Despite the enormous use of public transit around the world and how widely complained-about it is, there hasn’t been much in the way of venture-backed attempts to cater to this market. Moovit is an exception, and with a $28 million Series B round led by Sequoia Capital now in the bank, it aims to do for users of buses and trains what Waze has done for drivers.
In case Moovit’s iOS and (recently redesigned) Android app has passed you by until now, it’s a combination of a journey planner and real-time travel updates service. From the main map you can tap on bus stops to see when the next departures are, and you can plan multi-modal trips for short hops or long distance journeys. As you travel, you can see other users on the map and receive information from them about how their journeys are progressing and the quality of their ride.
A complex problem to tackle
Although it’s easy to write this off as simply trying to take what Waze did and use it in a slightly different context, Moovit actually has some very different – and complex – problems to tackle. CEO Nir Erez tells us that the startup wants to solve the “uncertainty” that public transit users face. Where’s my bus right now? How do I find the right stop to board it? How do I pay when I get on? It’s enough to make you want to stick with a car.
One big challenge that Moovit faces is the sheer variety of different data sources it has to handle. In some areas, there are real-time feeds of bus and train locations available, whereas in others it has to work with fixed timetable information. What’s more, that data comes to Moovit in a variety of formats from 2,000 transport agencies around the world. Erez says that the company has developed an automated system to process and standardize this data; with only 30 employees at the firm, there’s no way it could be done manually.
Moovit says that it currently has 3 million registered users across the 100 metropolitan areas the app currently supports, and Erez says that the app sees hundreds of thousands of users per day. With fresh funds in the bank, the goal is now to expand the coverage area significantly, including a push into the Asia-Pacific region, where the company currently has no footprint at all.
However, data processing may not be Moovit’s biggest challenge. It faces competition from well-established local transport information apps in many of the markets it serves, and the value of real-time crowdsourced information is only unlocked when the daily active user base hits a certain threshold. Opening the app’s maps of cities like Manchester and London in the UK revealed no users sharing their journeys at all. It’s a different story in downtown Tel Aviv, on the startup’s home turf of Israel, where you can see plenty of journeys in progress.
Then there’s the problem of gaps in the data. Planning a journey from Sale Metrolink Station to Piccadilly Gardens Metrolink Station in Manchester revealed that neither places were in the app’s database. The stations themselves were there, as were the Metrolink tram journeys between them, just not under the names that a local person would likely search for them. Implementing a place database such as Foursquare’s might be wise in addition to the street addresses the app currently uses. Otherwise, users may well get frustrated by incomplete data and head back to their reliable, locally-focused app.
Successfully tackling a problem like public transit for the whole world is difficult unless you have local data advocates on the ground in every region, ensuring that quality, up-to-date information is fed back to HQ. This is the headache that Erez and his team will have to concern themselves with as they scale a very complex product indeed.