Waze for public transportation

Moovit uses crowd-sourcing to provide real-time information on buses, trains, ferries – and even bike stations.

Moovit CEO Nir Erez (photo credit: Courtesy)
Moovit CEO Nir Erez
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Traveling on public transportation is rife with uncertainty. Did I miss the bus or is it late? Do I have enough time to reach the station before the train leaves? Moovit was developed to give users of public transportation relief from uncertainty in their journey from point A to point B.
Nir Erez, CEO of Moovit, describes how during a conversation with co-founder Yaron Evron, a transit engineer, they realized there was a vast gap between the smartphone navigation tools available to drivers and those provided to pedestrians who depend on public transportation to reach their destination.
“Drivers can download Waze or a similar GPS navigation application to their smartphones and have access to myriad amounts of information, in addition to how to reach their destination,” explains Erez. “For example, drivers are informed of the expected time of arrival, what road hazards to avoid, alternative routes, etc.”
Erez and Evron, together with Roy Bick, the chief technology officer, joined forces to develop a pilot version of the smartphone app that would provide users of public transportation with the same features and options that drivers enjoy. Moovit was launched on to the Israeli market in March 2012 and was so successful that by the end of the year the team decided to roll out the solution to metropolitan areas in other parts of the world.
“In the beginning, we thought we’d develop an app that would allow public transportation users to build a travel plan consisting of static data, such as schedules and the location of bus stops,” says Erez. “However, we very quickly expanded the concept to include real-time information, such as updating our users waiting at a bus stop on whether the bus is just around the corner at a traffic light or if it is delayed in heavy traffic some five miles away; the number of available seats on the bus or train; if the bus route goes through a dangerous neighborhood late at night. Issues like these characterize the uncertainty of traveling on public transportation. To obtain the answers in real time, we use crowdsourcing.”
Crowdsourcing is the concept of generating information in real time from a group of people who are using the service rather than from traditional resources, such as employees or service providers. For example, a Moovit user who has just boarded a bus can respond to a popup on his tablet or smartphone asking for information about the number of available seats on the bus.
“Most users willingly contribute the information, which we then propagate to all users waiting for that bus along its route,” says Erez. “This is what crowdsourcing is all about, and you’d be amazed at how cooperative people are. I guess they understand that the more they contribute, the more they themselves benefit further on down the line.”
Public transportation users with Moovit open on their smartphones or tablets are automatically transmitting their location, enabling the app to track their presence on a bus, train or other public transportation vehicle at any time.
“In the early months of the pilot, we approached the Transportation Ministry and bus companies to see how we could pool our resources to improve our product and enhance the user experience. But at that stage, nobody wanted to cooperate with two young guys and give us what they considered was proprietary data.”
According to Erez, the success of Moovit – which today claims 1.5 million users in major cities in North America, South America, Europe and Asia – has rendered dramatic changes in the way the Transportation Ministry and bus companies now make information available to the public.
“In Israel, Transportation Ministry maps show the more than 25,000 bus stops, but thousands of them are not located where they appear in the maps. The stops can be 50 meters down the road or around the corner.
Our users complained about this, so we gave them a tool that allows them to send us the precise location of the bus stop, which we then pass on to the ministry. Today, Israel has one of the most accurate bus -stop location maps in the world.”
From no relationship with the bus companies, Erez claims they now have full cooperation. Moovit provides statistical reports, such as the number of people traveling on their lines and the location of the most popular stops where people get on and off.
“In Israel alone, we collect five million reports a day, between 140 to 200 million reports a month. These reports help us understand where the swarm of passengers is moving to throughout the day and we pass the information on to bus companies and the Transportation Ministry, which then use the reports to plan the frequency, number and routes of the bus service. This information is invaluable to them – they spend a fortune on surveys and other means to acquire the information we give them for free.”
Moovit is not limited to bus lines and trains. “There are a number of apps for smartphones that provide rudimentary commuter information, such as a map of the subway or a list of bus schedules. But Moovit is one of the very few tools that can provide a trip planner for all types of public transportation, including underground and mainline railways, buses, trains, microbuses [equivalent to the Israeli sherut], ferries – and in Europe, bicycle stations. This is what makes our product so unique.
In addition, this is the only app that can provide users with a navigation component where we take you to the nearest bus stop, tell you when to get off the bus and give directions on how to reach the bus or train in the next leg of the journey.”
In July 2013, Moovit registered over 1.5 million users worldwide. In Israel alone, 500,000 users have downloaded the app. One hundred thousand people use the app over the course of a day, and over half a million people use it within a typical month.
Erez clarifies: “Moovit is a metropolitan area solution, providing information that relates to public transportation within major cities. We have users in Italy, Spain, France, Ireland, some 15 cities in the US and four cities in Canada.
We are expanding rapidly in Latin American countries, including Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil; Colombia; and Santiago, Chile. The service is provided on a countrywide basis only in England, Israel and the Netherlands.
“Overall, we support about 2,000 bus companies in 60 cities around the world. The numbers are enormous and we need to provide ongoing updates to ensure that the data we provide are relevant and accurate. This is one of the reasons crowd-generated data are so important.
“For example, in Mexico City, about 50 percent of public transportation journeys are taken on microbuses.
There are no official routes or stations; the microbus can stop anywhere on the route. Users traveling along these routes provide real-time information on location, seat availability, if the air conditioning is working, if the bus driver is polite, and so on. In San Francisco, many buses include bike racks, and through Moovit users can communicate to other users if there is free space on the racks or if they are full up.
“Our users can also rate bus lines based on a range of parameters, such as the punctuality of specific bus routes.
If a particular bus is always late, it will be awarded only two stars out of five. A bus that goes through an undesirable neighborhood at midnight would get few stars, while alternative routes with a high rating would be recommended.
This option to rate specific routes is instrumental in removing the element of uncertainty from a user’s journey.”
Despite the app’s apparent success, some Moovit users have found it difficult to use. Erez emphasizes that they respond to every complaint they receive from all over the world. “In fact, we encourage users to write to us. Compliments are good for the ego, but they don’t improve the level of service. We take complaints seriously and are constantly introducing new and better features.”