How smartphone technology has disrupted and transformed mobility

By Thomas Folqué

It’s no longer a surprise that our smartphones are integral to our daily lives but every so often you are struck by the scale and pace of change.

Take me for example: last weekend my smartphone was omnipresent in everything I did.

Leaving work on Friday, I used an app called “Too good to go” to buy bread and patisseries from Paul’s bakery at much discounted price. This app helps businesses to find their last customers of the day to sell what they would usually throw away.

With my delicious food safely stowed, I opened the Citymapper app for directions to my friend’s place. “Severe delays on the Central line” the app warned. Not a problem, the app also showed me an available Mobike was at the next cross-roads and only 15 minutes biking distance to my destination.

Mobike is one of many bike hire schemes in London such as Freebike, Lime or Uber’s Jump. Extremely popular on sunny days, these bikes have changed the way many Londoners get about.

On my way home, a quick comparison showed me ViaVan was offering the cheapest cab for my journey. I probably still had time to grab the last DLR, but it was raining and there were three of us heading in the same direction. The convenience of a car that would drop us directly to our doors was a compelling an option at just £2.50 each.

The next day was sunny and I decided to visit friends near Oxford. I could have taken the train but, knowing I would come back late, this was not most convenient. Especially when you include the commute to and from the rail stations.

Or I could rent a car for the day, which I did. But I didn’t use a regular car rental. Instead, from the comfort of my sofa using my smartphone, I hired a car a street away from my flat using Getaround (previously Drivy). There are a number to choose from these days: Zipcar, BlueCity and Hiyacar also operate in London. These apps connect car owners and rental seekers, arranging everything you need including insurance. Technology again provided that extra bit convenience, allowing me to unlock the car via the app - avoiding an awkward meet and greet situation.

Just from this one weekend you can see how app-based on-demand transport is changing the playing field. New apps are developed continuously. In February, Ola, the Indian cab hailing company, received its license to operate in London and launching more than 25,000 drivers in the city. This is now one of many including Uber, Kapten, ViaVan, and Bolt offering their services across the city.

In our major metropolitan areas, traditional transportation modes such as train, bus and even private car ownership are being disrupted to an unprecedented extent, with a proliferation of mobility choices now available to the traveller.

Thinking about car sharing (e.g. Zipcar, Getaround…): as a (relatively) young and tech savvy user, the journey experience is great as it is very easy and convenient, and most of the time cheaper too. Traditional car rental companies have started to react by developing their own car sharing schemes such as Hertz 24/7.

But car sharing is a potential threat to other modes of transportation too. Trains, for example. I could have taken the train last weekend to go to Oxford, but the convenience of renting a car and the cheaper cost made my decision easy.

Results from our Rail Reputation Index (RRI) found that I was not the only one… The majority of rail passengers who use these on-demand transport apps, use them at least occasionally instead of taking the train.

This varies to a notable extent depending on the app’s service. BlaBlaCar, which is more of a long-distance product (carpooling), is used by a considerably greater proportion of would-be train travellers - more frequently than Uber which is positioned as a short to mid distance product.

Overall these apps are also much more used in urban centres, changing the way people travel in and around cities. Younger people are more likely to use these ride-sharing products, however again this is a little app dependent. Nevertheless, the RRI results show that a notable share of rail usage goes to this fairly new fast moving transport sector. Their convenience, cost and flexibility contribute to their advocacy scores being considerably higher than train operators.

It is very important for the regular travel operator such as car rental, train and bus operators to understand and keep pace with sector developments as new disruptive companies are constantly entering the market and changing the way people get around.

Feel free to message me with any queries or comments you have, or to find out more about the Rail Reputation Index and our transport research.

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