An interesting article posted by Bloomberg recently highlights the challenges and commercial pressures, and public/private conflicts which are going to make bikeshare and other micromobility services a challenge to integrate into a multi-mode, multi-operator journey experience for the major-city commuter. Transport for London (TfL) recently turned down an approach from Lyft, who operate various bikeshares, rideshares and cab hires in North America but not Europe, to integrate the transactional (i.e. booking/paying) element of the Santander Cycles (owned and specified by TfL) into their own multi-modal journey planner. So, a user would no longer need to carry around a multitude of apps on their smartphone, one for each leg of the journey.
It is understandable that TfL would want to keep exclusivity on the transaction layer for their well-used and almost-profitable bikeshare system in London, but there is a big conflict – TfL is publicly funded and is acting as both the regulator (for various commercially-funded dockless/hub-based bikeshare systems) and funder/specifier (for its own bikeshare system). While TfL is presumably at pains to keep its “Chinese wall” separation between the regulatory and service-provider wings of its new mobility offerings in London, it is in practice finding this hard to do, as this case illustrates. TfL would find it hard for one side to mandate the other side to loosen control on the parts of its operations that could result it in making slightly less money – even if it would result in a much improved experience for the user.
It’s not just public bodies that are struggling with the provider/regulator split. Commercial providers, like Uber, are now making serious pushes to be the one-stop shop for people wanting to travel around cities like London, be it on their own cab service or bike fleet, or by public transport. Of course, their apps will only show services that are not directly competing with their own – so only Uber cabs and JUMP bicycles (not any of the other 8+ bikeshare providers in London) but including the tube and railways, as these are a less direct competitor and cabs/bikes can plug gaps in the way railways can’t. Their hope presumably is that if commuters start to seriously use the Uber app to check train running information, the app will be heavily suggesting a cab or bike as a more appealing alternative. Google Maps has been doing this for a long time – it has long been good on public transport, and was, for a time, making Santander Cycles docking stations obvious – now these are all but hidden by Lime bikeshare bike locations.
Unfortunately these kinds of solutions tend to be all take and no give – Uber won’t release its bike or cab locations to anyone else for free, but happily takes the open data feeds on where the tubes are and how they are running. Here, the lack of transactional capability for the public transport section is not such an issue – as users can just tap cards on barriers rather than having to buy a (virtual) ticket in another app. But it’s still an asymmetric travel opportunity. The only real solution is to mandate that all providers of MAAS have to open their live availability data. They are good at doing this in the US – sometimes too good, as companies shut down more quickly than planned as their data shows little profitable use – but it does mean that more innovation is happening there. The transactional leap hasn’t happened however, even where all operators show their assets through open data standards like GBFS or MDS. A true multi-modal, multi-operator app needs to handle the transactional (i.e. financial) part of each leg as well as the availability/discovery piece. While we are in a controlled free-for-all, with little public money contributing, the commercial operators will continue to fight with each other and keep things as siloed as possible – to the detriment of the commuter, the city, and pavement space.