When it comes to getting from point A to point B, it’s hard to beat the convenience of a car. All you need is an available vehicle, Google Maps, and in some cases, a parking spot. Unless you’re a staunch environmentalist or city dweller, cars are simply the most rational mode of transportation.
So how do we make other transportation options as convenient as cars?
The answer may be a transportation super app. Note: The term “super app” is inspired by Chinese companies like Tencent, who created WeChat to help you book train tickets, find a hotel, pay bills, message friends, share photos, order food, and more — all in a single app.
To me, this super app needs to provide an incredibly ambitious value proposition — a single account or service that I can use to plan and pay for transportation anywhere in the world. Fortunately, there’s exciting progress being made.
The Whim app, from Finnish company MaaS global, allows you to book and pay for all your intra-city trips in one place. You can pay for them one-off or purchase a discounted subscription plan that sets limit across each transport option. They started in Helsinki and have since expanded into other Finnish cities, and even internationally to Antwerp, Vienna, Tokyo, Singapore, and parts of England. In a little over three years, they’ve made more than 16 million trips and raised a $33M Series B in 2019.
Uber (and by extension, Lyft) is another company that has grand ambitions.
More and more, Uber is not just going to be just about taking a car, but is about moving from point A to point B in the best way.
- Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber CEO
At least in the US, Uber is well-positioned to be the transportation super app. They’re already the default for ride-sharing — meaning they’re the default transportation app for people like me who don’t own a car — and rapidly expanding in international markets. In 2018, they acquired the bike-sharing startup Jump in hopes of jump-starting, so to say, their expansion beyond ride-sharing. But there’s been minimal overall progress towards being THE transportation platform. They’ve dabbled in commercial transportation by acquiring Otto, heavily invested in and then gave up on self-driving cars, and recently bought Postmates to bouy their food delivery operations. I’d argue these moves are adjacent, but not directly addressing, their lofty vision.
Regardless who ends up competing in this space, they’ll have to solve a number of hard problems. Just to throw out a few:
- Inter-city transportation (e.g. long-haul trains, buses, flights) is a significant percentage of travel but significantly more expensive and logistically complex
- Building partnerships with thousands of different local and regional transportation providers worldwide
- Integrating with transportation providers- either the provider already uses digital systems, needs to build it, or the super app builds it themselves
- Pricing and currency conversion (e.g. Do subscription plans apply across cities and countries? How do you adjust prices or normalize subscription pricing?)