The virtual automobile. My guess is that you’re picturing a teenager wearing a virtual reality headset, holding an imaginary steering wheel in thin air. Instead, try thinking of a mobile solution that gives you all of the benefits of a car – like freedom and impulsivity – without owning the physical vehicle. I recently had the opportunity to attend the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) 96th Annual Meeting and participate on a panel with Dr. Kari Watkins from the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech. We theorized about the ideal mobility app, or a seamless mobility application and network that would create the feeling of a virtual automobile.
If you ask the designers who create the UX/UI of our apps at moovel, they will tell you that the ideal app is no app at all. It’s whatever requires the least amount of input from a customer, like walking through the subway turnstile without taking your phone out of your pocket. But to keep the panel conversation a bit more practical, I wanted to hone in on three key requirements for an app to be ideal: scalability, accessibility, and standardization.
This hypothetical mobility app should be scalable in a few different ways. For one, it needs to meet the needs of every type of user. A tech-savvy power user who opts into sharing all of their information will want a robust application that predicts their behavior, sends them unprompted reminders and updates, and integrates with other aspects of their everyday lives. On the other hand, casual users should still fully benefit from the app’s most basic functionalities. They need to get from point A to point efficiently and reliably. It will also need to be scalable from a development and business standpoint. Can it support thousands, or even millions, of users? Can it be implemented across transportation systems of all sizes and designs? No two cities have the same transit needs, so the ideal app must be flexible and customizable.
Today’s most effective mobile apps are also useful and accessible across all capability levels. The elderly, visually impaired, and those with cognitive or physical disabilities should be able to easily navigate the interface and key features. That probably doesn’t come as a surprise to most developers since mobile apps are required by law to be compliant with standards in the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). According to a recent study by the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Wireless Technologies, 71 percent of people with disabilities use a smartphone (a more detailed breakdown of disability types is included in the linked report). It’s great to see digital transportation companies taking steps to meet these needs. For instance, Lyft builds accessibility into their app’s user interface during initial development, and the company even has a dedicated accessibility expert on staff to validate the developers’ work.
It’s also important to remember that 42 percent of the 77 percent of U.S. adults who use smartphones are over the age of 65. This group did not grow up using mobile apps, so features that may seem intuitive to a young developer could be confusing and frustrating for older users. We can’t design an ideal mobility app with only one or two targets in mind when in reality, the range of users is so vast.
Finally, for a mobility app to be truly successful, transportation needs a more standard and consistent process for shopping and paying for tickets. Currently, the process is much too complicated on the user’s end. For instance, you go to one transit agency and buy a card, put money on the card, then use that card to travel. If you go to another transit agency, you’ll pay cash at the fare box or purchase a book of paper tickets. Go to yet another agency and they’ll have you buy a ticket based on zones traveled. An app can simplify the transportation experience, but it can’t overcome the disparities between outdated systems throughout the country.
For real change to occur, we’ll need big transit agencies to move toward a more standard method of ticketing, then hopefully others would follow suit. It will be crucial for agencies to begin walking away from huge and expensive infrastructure like fare boxes and ticket vending machines, and instead embrace more cost-efficient and flexible ticketing and payment technologies. As for vendors, we need to embrace open technology standards, and build our products with an eye towards interoperability. The next generation of mobility applications will require even greater levels of integration with other systems operating in the urban environment. If we can figure out a way to make our products work together, it will create exponentially greater opportunities for all of us.
What I realized during this conversation was that we’re still trying to fit mobile ticketing and payments into the existing understanding of how travel payments work. We’re using the token model that has been around since the Roman Empire. Maybe our tokens have gotten more sophisticated – we’ve progressed from metal coins to paper tickets, then to smart cards, and now to virtual tokens, but we are still working within the same set of processes. Instead of imitating what we already have, the truly ideal app will require us to imagine solutions outside of our current models.
So what’s the ideal app? Perhaps we haven’t even come close to figuring that out. But the TRB panel was a fantastic exercise to get our gears turning about the virtual automobile.
What do you think is required for the ideal mobility app? Leave a comment below with your ideas.
Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward