Just a few days ago, public transit and mapping app Citymapper announced that it would incorporate ‘floating transport’ into its public transport options to fill what it perceived to be a mobility gap in major cities. The term refers to modes of transport that have changing physical locations, like instant sign-up bikes and moped scooters – Citymapper now lists these alongside ‘fixed’ transport infrastructure such as buses and trains for all of its cities in Europe and across Asia. Recognising that thanks to technology, transport is becoming more responsive to human needs than in the past, Citymapper sees these options as potential solutions for those who are excluded from a comprehensive and frequent transport network.

Citymapper’s assessment of transport infrastructure is astute – there is significant mobility gap, although it takes different forms in urban vs. rural areas. In the village of Tatworth (Somerset), cuts to bus services, have had a significant impact on the local community, contributing to greater social isolation and at times preventing older residents from accessing timely medical treatment. In major cities like London or Manchester, the gap seems to be between what consumers expect (flexible, affordable modes of transport that can be accessed on-the-go, from almost any point in the city) and the extent to which the city transport network can adapt to meet the demands of growing and changing populations.

Though we may think of public transport as a fixed feature of our lives, the sector is hugely affected by changes in demographics, attitudes and technology use. For example, the gentrification of specific neighbourhoods in London (itself linked to demand for housing in said areas) and the high concentration (more than half) of Londoners working in central London has led to significant changes in travel patterns – a higher share of commuters now tend to travel shorter distances.

What is also interesting is how changes in the availability and accessibility of different transport providers (such as station free bike sharing, or shared electric scooters) has changed commuter behaviour, which in turn has prompted ‘floating’ transport providers to respond more quickly than any component of the TfL network might be able to.

Citymapper says:

“With fixed transport, the regulation has often driven the operator, with the operator then guiding the users. Now the relationship gets flipped. The users will drive the operators, i.e. the new brands will respond rapidly to demand in order to survive. The regulators will accelerate to cope with all the new operators and services.”

To an extent, this is true – we often think of regulations as obstacles to technological innovation and its potential positive impacts, as was the case with Uber, but at the same time tremendous consumer demand for the ridesharing service in London has undoubtedly contributed to it regaining its operating licence in the capital. Additionally, new consumer trends like ridesharing with acquaintances and the use of fintech have almost immediately made their way into the Uber experience, with passengers now able to instantly split fares – it is not difficult to imagine that this level of responsiveness will only rise with continued consumer demands for personalisation. The question is whether agile solutions that respond to consumer needs in almost real time will be able to fix the mobility gap in the short term, particularly with demographic change happening on multiple levels and at different speeds (nationally, the population is ageing, which means an increased number of elderly people living on their own/in isolation, but locally, population groups such as young professionals and students fluctuate all the time).

The complexity of transport systems, particularly with the technology behind them being either completely automated or much more responsive to individualised needs, is likely to rise in the future, but will they be able to face growing concerns about energy, safety, and heightened demands for mobility? Not if they don’t take into account factors like changes to future working habits or alternative housing. Future transport systems will need to be built around travellers’ needs – and floating transport is just the start.