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Mobility apps rising to the challenge of transit strikes

21.02.2020
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They go by the names of Google Maps, Apple Plans, Mappy, Citymapper, Uber and Moovit. In normal times, they’re a mass transit user’s best friend. But when there’s a strike on, things get complicated. How do mobility apps adapt? And which ones are the most popular with users? 

It’s a morning ritual whenever there’s a strike: Camille grabs her smartphone. What’s going to be the easiest way to get to work? Deciding to give the subway a try, her favorite app shows the frequency of a “normal” day. But once she’s on the platform, there are no trains in sight. It’s a situation that was faced by many users of apps like Google Maps or Apple Plans during the strike movement in France. 

Data not updated

How do apps factor in disturbances when they calculate a route? For subway, bus, tram and commuter train trips in Greater Paris, all these apps actually use open data from regional mass transit authority Ile-de-France Mobilités. Other sources of information are satellite maps and data provided by smartphone or GPS users themselves. From these inputs, each app uses its own algorithm to calculate the fastest route. The catch is that the data provided by Ile-de-France Mobilités is not systematically updated. 

Describing traffic disruptions, tongue firmly in cheek

That said, some apps seemed to adapt better to the strike than others. Citymapper, for instance, took things very much tongue in cheek. Each day a flash described the traffic conditions on each subway line. And each came with a witty little message. On January 20, users were even treated to a bit of poetry: “Well they may strike and they may ’test, but it doesn’t really matter, Coz I made it here real quick – thanks to Citymapper.” Citymapper also derives its strength from the diversity of transportation solutions offered. Not confined to mass transit, it also offers information on electric scooters, bicycles and motor-scooters, having forged partnerships with 16 brands covering five different modes of transportation in Paris. Founded nine years ago by a former Google employee, Citymapper now ranks as the fourth most widely downloaded transportation app on iPhone.

Carpooling apps the big winners in the strike

Carpooling was another hit among beleaguered mass transit users during the strikes. That at least is what APP Annie says! The American audience measurement company carried out a survey comparing downloads a week before and then again during the French strikes. BlaBlaCar leapt from eighth to second position in the ranking of the most downloaded apps on both iOS and Google Play. Back in 2018, during another strike, BlaBlaCar launched BlaBlaLines, its carpooling app for commuters. A year later, it signed a partnership with Ile-de-France Mobilités. During strikes, journeys in Greater Paris are free for passengers. And drivers are rewarded with a minimum of €2 per trip if they carpool. Today, BlaBlaLines claims 900,000 users. The “strike effect” was also good news for Karos, another carpooling application specializing in short distances, which entered the top ten at ninth place. It multiplied its user numbers threefold in just a few days. 

Surge in business for bike apps

To avoid going bumper to bumper, motorists also rely on collaborative tools. Waze topped the rankings of apps downloaded during the strike. It’s a community-driven GPS that relies on user input to signal congestion, roadblocks and traffic jams. By contrast, Google Maps, ranked second before the strike, fell to sixth place. But for short trips, the best solution is to leave your car in the garage and get on your bicycle. Géovélo is an app that offers several routes for the same journey, taking into account both the length of the trip and safety for cyclists. On December 5, 2019, the application saw its business take off from one end of France to the other, with jumps of between 100% and 180% in Bordeaux, Toulouse, Nantes and Rennes. Two weeks after the strike started, the number of kilometers cycled by its Parisian users was up 223%. 

And to stay in the know about industrial action and its impact on traffic, a new app has emerged: “C’est la grève”, available on iOS and Android. It keeps users up to date on pending strikes, where they’re taking place, what companies are concerned and what their effect on traffic will be.

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