It’s Tuesday morning and a mobile app is setting your alarm off an hour early because there’s a high chance of rain during the hour it knows you’re usually driving to work. There’s also some construction along the route you usually take, and if you want to get to work on time you better leave soon. You’d prefer to drive, but your phone lets you know that the city will offer you a reduced fare to take the ferry instead, along with half of the other people who have similar commutes to your own. The other half are offered reduced toll for the slightly-farther-away bridge. The city government is keeping a keen eye on traffic and offering price adjustments to commuters in real time to ensure that no single route gets too choked. Whichever route you choose, you’ll be paying through the same app that woke you up.
These might soon be realities in cities around the world if Cubic Transportation Systems (CTS) can pull off the enormous feat that it says it can. CTS—a subsidiary of Cubic, a global defense and transportation corporation—specializes in transportation revenue collection systems. There's a good chance you already interact with CTS-powered systems every day: It powers London’s Oyster card, Chicago’s Ventra card, and the Bay Area’s Clipper card, among others around the world. In December, it opened a new Innovation Center in London for the advancement of mobility solutions for the future—specifically CTS’s grand vision called NextCity, in which information and payment for all modes of transportation are coordinated and negotiated through one platform. That platform would be an app, set to come out "as soon as possible," says Matt Cole, CTS's president.
Cole spent 2010 researching growth strategies for Cubic’s Asia-Pacific smart-card business. He talked to transportation experts and people running transit in governments. He came to realize that the biggest issues fell into two buckets in cities all over the world: the inevitability of more congestion as urbanization continues and the lack of integration of emerging technologies.
"It got me thinking," says Cole, "smart cards integrate public transit for the consumer by having a common payment system across modes of transit. Why couldn’t the payment system also be a coordinated framework as an information source and a pricing mechanism? Why can’t we bring principles of supply and demand and price elasticity to the problem of congestion?" NextCity aims to achieve just that.
To solve this, CTS is currently developing an app that establishes a single-account system covering payment for all modes of transportation, including ride shares, bikes, tolling, and parking. The account will offer users incentives to change their transportation habits to help alleviate citywide congestion. For example, it might offer you a discount on your bridge tolls next month, if you opt for the train instead of a car a certain amount of times this month.
When anomalies—such as road closures, traffic jams, or service changes—affect travel times, the app would alert you. It would predict where you are going and how you’re probably going to get there based on your general habits, what incentives you generally accept or reject, and preferences you’ve fed into the system (say you only want to take the train if you can get a seat). Using predictive analytics, potential delays or disruptions would be identified early enough that information, alternative travel options, and incentives can be delivered through the app to identified commuters who will likely be affected with enough time for them to reconsider their journey before they leave.
CTS would also broker sales for cities to third parties interested in the data collected by the app for targeted marketing. If you get off a certain subway stop and often walk to a cafe around the same time every day, you might start getting coffee coupons just as you get off the train. Not to worry, it’s an opt-in feature. Cubic does realize that the idea of more coupons is sub-desirable to many. "It’s up to us to prove to users that we’ll actually be sending relevant things," says Cole, "so people like them."
NextCity is also a tool for city governments. This app, spread through a large portion of the population, would produce huge amounts of data on the way people move around cities, arming policy makers with transit insights. More interesting still, Cole suggests cities would be able to "use the system on a micro-level and play with demand in real time for specific modes of transit to better use assets that already exist and optimize revenue collection." For example, if a city saw that its 40th Street bus was always packed, but its 43rd Street bus was only operating at half-capacity, the app could prompt riders of the 40th Street bus with coupons for the 43th Street bus.
It would also allow governments to play with their pricing models for different modes of transportation. "I look at this as a technology platform that allows governments to choose how they price their services," said Cole. He explained that there’s a notion in Finland of "mobility as a service" in which all modes of transit cost the same. Or alternately, pricing models could incentivize environmentally responsible behavior—for example, if bridge tolls were cheaper for commuters that use bike shares for a certain portion of their commute. NextCity would enable these kinds of alternative pricing models.
If this sounds too futuristic to possibly be true, you're not wrong. Though what's holding the system back is more structural than technological. Just how far is CTS from realizing NextCity? It won’t—and can’t really—say. There are too many components. First of all, it would need to collect an unthinkably large amount of data before it was able to predict travel times with the accuracy the app would require. It would also need to obtain and synchronize an enormous array of real-time data flows such as weather, road conditions, traffic, citywide events, construction, and emergencies.
To that end, CTS is actively pursuing and signing deals to control or partner with enough systems—from tolling to bike sharing—to push toward feasibility. For example, the New Hampshire Department of Transportation just awarded CTS a $52 million dollar contract in November to overhaul their tolling EZ-Pass system. (But that’s just one of the myriad deals that would be necessary to create such a platform.)
CTS has nearly managed to pull off a universal payment system in Chicago. Through arranging partnerships among separate public and private transit agencies and companies, they aggregated city trains, buses, a commuter train line, and the commuter buses that reach the suburbs. All of these systems can be paid for using an account through an app it launched in November. But one of their competitors controls the tolling, and the app doesn’t include bike shares or parking either. They’re working on integrating these remaining elements but can only say that they "hope the chances are very high." Ultimately, the realization of their vision depends on a factor out of their control: the willingness of many others to participate.
A large portion of the success of NextCity, Cole acknowledges, will come down to concerns with privacy issues. The personal data of users will belong to the governments that buy CTS’ systems and third-party private companies that purchase it. Is handing the government a system that knows and predicts your physical location at all times worth never being late again? Are we willing to endanger our privacy-dependent democracy for well-timed coffee coupons? "The most sensitive thing," he says, "is that if we do this well, we should be able to predict where people will be and when." And unfortunately for CTS, people do realize there is a "conflict between the benefits you can bring with data and privacy concerns." He hopes to mitigate this both by "giving people the choice of what data they provide and what anyone is allowed to do with it," and by "proving that the tangible benefits are worth the emotional cost of providing the data."
Ultimately, Cole believes that much of his success will hinge on cooperation within the private transit technology sector. "The hardest thing will be doing all of these things in one single city;" he says. "The reality is we’re not the only provider in the marketplace. Governments will inevitably buy from our competitors, and we will need to get better at working together if we want to see this happen in the world."