How APIs are Improving Transportation

Presenting at APIdays in Paris earlier this month, Manfred Bortenschlager from 3scale and Eric Thiebaut-George from Carma demonstrated how APIs are creating new transport opportunities and solving urban mobility challenges around the world.

Bortenschlager — who curates the online journal API Magazine and works at API management provider 3scale — believes APIs can solve many of the global challenges transport presents, as well as maximize the opportunities he sees in the sector ahead.

Opportunities and Challenges in Transport

Bortenschlager notes that international travel is worth $6.9 trillion in global GDP, about double the national GDP of Germany, and employs 4.5% of the total global workforce. With international trade forecast to grow by 8% each year, a new range of API-enabled transport products will be essential, Bortenschlager says, while smart navigation that uses APIs to draw in data on transport options, real-time contexts and personal preferences can reduce travel times by 18%.

However, as the transport trade continues to grow, challenges emerge. Traffic congestion reduces global GDP by $200 billion in the EU and the U.S. alone, while transport accounts for one-quarter of all EU carbon emissions. These are difficult pressure points to solve, as 71% of car drivers say they hate public transport, making it hard for alternatives to gain a foothold.

Congestion is not just a ground-based problem; freight traffic is set to grow 125%, making our skies more congested as well.

How APIs Are Reorienting the Future of Transport

Bortenschlager points to five ways that APIs are creating platform-based business models that are driving the creation and deployment of a new range of products and solutions.

1. APIs Enable Mobile Channels

Multimodal transport and urban mobility efficiencies are becoming possible and scalable thanks to APIs. Bortenschlager points to the CitySDK initiative, which enables cities to standardize transport and mobility data so that developers can build scalable products, and the U.K. Traveline as examples of what is possible.

2. APIs Grow Ecosystems

Bortenschlager singles out Carma as a new market entrant that is enabling a carpooling service, with the functionality exposed via API.

Carma CEO Thiebaut-George says the motivation behind Carma is to encourage city residents “to try carpooling together in order to reduce the number of cars on the road. We should never really travel to work on the road alone.” He cites research that shows that in London, 20% of commuters are on the roads for longer than two hours, while in Germany workers spend an hour a day commuting, mostly due to traffic congestion from single-occupied cars clogging up the roads at peak-hour times.

In a talk following Bortenschlager’s, Thiebaut-George described the API production environment that is powering the Carma ecosystem. “The Carma API provides the same functionality as the application,” he said. “User registration, carpooling bookings, pickup and drop-off all use the same API as the one that Carma’s branded application uses.”

The API uses OAuth 2 authentication and manages several development servers to provide ecosystem partners with an environment for OAuth client testing. A production server, which requires OAuth client authentication, is also available once Carma can see examples of how new developers are creating apps in the development environment. (Production server access has so far only happened with a couple of partners, as Carma seeks relationships with the right type of ecosystem partners and ensures that high levels of security and data usage can be maintained in third-party applications.)

Carma also provides HTML widgets, for example, to search for local matches. The complete code is provided on GitHub.

Sample codebases are also available to help onboarding of new ecosystem partners by showing the workflow of API calls, including creating a driver or passenger account, posting a pickup location and rating the driver.

3. APIs Increase Reach

Bortenschlager points to Uber’s recent foray into APIs as an example of how transport businesses are opening up their APIs to increase the sales potential. Bortenschlager referenced Uber executives who have stated that the goal of releasing the API is to let Uber be embedded in other application services, extending its reach into new markets.

4. APIs Power Business Models

Bortenschlager mentioned U.K. innovator Transport API, which aggregates all transport-related data feeds across London and is now monetizing those data feeds. New businesses — particularly in hyperlocal and digital out-of-home displays — are drawing on the data feeds as part of a value-added feature that is helping them provide essential complementary services to their end customers. Transport API has been able to create a suite of new pricing schemes that also match its end users' business models.

5. APIs Drive Innovation

Bortenschlager pointed to how Transport for London is able to increase its usage (and thereby sell more transport tickets) by using a platform model that encourages innovation and the design of next-generation products and services. Transport for London encourage mashups and applications to be built based on its data supply, which includes details of transport lines, route times, rental bike schemes and electric car refill stations.

While Bortenschlager and Thiebaut-George point to a number of initiatives under way, the truth is that these are only the first steps in what will become a sea change in how transport systems operate, thanks to APIs. Airport projects aimed at better managing passenger flow and reducing airplane delays; optimizing city bike rental schemes by mining big data analytics on usage; and enabling ambitious citywide projects such as those in London, Paris and Helsinki aimed at eliminating private car usage in the inner urban centers are next in line to be rolled out beyond pilot phases, all because of what is possible with APIs.

Be sure to read the next Transportation article: Publishes Roadside Assistance API


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