Why Smartphones’ Effect On Transit Is Overrated

The spread of smartphones, with their apps for maps and transit schedules, is leading the usual tech boosters to claim that the world is on the cusp of revolution and transit and urbanism must change to accommodate. This video by Gensler Architects is a typical example, rightly excoriated on Human Transit for trying to replace fixed-route public transit with glorified taxi-share and calling it “liberated transit.” What this could be called is smartphone-oriented transit, and it’s rarely good transit.

In reality, technological progress is slow and painstaking, and does not offer many good reasons to reinvent the wheel. Consider clockface schedules: one would expect that in an environment in which everyone has a smartphone and could look up schedules in an instant, there’s no need for an easily memorable timetable. One would expect the benefits of clockface schedules to evaporate, and agencies with arbitrary schedules to have sharp ridership increases, as if they suddenly adopted such timetables.

However, this is not observed. We haven’t seen outsized ridership increases in the last few years in takt-less regions imitating the ridership gains coming from a memory schedule. See, for example, the anemic ridership gain on the MBTA commuter rail in the 2000s. It turns out that being able to know when your train is coming without consulting software is still worth something, just as it was worth something to not need to consult a printed timetable.

For another example, consider good service maps, including a listing of route frequency. Google Transit will tell you when the bus is expected to come, but not delve into which routes are more frequent and reliable than others. Thus separate listing of frequent buses remains important – in fact, it’s gradually being adopted in American cities now, without any fanfare from urban visionaries.

Since smartphones don’t have that big of an effect on transit, there are two questions that naturally follow. First, why do some agencies, such as New York’s MTA, constantly plug their growing body of transit-related apps? And, second, if smartphone-oriented transit doesn’t work, what technologies do meaningfully affect transit use, and how?

The answer to the first question is that it comes from ideology. If you think like an American entrepreneur, or like a Friedmanesque booster who likes American entrepreneurs, this attitude is understandable. Smartphones were invented in North America; apps are written by upstart members of Richard Florida’s creative class. It’s much easier for people with such a mentality to get the role of the software superstar than to get that of the transit planner. If a transit planner gets fame from such quarters, it’s for doing bold, individualist, technological things, which are almost never best industry practice. Former MTA chief Jay Walder’s ideas about smartcards are a good example: his idea of how to speed up commuter rail ticket-checking is to equip conductors with smartcard readers but still require them to go through the entire train every single time. Proof-of-payment is for light rail and European bureaucrats; true American entrepreneurs use hi-tech solutions.

A related issue is one of competence. The MTA is bragging about everything, since it’s under criticism about everything and there’s no progress about costs; apps are one of several things to brag about, to make it look as if lemons are actually lemonade. This is not ideological, but it’s closely related to reformism and boosterism. Since part of the Friedmanesque ideology is that progress comes from individualists, good government does not really come into play, except when it encourages individualists to make apps. If government is inherently incompetent, then there’s no need to engage in good design or follow best practices; the app developers will take care of everything.

The answer to the second question is that smartphones do make transit more convenient – the map is right there – but are not a game changer. The technology most relevant to transit is the kind that makes it possible to run more smoothly, cheaply, punctually, and quickly. Recent examples include improved TBM designs, regenerative braking, guided buses, articulated train interiors, 100% low-floor buses and trains, DMUs that can be maintained in bus shops, hybrid and electric buses, more aerodynamic vehicles, and catenary-free light rail. None is a game changer; all taken together make transit much more efficient and convenient than it was in 1950, all else being equal. Of course, comparable technological improvements also made cars more convenient, and the spread of cars has made transit less useful, but the vehicles themselves are a huge improvement.

It’s easy to think of technology as a series of gamechanging innovations, but it really isn’t. The assembly line was a gamechanger, but it took multiple decades for mass-produced cars to remake society in their image, and every step of the way it was intimately related to such preexisting trends as urban renewal and anti-railroad populism. It should be thought of as a painstakingly long process of growth, which is nothing more than employing more resources and employing them more efficiently.

The upshot is that everything that was important for good transit in 2000 is important today. Although it may dismay some reformers with too much vision, it’s actually a good thing for riders: it means that the last few decades’ knowledge of how to run trains and buses is still relevant. The wheel is a familiar, well-studied technology. The challenges today are somewhat changed, but the knowledge of how to face them is the same. Good transit is not only different from smartphone-oriented transit, but also technically much easier to implement well.


  1. Michael D

    I think the biggest effect of smartphones on transit is simply that they are something people want to (or have to) use, but which they cannot use while driving. You can answer emails while on a bus or waiting for one, and that makes for a reasonably big relative gain for transit over driving. Apps can lower some of the barriers to using transit, but I agree they don’t really change what makes the transit useful.

  2. EBS

    I believe that real-time bus location will eventually be a game changer, but only in the longer term (when the kinks have been worked out and the large majority of transit users are comfortable smartphone owners / users.)

    For midsized cities with semi-frequent bus service but poor train service, real-time bus location will allow you to schedule yourself more flexibly and not have to needlessly wait at a bus stop. Schedules are only so reliable – if an infrequent bus is going to come in 13 minutes, I might not risk going to a store to kill time, as the bus could arrive early and I could miss it – the price of missing the bus in this situation is enormous. If I can track the bus on my phone, I don’t have to worry about that.

    You’re a slave to a poorly funded service and when you’re waiting at the bus stop and you’re advertising that to the world. There’s an element of social disgrace in waiting at a bus stop for long periods of time, especially in small and midsized cities. I think real-time tracking will help alleviate this, especially when it’s more advanced.

    When we’re at a point where someone can look at a map on their phone and see all moving buses in the city, they’ll be able to make very complex transit decisions on the spot – “if I walk fast enough, I’ll be able to catch that bus 4 blocks over there” etc. I honestly think the gains from a complex map like that would be substantial – if a casual transit user who isn’t familiar with timetables/frequency/routes can look at their phone and immediately see what buses are actually around them and make snap decisions based on that information, they’ll be capable of maximizing the potential of a so-so bus system.

  3. Aaron M. Renn

    The “killer app” for mobile technology is enabling cities to downgrade frequencies by assuming people can rely on bus tracker type apps as a schedule. This means you are a slave to the device instead of being able to just show up at the bus stop. This is already happening on many routes in Chicago (e.g., #50-Damen).

  4. orulz

    Generally I think your commentary is spot on but I think you’ve missed the mark here somewhat.

    I agree that the concept of demand-responsive smartphone-based transit is not the direction that transit smartphone apps should go.

    However, smartphone transit navigation apps are incredibly useful in many situations:
    1. A mid-tier or smaller city where clockface scheduling is not feasible
    2. A person visiting a city that they are not familiar with
    3. A person even in a transit-rich large city traveling to a part of the city that they do not frequent

    Smartphone apps do not exempt agencies from the good planning practices, but that does not lessen their utility in any way. Perhaps it is not a true “game changer” as were innovations such as “agriculture”, “the wheel”, “assembly lines”, or “the internet”, but it is a quite large incremental improvement (especially real time tracking, as noted by EBS) – I would rank it certainly up there in the top transit innovations of the past 50 years.

    • Miles Bader

      Such apps are an odd cookie, as their usefulness is more or less directly proportional to how much your transit system sucks; so one of the apparent effects would be to reduce pressure to fix said suckiness ….!

      They’re a nice and cute little thing to have… but “in the top transit innovations of the past 50 years”?! Er… no.

      • orulz

        I don’t buy it.

        I agree, in a world where subways go almost everywhere, and the places that they do not go are served by buses on an easily understood, perfect idealized grid, and everybody KNOWS that to be the case, then it a transit app has no purpose.

        Name one place in the entire world where this applies.

        It’s not the commuting trips that people make any day, or the trips to major destinations frequented by lots of people and served by many lines and ultra-frequent transit that transit navigation helps with.

        It is the occasional trips to unusual locations (unfamiliar parts of the city, or a different city that is entirely unfamiliar) where transit navigation apps really shine. Though these trips are but a small portion of the total trips made by transit, they are extremely important to the rider, as without the ability to make such trips with relative ease, a person who depends on transit is effectively mobility impaired.

        It’s analogous to how GPS can allow people to feel at ease getting around effectively with their cars even in locations that they don’t know well, even without studying maps beforehand and even if they have a poor innate sense of direction.

        The importance of a technology that lets even a complete newbie get around like a seasoned pro should not be understated.

        • Alon Levy

          I always found that the most use I ever got out of my Blackberry was being able to use Google Maps on the fly, and even that benefit was marginal in New York because of the easily understandable grids. The subway doesn’t go everywhere, but it goes nearly everywhere I needed to go to, even for unusual trips; this means the subway map was good enough for most navigation. I stopped getting lost in Brooklyn and Queens long before I got the Blackberry, for what it’s worth.

          GPS navigation is a good analogy. It’s a good technology to have in your car; it’s not a gamechanger.

          • orulz

            I think making a declaration about the utility (or lack thereof) from the lens of living in New York City is a bit off.

            Most of the world’s population does not live in a top tier world-class city like New York City, Tokyo, Paris, and London. Similarly, most of the world’s people do not live in cities that are laid out in a grid and have an easily understandable gridded bus system. The gridded city is mostly a phenomenon that is peculiar to North America.

            The ability to spontaneously navigate, using transit, to unfamiliar locations (in places that are NOT top tier cities and are NOT as gridded like New York) is where it comes in extremely handy. Living in Hiroshima (perhaps a second tier city) in 2004, the mobile phone transit navigation sites were absolutely a godsend. In 2004 of course, there was no pretty map like Google Transit, but it told me what route to take, including trains, streetcars, and buses. Same for when I traveled to other cities. And Hiroshima is pretty rigidly gridded by Japanese standards, due partly to the complete reconstruction after WW2.

          • Alon Levy

            I doubt that those apps are very useful in Providence, which is neither top-tier nor regularly gridded. I just checked one trip – Providence Station to Wayland Square, similar to one that transit blogger Jef Nickerson needed – and Google Transit provided practically no additional information over what’s already available offline. (It also missed the fact that pedestrians can use the station’s downtown exit, which is closer to the buses, rather than its State House exit.) It listed the next few buses serving that trip, but made no remark about the fact that one of them only goes vaguely near Wayland Square and takes a circuitous route there. In contrast, the map of the eastbound routes using the tunnel made by Nickerson and since posted at the western tunnel portal tells you exactly where each route goes and what streets it goes on, so that you can make an informed decision in case your actual destination is slightly off of Wayland Square.

            Part of this problem with Google Transit is bugs, which can be fixed in the future. Presumably, the apps of 2015 will be able to know that stations have multiple exits and mark shortcuts within public buildings. But one problem is intractable, which is that those apps are like asking a seasoned transit veteran where to go, rather than like being able to know where to go yourself. It robs you of some spontaneity – for example, if you want to travel to one of three possible destinations. Google Maps does wonders for pedestrian spontaneity, and having an online transit map would do wonders to the transit rider; however, both presume a good underlying static map to begin with. Since the street maps used by Google Maps are good, Google Maps indeed improves the experience of the pedestrian and the driver. But to improve the experience of the transit user, there’s no substitute for a good bus map.

          • orulz

            I guess I should clarify that the city that follows a rigid north-south/east-west grid is mostly an American phenomenon. Most cities are laid out with some degree of a grid, but the simplicity of the “ride the bus north then transfer to the westbound bus” concept really only applies to a city with a very rigid grid based on cardinal directions.

        • Miles Bader

          I’m not saying smartphones don’t add value, or doesn’t serve a purpose; my question is whether they represent some sort of fundamental advance, or just “a desert topping.” How significant are they? Do they significantly change the way most people use the system? Are they evolutionary or revolutionary? Do they make using the system so much easier that a large number of new riders will be attracted?

          The majority of people don’t use smartphones, so one way to judge this is to look at how hard things are for people that aren’t using one.

          A good transit system has boring but functional tools and attributes — maps, employees, memory schedules / frequent service, good coverage, many interconnections — that enable convenient navigation and use, with or without a smartphone.

          So: when those poor souls not carrying a smartphone want to go someplace unfamiliar, do they cringe with apprehension, and feel lost and frustrated? Or can they use traditional methods to quickly find out the info they want with little trouble, and go about their trip? Is planning ahead / “research” required to go someplace unfamiliar, or can one just go to the nearest station “whenever,” with a high degree of confidence that things will work out? Are the consequences of making small mistakes [missing a train, taking the wrong one by accident] severe, or is the system forgiving?

          Certainly where I live (Tokyo), it’s the latter in all cases (despite it being extremely ungridlike — grids are overrated). It’s an extremely transit-oriented city, so transit has to work well, without smartphones, for everybody, on both familiar and unfamiliar routes — and so they’ve made it happen. I can contrast this with Seattle, where going someplace new by bus can be a very trying experience, even if you’re very used to the system. I would say that a smartphone could actually transform the “experience of transit” in Seattle; in Tokyo, not so much.

          [btw I think “complete newbie” is the wrong metric to use — most people aren’t complete newbies, and for those that are, route-finding is if anything, one of the lesser problems they’ll encounter….]

  5. Jurvis LaSalle

    Have you browsed to nextbus.com from a smartphone with GPS? Please try it the next time you’re in Boston and explain to me how this doesn’t change the game. Listing the nearest bus stops to your current location and the estimated real-time arrival of each route for that stop is BIG. The MBTA has made their bus system much more useful to a rapidly growing number of customers by creating an open API to accessing the GPS location of their whole fleet.

  6. Richard Mlynarik

    Real time tracking information is great, but consider that it only really makes a trip faster if that trip involves no connections.

    So, walk to bus/train stop, transit to CBD, walk to office benefits. I can leave home later if I know the bus isn’t coming.

    But walk to bus, bus to train, train to suburb, bus to office still relies in the end on boring pre-web-2.0 old-fashioned non-like-buttoned adherence to schedules. Yes, the train can wait a minute if it knows the bus is just around the corner, and in fact they do so when possible in well-run and customer-oriented networks, but the scope for doing so gets tighter and tighter the richer (and hence more useful) the transit network becomes.

    Note that this isn’t arguing against the separate value of, for example, knowing when an infrequent bus is actually approaching, or that of knowing that there’s a disruption somewhere and that alternate plans might be advised etc.

    Real time vehicle location information is super nice to have, and have widely available (most especially displayed in public at bus stops, not on private phones), but it is no panacea, and no substitute for running a system so that things are where they’re supposed to be, and are there frequently enough to be useful. And it is no “game changer”. Quite the opposite, in general: panem et circenses.

  7. Danny

    Smart phones don’t make transit better because they don’t make transit on time. Knowing that your bus is coming late doesn’t get you to work on time.

    Now frequency…that is a game changer. And it is something technology can fix if we let it.

    • EngineerScotty

      Knowing when it’s coming allows you to do something more useful while waiting than standing next to a pole. Of course, as pointed out above–that only applies to the first leg of a multi-hop journey; smartphone apps don’t help with transfers at all (though having the phone may give you something better to do).

  8. Wad

    On another game-changing tangent, what if Google makes more inroads with transit after its announcement to buy Motorola Mobility? It could create an Android-like OS for transit fare collection.

    Google has made a valuable contribution by integrating transit schedules into maps. It has created a product that is better in some respects than transit agencies trying to come up with a comparable app. Transit schedules get put on a broader platform (maps as well as stop locations for business entries), Google can return schedules across transit systems, and Google programmers can create a better interface than any in-house government or contractor expertise.

    Google could do the same for the fare card problem, especially if it gets its hands on a hardware maker. There would be a standard API that transit agencies and other vendors could use and modify. Google can run the electronic bank, and transit systems could get the hardware readers for free in exchange for the Google bank taking a merchant account fee — which would still be less than in-house cash counting.

    • anonymouse

      Google is not really in the banking business, and not really in the hardware business either, and there’s speculation that they purchased Motorola Mobility just for the patents. That and Google’s business model frankly creeps me out just a bit. I prefer to be the customer, as I am with transit agencies, rather than the product being sold, as I am with Google’s main business, which is advertising.

      • Wad

        Google wouldn’t be a bank in the same sense that Mint.com isn’t a bank. (It won’t take the merchant fees and loan them.)

        Google would be the storage medium, and wouldn’t have to even handle physical currency. It would link to electronic bank accounts for the user (to upload money) and the transit agency (to receive fares).

        From what I’ve been reading about the patents, they may be the most valuable asset of Motorola Mobility. There’s a raft of patent infringement lawsuits in the tech industry, and this may be a hedge against future legal actions. Another possibility is the high values of the licensing or resales of the patents. Google has built itself up by giving away on the web for free what had been valuable goods and services for purchase. It’s probably the ultimate example of creative destruction. Yet even now, Google may be hitting the wall on this model.

        Motorola may at least give Google a presence in the field of hardware. It could also be a problem, as it may sour relations between Google and other hardware makers. The Motorola purchase could jeopardize Android’s 45% market share for smartphone OSs.

        • EngineerScotty

          With Apple and Microsoft collaborating to try and put Android out of business, you probably UNDERSTATE the importance of the Motorola patent portfolio.

          Whether Google will protect other Android makers with its umbrella will be an interesting quetion though.

    • Alon Levy

      Some cities already have fare collection by SMS, enforced with POP. Helsinki is one example. This is decade-old technology.

      Ditto smartcards and electronic money. Sony already figured this out in the mid-90s, with FeliCa. It even sells Vaios where you can tap to recharge your card, paying online.

  9. Andre Lot

    I think the issues were treated in a little correlated-but-not-dependent trap in this article.

    Operational reliability comes from segregated ROW, an efficient fleet maintained in a good state of repair, realistic (and not optimistic) timetables etc. No state-of-the-art real-time information system will ever be able to make up for train cars 15 years past their useful life, overstretched network, delayed maintenance, above-capacity use etc.

    Easy-to-convey information has enormous potential, though, and that shouldn’t be neglected. It depends on how smart it is used. RFID touch-and-go cards like the Oyster open the potential for much more complex and fine-tuned fare schemes as it allows transactions to be made easily, shifting the burden of “buying the rick ticket” from the passenger to the reader machine/gate that has to calculate in microseconds the right fare given the card specifications, time, date, place etc.

    Smartphones do have potential in various areas. They can be used to pay fares. They can be used to track vehicles and even allow you, in low-frequency routes, to program an alert such that “x” minutes before the vehicle is expected to arrive it gives you an alert so that you can walk straight to the stop and waste no time waiting. They can be used to inform, beforehand, whether a vehicle is particularly crowded so that you might decide to postpone your trip.

    Even in imperfect and deficient systems, smartphone capabilities might reduce the burden on the savvy user of those deficiencies. It is like a car GPS navigator: it will not solve the problem of a freeway that is congested because it lacks capacity, but it will help you devise alternative routes, or get advised about an accident that just happened 4 miles further on your route, or calculate optimum routes given the constraints and jams feed in by other users.

  10. ant6n

    The on-demand transit, as a form of transportation between taxi and local bus is intruiging, at least for certain low density markets, but the commenters on humantransit didn’t really seem to be interested in that discussion. Certainly it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense in the context of LA, and the way it is presented as a miracle solution is just plain silly.

    I agree with you that smart phones should never be used as an excuse not to have clockface schedules. Nevertheless schedules on a handheld and real-time arrival info can be very useful tools. Real-time info at bus stops certainly help bridging the gap between trams and buses – which btw is something that Jarret is advocating as well.

  11. Adam

    Don’t forget the value of a well thought out and implemented non-smartphone passenger information system. E.g. I’m still impressed by the video screens the ZBB had on the new generation of Zurich trams. As the trams entered a station the screens switched to show the real-time arrival predictions of all connections possible from the station, regardless of mode. It gave passengers all the realtime information they needed to make on the fly route selections.

  12. Kolohe

    I dunno, I like being able to see when the next train/bus etc is coming when I’m at a location so I know how late I can leave. That’s harder without the smartphone app. It’s a gamechanger to me a least

    And all things considered, even it is oversold, even if it is a bit of a waste, pushing any old thing as a new dang app is so ridiculously cheap in the scheme of things that it’s not that much of a waste.

  13. BruceMcF

    Why, the ability to read ebooks stored somewhere in the cloud, streaming video ~ if the JManga.com system gets its kinks worked out (it launched at extremely unrealistic price point), the ability to read manga on a smartphone using its panel by panel reader ~ ~ that’s a game chang…

    … oh, you mean smartphone transit apps hyped by transit authorities? Yeah, not so much.

  14. Nathanael

    I’ll say this for Jay Walder, his decision as to what order to implement changes in was probably a smart one; he’s got some understanding of how to move an entrenched and hostile institutional culture. Always go for the “camel’s nose” first, before you start making the really large changes.

    Sadly, he got a better job offer.

    • Alon Levy

      I used to think this, too, but he didn’t even manage to look nice to the unions. The unions and the old-timers all hated him – he came from London, owns a second home in the French Riviera, and has vaguely foreign ideas about how to improve the system. But then he decided to stake his entire career on a frankly idiotic smartcard scheme.

      Also, although both the people who believe in smartphone-oriented transit and the old-timers can be thought of as kinds of American exceptionalists, they are diametrically opposed to each other. In urban politics, they represent the two main factions vying for power – the reformists and the machine. Walder’s trumpeting of smartphone apps may appeal to smartphone developers, but it’s one of several things (not the main issues) that antagonized the unions. Tell them that American greatness can come from hi-tech and they’ll start talking about how not everyone can go to college and be a programmer.

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