Could iPhone apps change the way we travel?
Public Transit Apps
Given how complex route planning and transfers can be—not to mention the uncertainty of travel times, arrivals, and service interruptions—the iPhone is a godsend for public-transportation users (at least for those who can spring for an iPhone). There are already scads of simple map apps for metro stations around the world (these are just fun to have), but the evolving issue here is the availability (or lack thereof) of data from the transit providers. Massachusetts, for example, just announced it will "democratize the data," giving developers the information needed to create transit apps. Multi-modal Portland, not surprisingly, was out in front on this with several transit apps, including PDXBus, which uses live tracking information from TriMet to display arrival times; cleverly, it also turns the iPhone into a flashing beacon to signal bus drivers to stop. We're also about to enter the "augmented reality" era in transit station mapping; New York Nearest Subway will allow users to hold the phone up to a street and have the nearest stations displayed, hovering in the air in the view of the actual streetscape. (Note: You really shouldn't do this while walking.)
There are several apps like the aforementioned PrimoSpot that find bike parking, and there's a good one that tracks the availability of free Vélib bikes in Paris. But the iPhone's GPS and accelerometer make it a natural (if less than optimally accurate) cycle computer, and there are many apps that allow cyclists to record everything from your maximum speed to the routes you've covered. I've particularly enjoyed B.iCycle's app, which tracks variables like average speed and altitude climbed, then sends an e-mail report at the trip's conclusion. REI's BikeYourDrive features a nice twist on the concept, showing the advantage in cost, carbon emissions, and calories of a particular bike trip versus the automotive alternative. My short roundtrip to weekly soccer, for example, had a carbon offset of 3.6 pounds, let me burn 130 calories, and saved me 50 cents on fuel. (I should note, the cost of the car itself, insurance, etc. are not included in this equation.) There are a few significant limitations to all these programs, some of which could conceivably be fixed by Apple: The GPS works optimally out in the open, so a handle-bar mount will supply the best data. (I simply put mine in a backpack, which is probably why it thinks my altitude didn't change.) And receiving a call, or running any other app, will suspend the current app. But you shouldn't be biking and talking on the phone at the same time, anyway.
As the transport mode that is the least dependent on technology, walking, per se (apart from the navigation aspects), isn't as well-served by the iPhone. Still, it's fun to have WalkScore tell you the walkability of the place you're in at the moment; for extra fun, you can run Zillow to confirm the link between walkability and higher real-estate prices. There are also a bunch of pedometers, and what's striking about these is how fitness-oriented they all are. They all suggest that walking is something you merely do for aerobic activity, not a way to get to work.
While many of these apps are clearly works in progress, providing marginal (if novel) benefit, there's every reason to think the iPhone and its ilk will enhance the user experience of transportation and perhaps even change it for the better. (Or possibly the worse, if it merely leads to more distracted drivers.) This will, of course, require that our transportation systems themselves become smarter than the average iPhone—I'm writing this column on a nonwireless-equipped Amtrak train—and by itself, the phone won't necessarily solve any traffic problems: Knowing one's morning commute is going to be crowded may not be enough to persuade the solo driver to carpool, bike, or take public transit instead.
Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.