Like being back in the early days of smartphone apps
Transport for London has released TfL Go, a new journey planning app, to the Apple App Store. Android users must wait until Autumn. If this has an early days of smartphone apps feel about it, that is because this is the first journey planning app the organisation has released.
Misguidedly until now, TfL adopted a policy of allowing third parties to develop apps with free access to their timetable and train running data through an API connection.
This is how popular app Citymapper came into existence. Users of that app might look at the TfL offering in horror with the lacklustre user interface and paucity of features. Android users won’t be able to use the app at all for now.
TfL has clearly rushed this app into existence, but make no mistake this is a strategic move for the organisation.
I became aware of the limitations of the third-party model TfL had adopted when working at Living Streets and Campaign for Better Transport. Citymapper and other developers had little incentive to do things like prioritise active travel in their apps, especially if they hoped to monetise with tie-ins to shared mobility providers like Uber. Citymapper even started operating their own services in competition with TfL.
Tech companies are not good at partnership working and even worse at corporate social responsibility. I found the companies I approached quite simply had no interest in optimising their apps for public benefit such as improved health outcomes.
I came to the conclusion that either TfL and other transit operators must create their own app or pay the third-party developers to optimise to make improvements of public good, like having active travel displayed prominently within journey planning results. Essentially compete with Uber for advertising.
An alternative option would see TfL charge for access to the API, but there was little to suggest this would be attractive to developers. Furthermore, the most popular journey planner Citymapper has failed to find a sustainable model for its operations, so it is perhaps unsurprising that TfL has decided to start producing an app.
It might be quite jarring to see a mature organisation like TfL produce what is clearly an early iteration of an app, with many expected features missing. However, we have been given an indication of why it is right for the public authority to develop these apps. Accessibility has been identified as an early inclusion in the feature set. There was little to encourage third party apps to optimise for a subset of passengers in this way.
The sky is the limit for TfL now it has an app. We could see all sorts of novel improvements such as rewards for active travel journeys completed instead of by car or turn by turn walking directions with advisories about steps, elevations and other obstacles.
Journey planning also gives TfL complimentary data to what they collect from their fares and ticketing systems. It means they will not only know how passengers get from station A to station B, but where their destinations and origins are and what options they considered and discarded for that trip. This will help improve services and could help plan new ones.
We’re going to have to be patient with TfL as they make up for lost time, but the benefits to Londoners could be considerable in the fullness of time.