London-based transit app Citymapper is today launching Smart Ride, a hybrid bus and taxi service that will take riders around a fixed network in the capital.
The company is operating the service under a private hire licence from Transport for London, following a pair of trial “smart bus” routes in the capital. The new licence limits the firm to operating vehicles that can carry eight or fewer people, but frees it to run future routes that can change dynamically as demand shifts, rather than being legally mandated to stick to specific timetables and stopping patterns.
“We believe in the future of shared transportation in cities, there is no way we’re going to solve for congestion and pollution otherwise,” Omid Ashtari, Citymapper’s president and head of business, told the Guardian. “But the regulations we see are not stacked in the favour of the bus industry to make sure that works.
“We decided to take on a different service, and launch something else. So we’re launching Smart Ride. It’s a shared-first service, the only one in London.”
The Smart Ride service will run eight-seater people-carriers driven by licensed private hire drivers, operating in a fixed network that spans the city.
Ashtari said: “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.”
Citymapper had hoped to be able to offer similar flexibility with larger buses, the company said, but was ultimately stymied by London regulations that restrict the size of vehicles licensed as private hire vehicles.
“Carry nine-plus people in London and you’re a bus and have to follow strict regulations on fixed routes, schedules and service frequency,” Citymapper wrote in a blogpost published on Tuesday. “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.”
The company clashed with London regulators over its desires taking nine months to obtain the private hire license. In the blogpost, Citmapper attributed some of TfL’s hesitation to the organisation’s previous bad experiences with Uber. It said: “The first generation of transport tech has often given cities a headache. This makes it hard for other players to engage in a meaningful manner.”
Other would be transport firms with more traditional taxi models, such as Taxify and Via, have also struggled to obtain licenses from TfL. Uber is currently fighting in the courts against TfL’s decision to suspend its license on the grounds that the San Francisco-based firm was not a “fit and proper” operator.
If Citymapper didn’t have the regulatory constraints imposed by TfL, Ashtari said, the company’s offering would be substantially the same – just using the previously trialled larger, more efficient vehicles that proved “flexible enough to get down small streets, unlike a larger bus”.
Despite principally operating as a free transit planning app in 39 cities worldwide, Citymapper has been experimenting with being a transit provider.
In May 2017, the company launched its first bus service, a free circular route in central London that ran for two days. That was followed in July by a longer-term trial route in northeast London, which Citymapper said served a need it had discovered through analysing data harvested from its app users.
In September, the company launched its third “bus” trial partnering with black cab app Gett. It saw London taxis, branded as “Black Buses”, running on a semi-fixed route between north and south central London, carrying commuters between any two spots on the route for a fixed £3 fare. Taxis, Citymapper said at the time, “have spare capacity (ie multiple free seats) that could be better utilised. The hard part is matching people together. Running fixed routes is one way to solve this.”
- Citymapper launches bus-taxi-hybrid smart route in London.