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Public Roads - January/February 2017

January/February 2017
Issue No:
Vol. 80 No. 4
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Internet Watch

The Influence of Mobile Applications

by Carrie Boris

More and more, travelers are turning to smartphone applications for a wide array of transportation activities. Drivers often use apps for vehicle routing, real-time data on congestion, information regarding roadway incidents and construction, and parking availability. Transit users often rely on apps for real-time predictions of transit arrivals. The expanding availability, capability, and affordability of intelligent transportation systems, GPS, wireless, and cloud technologies--coupled with the growth of data availability and data sharing--are causing people to increasingly use smartphone apps to meet their mobility needs.

Many State and local transportation agencies are developing their own apps to provide their stakeholders with useful information and functionality on the go. Many more may be wondering how best to integrate with or support third-party apps and development efforts. To help, the Federal Highway Administration published Smartphone Applications to Influence Travel Choices (FHWA-HOP-16-023). This primer provides an overview of current practices and looks toward the future in the evolution and development of smartphone apps for the transportation sector.

Current Challenges

Four types of apps impact transportation--mobility, vehicle connectivity, smart parking, and courier network service--as well as nontransportation apps (such as health, environment and energy consumption, and insurance apps) that may be relevant to travelers. A number of challenges exist for developers, mobility service providers, and public agencies in developing any of these types of apps.

Privacy concerns. Apps may intentionally or unintentionally collect sensitive information that could be exposed by the app itself or through third-party application interfaces and cloud-based data storage.

Open and interoperable data. Data can broadly be divided into three types: (1) open data, (2) proprietary data, and (3) personal data. Open data are publicly available for download or through programming interfaces. Protecting all three types of data, while still enabling information sharing with other apps and services, is a continual challenge confronting developers.

Accessibility considerations. Bridging the digital divide for low-income users, providing service in rural regions with less data coverage, and providing payment options for users without bank accounts represent some of the key accessibility considerations for app-based services. In addition, ensuring that apps are usable by people with varying abilities represents another key challenge for app developers.


Guiding Principles for Public Agencies


Public agencies need to recognize several guiding principles in considering the role and implementation of smartphone apps on a transportation network. These include enhancing data sharing and interoperability and encouraging multimodal mobility.

To enhance data sharing and interoperability, local governments and public agencies should consider providing open data for app development. Doing so enables them to offer real-time transportation information to their communities, without the cost or responsibility of developing or maintaining mobile applications themselves. Open data can help to ensure data availability, open licenses, and data timeliness.

The primer also recommends that transportation agencies encourage multimodal mobility by enhancing payment mechanisms. With a growing array of private sector trip planning (such as ticketing and fare payment apps), payment is becoming increasingly complex for the end user. Developing a common platform for fare payment with a single point of sale to cover an entire journey (using multiple modes) can make smartphone apps more convenient and encourage multimodal trips. Similarly, expanding commuter benefits also encourages use, by enabling smartphone apps to access pre-tax commuter accounts, offering employer-provided usage, and providing app-based incentives linked to a user’s mode of choice.

“Transportation apps are profoundly influencing traveler behavior and how travelers interact with the transportation system,” says Wayne Berman, a team leader in FHWA’s Office of Operations. FHWA’s primer helps agencies navigate this mobile landscape and improve access and functionality for their communities.

For more information, visit

Carrie Boris is a contributing editor for Public Roads.