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.

Car Apps

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.

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.)

Bicycle Apps

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.

Walking Apps

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.