbus, Ohio just launched plans for their own multi-modal app…

For outsiders, it’s easy to indulge in the schadenfreude of seeing a public agency screw up its digital strategy. For taxpayers, it’s an unforced error.

The real problem, though, is that in the long run, these botched apps create a transportation power vacuum.

If cities can’t succeed in building a multi-modal transport app… who will?

Option 2: Comcast-style “multi-modal” juggernauts
  • Price for cities: free.
  • User experience: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Effect on car usage: ❓❓❓

Big corporations want to fill the void where consultant-built apps have failed.

Whether it’s…

  • Didi (🚖🚘🛴🚲)
  • Uber/JUMP (🚘🚲🛴)
  • Lime (🛴🚘)
  • Grab/oBike (🚖🚘🛴🚲)
  • Lyft/Motivate (🚘🚲🛴) or
  • Daimler/car2go/myTaxi (🚘🚖🛴)

…commuters today have more options than ever. Better options than ever. And a better user experience than the monstrous multi-modal apps built by you-know-who.

However, just like Comcast refuses to let you watch some channels unless you subscribe to their entire package, today’s multi-modal juggernauts might eventually do the same. But in this case, more than ESPN is at stake — it’s our cities’ car-free future.

More channels, more choice. Urban mobility is no different. But with the stakes so high, mobility operators can’t be as flippant as Comcast. We can’t afford to close mobility channels — yet in some places, it’s already happening.

Take car2go, owned by Daimler. Previously, car2go published its vehicle locations online with an open API. It meant anyone could add car2go to their platform: whether it was a scooter app, a ridehail app, or an app for public transit. It made it super convenient to compare options or plan a multi-modal trip. But now, it’s not. Now Daimler pushes you to use the proprietary car2goâ„¢ app to find car2goâ„¢ vehicles or book car2goâ„¢ trips.

It’s where the rest of the industry could be headed, with mobility companies yanking support for open APIs: no shared vehicle locations, no transparent prices, no way to plan or book a multi-modal trip across providers. It would make multi-modal transport way less convenient than it already is — and car ownership, as attractive as ever.

If other companies follow Daimler’s path:

  • You won’t be able to see all your options in third-party apps (i.e. Apple Maps, Google Maps, Transit).
  • Planning (or paying) for a multi-modal trip will require juggling apps. AKA no easy way to compare surge pricing, waiting or walking times. Worse — you’ll have to stitch together each leg, manually.
  • Don’t want to juggle 10 scooter/bike/car/ridehailing/transit apps? Of course you don’t. But it will give rise to Comcast-style, multi-modal juggernauts.

Moreover, it risks cannibalizing public transit. If juggernauts only make money by putting butts in seats (or foots on scoots) what incentive will they have to aggressively promote public transit, the only sustainable — but also, the least profitable — way to move people across wide swaths of city?

If we don’t find a way to make it easy to combine shared mobility services with one another AND public transit, cities will remain shackled by cars.

But we can avoid that Comcast future. There is another way.

Option 3: Open the APIs!
  • Price for cities: free.
  • User experience: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Effect on car usage: significant, predictable decrease.

Cities haven’t always been big fans of open APIs. In fact: transit agencies were once known to sue developers who dared to publish transit data online.

How times have changed!

Cities changed their tune because they realized open APIs get people out of cars. Open transit APIs mean better access for riders: whether it’s transit routes and schedules (via GTFS) or real-time locations for buses and trains. Open APIs make transit predictable. Less beholden to chance. When you expand open APIs to more modes? Those effects compound.

That’s why at Transit we’ve always been advocates for open APIs — and not just for transit. We’ve integrated every single mobility service we possibly could: from car2go ⚰️💐, Uber, docked bikes, dockless bikes, to e-scooters.

Some of these services see the value of openness: JUMP, now an Uber subsidiary, offers an open bikeshare API called GBFS in all their markets, as does Motivate, a Lyft subsidiary. With GBFS, anyone can see all the bikes around town.

With standards like GTFS and GBFS, third-party actors are free to promote car-free transport in beautifully unexpected ways — whether it’s companies like Remix, Ride Report, Local Logic, or Populus using open APIs to help cities improve their mobility infrastructure, projects like Transit Score that let you find apartments with good transit access, research that studies mobility access in poor vs. rich neighbourhoods, or apps like Transit that let you combine trips across different modes.

Ride Report, Local Logic, and Remix — all doing fantastic work aided by open data.

Publicly, mobility companies support sharing open APIs. In practice, many are following Daimler’s lead, hiding their data under lock and key. In fact, the only place where you can reliably find open APIs these days are in cities that require open APIs as a prerequisite for getting a business permit.

Washington, DC is the gold standard here: their strong open API requirement makes it easy to compare and combine multi-modal options. Cities with these requirements are the only places where companies like Bird and Lime are sharing open APIs. (No coincidence: these cities are the places where researchers are publishing most about the impacts of micromobility.)

Moral of the story? Cities do have a role to play. But it’s not about building apps. It’s about building infrastructure — digital infrastructure — so mobility companies work together, instead of against each other.

Cities promoted the adoption of GTFS. They promoted the adoption of GBFS. Today, with the emergence of free-floating cars and bikes and scooters, it’s time for cities to promote open standards, once again.

Funnily enough, the city that got burned by Option 1 is now one of the biggest proponents of Option 3. Los Angeles is no longer promoting GoLA: it has shifted its focus to empower third-party developers with open APIs. And it’s leading the charge for cities to adopt MDS, the API of micromobility.

But while standards are great, they aren’t enough. Cities, operators, and mobility advocates need to work together to ensure we aren’t just saying we support open APIs. We have to find ways to…

  1. Encourage new mobility services (car2go, Bird, Lime, etc.) to adopt open APIs.
  2. Push cities to focus on what they’re good at (building infrastructure, incentivizing good behaviour, solving coordination problems) rather than embarking on wild technological goose chases.
  3. Make it easier for riders to sign-up, locate, unlock, pay, and combine all multi-modal services. Which includes permitting more scooters and bikes!
  4. Discourage anti-competitive “exclusive APIs” that make multi-modal options harder to discover for everyone.
  5. Create a bulwark for open APIs so that companies aren’t pressured to turn their public gardens of data, into walled gardens of data.

Together, we can get it right. Let’s make sure we do.

Our car-free future depends on it.

Prefer your mobility policy positions in a more formal format? Wonk out with our white paper: Private data islands or public data oasis?
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