Could iPhone apps change the way we travel?
"Transportation is civilization," Rudyard Kipling once wrote. Today we're more inclined to express this equation with words like mobility and accessibility, but the spirit's the same: The flow of people and goods ("traffic and all that it implies," per Kipling) makes the world hum. But transit can feel uncivilized: We sit in congestion (wishing for the path less taken); we miss trains; we hunt for good places to park a car or a bike; we get lost.
Enter the iPhone. One of the device's greatest areas of promise is as a transportation tool. Rival smartphones, of course, are equipped with GPS, Internet access, etc., but none corral quite so many of the features that delight transpo geeks (an accelerometer, a compass, etc.) into one device. And rival phones can only envy the iPhone's flourishing app market, which includes some 65,000 options, many at least peripherally related to transportation (that is, if you include parallel parking games and the like).
It's intriguing to imagine how transportation itself could be changed by such apps. Of course, the utility of any of them depends on a number of things, ranging from the robustness of the GPS signal to the transparency and fidelity of available information to the number of users the app boasts. (Not to mention battery power.) So here's a broad and by no means exhaustive look at the most promising—or at least most intriguing—apps to date.
GPS-enabled navigation devices have already changed driving. (Industry-funded studies, taken with the usual grains of salt, suggest that they provide significant time and mileage savings.) So it's no surprise to see the big players in this field—including TomTom ("a thousand songs, a million roads, sitting on your dashboard") and Navigon—offering their own apps. These are not cheap ($99 for the TomTom app, for example); will occupy significant space on your phone; and, strangely, do not include a traffic conditions layer. On the flipside, you can carry your device with you wherever you go—goodbye break-ins and nav-system surcharges at rental car companies—and map routes to the contact addresses listed in your phone. Of course, a navigation app must meet a high standard to be worth buying, since the Google Maps app that comes installed on the device provides decent (though not turn-by-turn) directions and adequate "real-time" traffic reports. (I resort to scare quotes because the phrase is an industry fiction, since such reports always involve some delay, often of several minutes.) A good free app from traffic-info provider Inrix has a "predictive" function that shows estimated future congestion levels on routes; when I tried it, the app did correctly tag nearby congestion on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, though I didn't stick around to see whether it would still be jammed in a half hour, as Inrix said it would.
The Waze app tries to crowdsource traffic information—an approach pioneered in nonapp form by Dash (which required users to buy an expensive device) and currently being rolled out by Google. Waze features "driver generated" live maps and traffic information, based on the "wisdom of the crowd." The only problem: There isn't much of a crowd here, at least not yet. I didn't see any other users whose previous trip speed over my route may have hinted as to what times I could expect on my short jaunts around the neighborhood. And when I entered destinations (while parked, since doing so while driving would be exceedingly difficult, and stupid), I felt a little like a guinea pig: "Route may not be optimal, but Waze learns quickly." (It's also hard to tell at what point a Waze user who's not moving is simply parked, rather than actually stuck in traffic, although they've probably designed an algorithm for this.) Waze has other quirks. Pressing the "reports" button alerts me of an accident—719.7 miles away, in Chicago (reported 30 minutes ago by user "intrepid"). What sort of accident? How many lanes? What's the potential delay? Is it still there? So far, the crowds are pretty dumb. (And let's not forget the process of entering this information may contribute to another crash.)
Aha Mobile, another traffic app, takes a different approach. Rather than providing a map, its "RoadBoat" function reads out alerts about roads near to where you're traveling, giving average speeds and other realish-time traffic information (provided by Inrix). One complaint here is the staccato, unending delivery of the "shouts," often for roads I had no intention of traveling on. Of particular interest and amusement was the "shout room," where, among other things, drivers can sound off about fellow drivers; entering unleashed a procession of short recorded comments from users venting about "a guy in a gray Mazda" and so on. Therapeutic though this may be, the question here—and for many of these apps—is: Do we really need another distracting task inside the car?
Slightly more useful, perhaps, is the panoply of parking apps. I've been using the New York-centric PrimoSpot, which maps local parking garages, street parking (alas, it can't find open spaces), and bicycle racks (with enticing pictures; I confess I spent a bit too much time on a bike rack photo tour of my neighborhood from my couch). It also maps, for the forgetful, one's current parking spot. The next leap in parking will marry geo-located parking availability with real-time pricing based on demand.
There are also a host of "eco-driving" apps, which use the accelerometer to measure vehicle movement and such. I tried greenMeter, and while I enjoyed the graphics, I couldn't help noticing, as I drove myself or sat in the back of a Boston taxi (and don't forget all the taxi-finding apps), that it often reported the "best" driving efficiency during moments of braking. But braking is terribly inefficient. The app made me wonder why only hybrid vehicles tend to have sophisticated in-car driving feedback monitors, when even the most gas-guzzling SUV can be driven in a way that's more efficient. Perhaps car companies have determined most drivers don't care or that the RPM gauge, functionally rather useless in an automatic transmission vehicle, is more important.
The most promising app I saw is the carpooling app Avego (currently in a "launch & learn state"), which is described as a "cross between carpooling, public transit, and eBay," with a user reputation/feedback mechanism included; it also would include a payment function—i.e., a way to help out with gas money—which, as one rideshare expert put it to me, "is always awkward in person." This is actually something of an old idea, and it's still, apparently, awaiting fruition. In testing out the app, I wasn't able to snag a ride, but I did learn some interesting facts. Among them: The average carpool has a life of nine months.
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.