Making The Bus More Like an Uber With Real-Time Data and Mobile Payments

December 31, 2015, 4:47 PM UTC

Mass transit usage rates across the U.S. have been stuck at around 5% for decades, but as cities grow, increasing that percentage is imperative to controlling congestion. One part of the solution will be making buses and trains easier to ride.

Austin-based RideScout is working to do that by putting transit schedules and ticketing on mobile phones. RideScout’s core product is an app that provides a detailed comparison of how, and how fast, you can get from point A to point B by various methods. The app draws not just on published schedules, but on real-time data about exactly where buses and trains are—a neat trick that comes courtesy of the GTSS transit data standard championed, among others, by Google.

That granular data makes mass transit feel a bit more like Uber and Lyft. Data from a similar program in Chicago has shown that this both makes existing riders happier, and significantly increases ridership.

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RideScout’s transit information may sound similar to what Google (GOOG) already provides through Maps. But RideScout also integrates ride-hailing options (Uber and Lyft), car-sharing services like Car2Go, and bikeshare stations. Having mass transit and ride-hailing services under the same digital roof helps riders solve the “last mile” problem—how to get from a train station to your front door—that is widely believed to hold down mass transit ridership. RideScout also provides more detailed data than Google, including not just travel times, but cost estimates for driving, and a productively guilt-inducing tally of the calories you’d burn by walking or biking.

RideScout’s usefulness still varies by location. Many Austinites swear by it, but RideScout didn’t seem to know about the bikeshare system near me in Tampa Bay, and I couldn’t get any ride-hailing options to show up. User reviews have included complaints about similar omissions in other second-tier cities.

I also found their cost estimates for driving to be a little wonky. The app told me that it would cost me twelve bucks to drive my own car about 30 miles. That’s way more than the cost of gas, because RideScout uses a driving cost calculation that includes things like your car’s depreciation. That might be a useful long-term reality check on the cost of car ownership, but is arguably less useful for weighing travel methods if you already own a car.

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RideScout will become even more useful soon: In June of 2015, the company acquired Portland-based GlobeSherpa, which builds mobile transit ticketing apps—what spokesperson Mac Brown describes as “a ticket machine in your pocket.” Patti Niewolny, a spokesperson for RideScout, says the long-term plan is to integrate GlobeSherpa’s payments service into RideScout, letting riders pay with a tap and avoid the hassle of carrying cash or dealing with ticket machines.

GlobeSherpa’s products have already proven wildly popular—according to Brown, 60% of transit riders in Portland use a ticketing app built by GlobeSherpa, accounting for 22% of all fares.

RideScout itself was acquired back in September of 2014 by an unlikely suitor—Daimler AG, via its subsidiary Moovel. The Wall Street Journal cited sources putting the pricetag at under $100 million. Moovel’s other services in mobility include Austin’s Car2Go, which is featured on RideScout.

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“They see how things are trending in terms of automobile ownership,” says Niewolny of Daimler’s vote of confidence.

Though it sits attractively at the nexus of urbanization and mobile data, RideScout is still working out some details—Niewolny says they’re “looking into a couple of different business models as we move forward.” Brown says GlobeSherpa has a number of revenue streams, including transaction fees and service contracts with transit agencies, so the wedding of the two services seems to promise both a boon for riders and a clear revenue route for the company.

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