Smart Phone Applications Primer: Transforming Mobility


Smartphone apps are transforming mobility by improving access to transportation services, increasing mobility, and enhancing traveler engagement. These apps are spawning new businesses, services, and mobility models. For example, within a short period, app-based innovations leapfrogged the livery industry with services, such as Uber, Lyft, and Flywheel. Using smartphones to facilitate mobility is becoming the new norm. Smartphone apps have transformed the way that many travelers arrange for-hire vehicle services, plan for trips, or get real-time transportation information.

This primer, sponsored by the US Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Office of Operations and carried out by theUniversity of California, Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center, is intended to demonstrate how vital smartphones are becoming to the transportation network and provide public agencies, transportation managers, and elected officials with a perspective and understanding the role of smartphones in identifying services and choices for individuals and influencing travel behavior.



* Full report:


Over the years, smartphone applications (apps) have evolved from early basic applications to multi-platform, advanced features that we commonly see today. Mobile and smartphone adoption is strikingly pervasive. A Pew Research study found that as of April 2015, 64% of American adults owned a smartphone. This study also found that 19% of American adults either do not have broadband access at home or have relatively few options for getting online other than their mobile devices (Smith, 2015).

Demographic shifts, improvements in computing power and mapping technology, the use of cloud computing, changes in wireless communication, concerns about congestion, and increased awareness about the environment and climate change are changing the way people travel. Increasingly, mobility consumers are turning to smartphone “apps” for a wide array of transportation activities including: vehicle routing, real-time data on congestion, information regarding roadway incidents and construction, parking availability, and real-time transit arrival predictions.

For example, according to that same Pew study, 74% of adults used their phones to get directions or other location-based services. Sixty-five percent of smartphone users indicated that they had received turn-by-turn navigation or directions while driving from their phones, and 15% did so regularly. As of April 2015, the study found that 25% of mobile phone users occasionally received real-time public transit information using their devices; 10% accessed public transit information from their devices regularly. The study also found that 11% of users occasionally and 4% frequently accessed a taxi or car service from their mobile devices. However, the study also found that 72% of smartphone owners have never used their devices to access a taxi or car service (Smith, 2015). Moreover, a travel survey conducted by Expedia with nearly 9,000 adults in 25 countries found that 35% of business travelers used their phones in booking transportation from one point to another (Schaal, 2014).

This high adoption rate should not come as a surprise. The increasing availability, capability, and affordability of intelligent transportation systems, global positioning system (GPS), wireless, and cloud technologies¾coupled with the growth of data availability and data sharing¾are causing people to increasingly use smartphone transportation apps to meet their mobility needs. Travel time savings (e.g., high occupancy vehicle lanes available to users of dynamic ridesharing); financial savings (e.g., dynamic pricing providing discounts for peak and off-peak travel and for choosing low-volume routes); incentives (e.g., offering points, discounts, or lotteries); and gamification (e.g., use of game design elements in a non-game context) are among the key factors driving end-user growth of smartphone transportation applications (Deterding et al., 2011, Marczewski, 2012).

The same Pew study found that mobile users have significant concerns about their data privacy. More than half of app users decided not to install or uninstalled an app because of privacy concerns about their personal information, and 20% turned off location tracking (Smith, 2015). This study suggests increasing concerns by smartphone users about privacy.

This primer is intended to demonstrate how vital smartphones are becoming to the transportation network and provide public agencies, transportation managers, and elected officials with a perspective and understanding the role of smartphones in identifying services and choices for individuals and influencing travel behavior. The development of this primer was made possible by 13 specialists and practitioners that conducted an expert review of this primer and participated in a one-day workshop on July 1, 2015, at the US Department of Transportation Headquarters. The workshop brought together “thought leaders” from across North America to discuss smartphone apps and how to help public agencies develop supportive policies and programs. The document is organized into seven chapters.


Smartphone Applications Primer Overview

In this first chapter, Introduction and Overview, the document presents the project background and an overview for the state-of-the-practice chapters.

Next, Chapter 2, Background: Setting the Stage, presents background information on the history and trends affecting the growth and evolution of mobile phones, smartphone applications, and associated technologies.

Chapter 3, Smartphone Application Types Promoting Transportation Efficiency and Congestion Reduction, presents four types of transportation apps that are in widespread use today:

  • Mobility Apps: Apps that are mobility focused and include the following derivatives: business-to-consumer (B2C) sharing apps; mobility trackers; peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing apps; public transit apps; real-time information apps; ridesourcing or transportation network company (TNC) apps; taxi e-Hail apps; and trip aggregator apps.
  • Vehicle Connectivity Apps: Apps that help users to connect to their vehicles remotely; these apps can be very beneficial in case of lockouts or an accident.
  • Smart Parking Apps: Apps that make the parking process more efficient by highlighting the real-time availability and parking cost. Additionally, smart parking apps enable ease of payment. Valet parking apps allow the user to hire an experienced valet to park their vehicle after dropping it off at a convenient location.
  • Courier Network Services (CNS) Apps: Apps that are focused on efficiently delivering goods to individuals.

Additionally, this chapter discusses three categories of non-transportation apps that deploy strategies that may be useful for future transportation apps. These three categories of apps may encourage active modes (e.g., cycling and walking), increase environmental awareness, and impact the ways in which people drive. These three categories include:

  • Health Apps: Apps that assist users in monitoring their health (e.g., calories burned, heart rate, etc.); understanding the health impacts of their transportation choices; and encouraging health-conscious behavior, such as walking and biking. Outside of mobility, health apps are integrating health records, providing low-cost medical care, and creating motivational communities focused on health.
  • Environment/Energy Consumption Apps: Apps that track environmental impacts and energy consumption of travel behavior, for example greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with different modal choices. Outside of mobility, environment/energy apps are reducing material consumption, connecting consumers to the environment, and generating awareness of important environmental issues.
  • Insurance Apps: Apps that enable users to opt for pay-per-mile automobile insurance (e.g., Metromile) and other usage-based pricing and incentives related to distance, time-of-travel, and safe driving (e.g., Allstate’s usage-based insurance app). Outside of mobility, insurance apps are speeding the insurance claims process and reducing insurance fraud.

Next, in Chapter 4, Transportation Apps and Their Impact on Travel Behavior, highlights the social and behavioral aspects impacting the success of these applications. This includes cognitive impacts; actual and perceived control; privacy safeguards; the role of trust; the reframing of norms and defaults in transportation choices; price, actual value, and perceived value; information availability; social pressure; risk analysis; and the delivery of incentives.

Chapter 5, Current Challenges aims to summarize challenges app developers and public agencies confront in this space.

In Guiding Principles for Public Agencies and Policymakers (Chapter 6), some guidelines are outlined that can be adopted by public agencies as they investigate smartphone apps. Taking into account future trends in the design of smartphone apps and advances in transportation technology, this chapter highlights some best practices that can be implemented by policymakers and public agencies to maximize impact.

Through this structure, the document serves to inform future transportation policy and investment decisions by providing a holistic perspective on the state of smartphone app use among travelers.

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In summary, mobility, vehicle connectivity, smart parking, courier network services, health, environment and energy consumption, and insurance apps are transforming mobility, improving access to transportation services, enhancing traveler engagement, and spawning innovative businesses, services, and mobility models. Android and iOS are the most common operating systems.

Most mainstream transportation apps have limited availability on less common second tier operating systems, such as Windows and Blackberry. The vary majority of apps are offered free of charge in contrast to only 7% offered for purchase. Some of the free apps (17%) offer a freemium version with enhanced features or a user experience without advertising (n=14/82). Anecdotally, advertisers seem to be more willing to pay for ad impressions than users are willing to pay for applications without advertising and other premium services.

The use of game theory and game mechanics, such as gamification and incentives, remain important elements of app design. Nearly one quarter of the transportation apps identified for this scan incorporated some form of gamified incentive. Incentives within mobile applications, such as incentives to download the app and incentives to use the app (or more specifically, gamified incentives that encourage or discourage a particular type of application use), are common strategies being employed by app developers to enhance user engagement and encourage user retention across a wide array of transportation applications.

Types of Apps Impacting Transportation


In recent years, smartphone apps have again caused a re-evaluation of travel patterns and habits by incorporating mobility matching, mobility networking, and real-time data to create a new travel experience. Today, smartphone users can use their devices to match themselves with other travelers to carpool, hire a driver, and rent their personal bicycle or vehicle, changing a number of different behavioral norms:

  • Carpooling apps are breaking the norm that getting in a car with strangers is necessarily a bad thing. They are doing so by making the matching process easier and improving the verification process by which riders and drivers are matched (Kerr, 2014).
  • Ridesourcing apps are breaking the norm that you need to be wealthy to have a private driver. Indeed, Uber’s early marketing campaigns revolved around the slogan “Everyone’s Private Driver” (White, 2012). They are doing so by disrupting the taxi industry so that any individual can operate an on-demand vehicle and making it easier and cheaper to access mobility services.
  • Carsharing and bikesharing are changing norms around ownership of transportation modes. For long periods in the history of the automotive and bicycle industries, owning a vehicle was the primary norm: it was the gateway to mobility. But with the rise of carsharing and bikesharing services (Shaheen & Cohen, 2014) (Shaheen, Martin, Chan, Cohen, & Pogodzinski, 2014) and apps that enable easy access to such services, the norm of ownership is beginning to evolve into a norm of access.

* Full report:

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About the authors:

The latest report from the FHWA was authored by the University of California, Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center’s Co-Director Susan Shaheen (UC Berkeley Team leader) and Adam Cohen (UC Berkeley), along with Ismail Zohdy (formerly with Booz Allen Hamilton) and Beaudry Kock (Moovel, formerly RideScout).

The Transportation Sustainability Research Center at UC Berkeley combines the research forces of six campus groups at UC Berkeley: the University of California Transportation Center, the University of California Energy Institute, the Institute of Transportation Studies, the Energy and Resources Group, the Center for Global Metropolitan Studies, and the Berkeley Institute of the Environment. Since The Transportation Sustainability Research Center (TSRC) was formed in 2006, it has been a leading center in conducting timely research on real-world solutions for a more sustainable transportation future. In addition to performing research informed by a diverse array of perspectives, TSRC also engages in education and outreach to promote its core values of sustainability and equity, to ensure that we are able to meet the transportation needs of the present without compromising future generations. TSRC conducts research on a wide array of transportation-related issues, addressing the needs of individuals as well as the public.

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About the sponsoring agency:

The Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Office of Operations provides national leadership for the management and operation of the surface transportation system. The office is responsible for FHWA’s efforts in the areas of congestion management, Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Deployment, traffic operations, emergency management, and freight management and operations.

U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration
Office of Operations (HOP)
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590

Technical Representative (COTR): Wayne Berman
Technical Support: Allen Greenberg

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About the editor

Eric Britton
13, rue Pasteur. Courbevoie 92400 France

Bio: Founding editor of World Streets (1988), Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher, occasional consultant, and sustainability activist who has observed, learned, taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. In the autumn of 2019, he committed his remaining life work to the challenges of aggressively countering climate change and specifically greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the mobility sector. He is not worried about running out of work. Further background and updates: @ericbritton | | #fekbritton | | and | Contact: | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

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