Partnering towards truly seamless travel in the sharing economy

In my last post, I said that the sharing economy can help tackle inequality in cities: by creating great travel experiences without the cost of car ownership, and helping cities use land more progressively.

We can only do this with good partnerships between the public and private sectors. Partnerships are valuable for at least three objectives

  • Truly seamless travel experiences
  • Reaching the under-served
  • Managing societal tensions: by looking after both the welfare of incumbents, and employees of the shared economy

Truly seamless travel experiences

We go out of our way to avoid walking and waiting. Generally, commuters prefer to take a single mode of transportation – even if it takes significantly longer – than to transit between modes. In Singapore, this applies even within the train system. Commuters would rather take a roundabout direct train, than to make transitions between train lines (a couple minutes’ walk).

To be truly attractive, the experience of commuting in the shared economy must mimic the seamlessness of owning a car: minimal walking, waiting and pesky payments.

  • I must be able to hop on an electric bike close to my apartment block, get to the train station just as the train pulls in, and have my Uber pull up at the curb just when I step out of my train.
  • Ideally, I can order this menu of transport in just one app, and have it all paid through one click on my iPhone. I can even pay a flat monthly fee for unlimited rides in the shared economy.
  • This platform should be smart – for example, it should rank my options based on my preferences and the weather conditions.

Here’s the problem in getting there – every transport operator has its own interests, payment system and data sharing policies.

  • For example, if Uber ran this platform, would Lyft or Chariot trust it to neutrally present the transport options to commuters?
  • Data on commuter preferences, pick-ups and destinations is treasure for tech companies because it is the basis on which they improve their services and beat their competitors. Who would they trust to protect the data collected from the platform, and to fairly distribute it to the operators?


Data sharing is a first step 

The first step, which many Governments and companies have taken, is making data available to commuters and to each other. In 2016, Singapore put sensors in all our public buses. We made the location and crowdedness of our 5,000 public buses available via APIs, which helped commuters plan their journeys more accurately. Ride-sharing companies can integrate this data to provide multi-modal journey planning through their apps.

Ride-sharing companies are also beginning to share their data. Xinwei Ngiam, Director of Strategy at Grab, spoke about Grab’s approach to data sharing at CES. Uber recently announced that it would share data that would help commuters and cities understand traffic conditions. These are great initiatives, but it’s just a first step. If we simply stop here, commuters will still have a fragmented experience.

Partnering towards the Gold Standard

We need to collectively envision a seamless mobility experience from the commuter’s perspective and tackle the thorny issues that stand it the way, such as data management.

Cities like Helsinki are leading the way. Whim was launched last summer, allowing commuters to book rides from different transport providers in a single mobile service. Payment is seamless – you can buy bus, train or taxi tickets from the app, or sign up for an unlimited transportation subscription, just as you sign up for a Netflix subscription, for 249 Euros a month. It is still in pilot phase with plans for a fuller roll out in the Summer. Unsurprisingly, it took 6 years of planning with governments, cities and the industry to get to this point, with multiple agreements on the back-end between MaaS Global, the company running Whim, transportation authorities, and car/ride -sharing operators.

Xerox has launched their multi-modal transport planner in LA and Denver, and is now working through the challenges of bringing onboard all transport providers, and integrating payment and booking systems. This is the bigger hurdle than building a common user interface and intelligent recommendation system.

Xerox has launched their multi-modal transport planner in LA and Denver – commuters need only enter their destination, and a range of options will be presented to them based on their personal preferences. Xerox is now working through the challenges of bringing onboard all transport providers, and integrating payment and booking systems. This is the bigger hurdle than building a common user interface and intelligent recommendation system.

Closer to home in Singapore, LTA announced a partnership with 4 companies to create journey planning apps. My friend Liu Feng Yuan, the Director of Government Digital Services in Govtech, has shared some ideas on building a technology platform with a series of core APIs (requests, offers, reservations, payments and location tracking) that provides an open market and a clearinghouse for mobility. Any provider on the platform can bid to provide a ride, in part or in full. All the consumer sees in his app is a shortlist of options based on his travel preferences. Payment can be done through a single app.

Regardless of model, it is important for all transport providers to trust one party to be a neutral arbiter, and collectively decide on rules that grant every provider peace of mind. I was asked at CES if data management should be the responsibility of the Government and my answer was not necessarily. In Singapore, that may work because of the strong tripartite trust between Government, industry and people. In other cultural contexts, data management and governance can be the responsibility of a neutral third party, such as a University. For example, I understand that the City of San Francisco has engaged UC Berkeley to play this role in its Smart City plans.

I’ll host a more in-depth discussion on how cities and companies have approached these thorny issues later in the year.

Expanding our Collective Pie

Ultimately, everyone gains if the shared economy provides seamless travel experiences without the cost of car ownership. Commuters get comfort and flexibility. Private transport providers get a higher volume of rides. Cities can re-allocate precious land resources away from roads and parking to build homes and community spaces.

All this is possible if we work together to expand our collective pie.

My next post will talk about a topic close to my heart: partnering towards an inclusive transportation experience.

*I have only covered this topic briefly. For more details, my friends at the New Cities Foundation have wonderful resources. Also check out:


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