Citymapper’s Smart Ride is an eight-seater Uber-style taxi… just don’t call it a bus
Transportation app Citymapper has been given permission to launch a taxi-minibus service in London following a trial of a similar scheme last year.
The service, called Smart Ride, crosses a traditional bus network with an Uber-esque on-demand element. Drivers journey around a “responsive network” of London roads as an app directs them to certain routes based on passenger demand.
“It’s a bit like a bus because it has stops, it’s a bit like a cab because you book it and it has guaranteed seats, and it’s a bit like a metro because it has a network of roads,” Omid Ashtari, Citymapper’s president, told the Guardian.
The license, granted by Transport for London (TfL), restricts Citymapper’s vehicles to carrying eight people or fewer. The company had originally wanted to offer an adaptive service with larger vehicles, but – as it explains in a rather snippy Medium post – Citymapper butted against dated transport regulation:
“Carry nine plus people in London and you’re a bus and have to follow strict regulations on fixed routes, schedules, and service frequency. Carry eight people or fewer, and you’re a private hire vehicle that can go wherever you want, however you want, how often you want.”
Hence the eight-passenger limit. The service will be launched with a free trial in a small area of London that extends from Euston, through Clerkenwell, down to Blackfriars. The license gives Citymapper scope to expand its service, however, with an ability to hire up to 500 self-employed drivers.
Citymapper notes in its blogpost that “Uber has made cities nervous” around transport regulation, and this has made it hard for other companies to collaborate with city authorities. Uber is currently appealing a decision by TfL that the ride-sharing company shouldn’t run in the capital due to not being a “fit and proper” operator.
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Smart Ride isn’t Citymapper’s first foray into buses. In 2017, the company trialed a number of limited bus-taxi hybrid services; the latter being a collaboration with black cab app Gett, aimed at making better use of spare capacity in taxis. Uber has also broadened its ride-sharing efforts, launching a new ExpressPool service in the US that offers cheaper fares, but with riders needing to meet at shared pick-up points – a bit like bus stops.
Citymapper’s rhetoric is that there’s a clear environmental benefit to sharing transport, and the private sector can leverage clever, adaptive software in a way the public sector can’t. There is certainly a point to both of those, although Citymapper’s struggle with TfL shows that solutions can become tangled up in regulation.
Of course, another solution may be greater spending in essential public services.