Providing a big picture view
In the early days of door2door’s existence, Dr. Tom Kirschbaum, identified a golden opportunity to prove the worth of its urban mobility software. The company had analysed traffic patterns in Berlin and, specifically, how people were getting from the city to one of its two airports. They noted that all four bus lines servicing Tegel, the main international hub, started in the center of Berlin. However, the people riding these buses were starting from disparate places around the city, meaning that many would have to travel first downtown before accessing their ride to the airport. “We found that those who weren’t well served by the buses tended to use a private car or taxi instead,” says Kirschbaum, who is co-Chief Executive Officer and Founder of the seven-year-old company door2door.
To prove the point, they developed a heat map that showed where in the city commuters were beginning their trip and where the bus lines went. “We saw a total disconnect between supply and demand,” says Kirschbaum.
door2door took its findings to the city and to Berlin’s transit authority. The company also suggested that the problem might be successfully addressed. “We said, ‘Look, if you would implement a fleet of 20 mini buses, people would pool. You would have a very intelligent service and you would restock that demand,’” recalls Kirschbaum.
Proving it works
The authorities admitted that the current system was less than ideal, but they felt that making the changes to improve the situation was out of their scope. End of story? Not yet. door2door decided to put its ideas to the test. “We had to prove it. We had to take the risk out of the thing and show that it works. It’s not enough to show it virtually. We had to prove it works and that’s what we did,” says Kirschbaum.
door2door acquired cars and drivers and implemented the first ever ridepooling service in Germany. “We did not intend to become mobility providers ourselves, but we did it,” says Kirschbaum. Berliners embraced the service from the start, choosing the mini-buses over private cars.
The episode provided invaluable insight for door2door, whose main customers are governments and transit authorities. They realized that for politicians who have to regularly face the electorate, risk is a four-letter word. Even ideas that look great on paper can pose intolerable risks for people whose positions depend on avoiding mistakes that can be used against them in campaigns.
This is particularly true of new and radical ideas, like car-free cities where transit is managed by a fleet of autonomous vehicles. A mayor or transit authority might be initially receptive to the idea. “But when it comes to the specifics, they need to be very sure that the decision is made on a good foundation. So, you need to provide that foundation.” This means more than theory. “You need to have certain analysis. You need to have heat maps. You need to have calculations. You need to paint a picture for them so that the moment they step on stage and announce something new and potentially risky, there is a lot behind it already.”
Providing the big picture is really core to what door2door does as it seeks to help cities resolve the challenges they´re facing within their transit systems. For example, a city with a congestion problem in its downtown core might try radical solutions like banning cars in certain areas or charging a fee to enter. These solutions may work, but if they don’t, the fallout can be severe and hamper future efforts. door2door helps cities better plan and execute their policies with consideration to new and developing mobility services such as ride sharing, pooling, bike and scooter rentals, and even (in the future) elevated transit. To do this job properly, door2door needs input from all stakeholders including private tax.
Because of this, the company operates different than most of its counterparts, which prioritize scalability and guard their independence. “Normally at a tech company you want to have a niche and go in fast. We believe you need to have a holistic approach to make it sustainable,” says Kirschbaum. This translates into much longer time horizons for measuring success. “There’s a lot to gain in the long run, but there is no such thing as an easy, overnight success. There’s no Instagram of mobility.”
Instead of building protective walls, door2door thinks of itself as a partner in a mobility ecosystem that includes not only governments and regulators but also other mobility providers. The company realized that it would remain crucial to have many mobility players in the market, and it saw that leveraging the expertise of those other players would be useful in making a more robust and intelligent software product whose functions would ultimately serve the interest of the city.
To nurture partnerships, the company held a ‘Lab 4 Mobility Partners Day’ where it invited city and transit operators to spend time discussing transit issues and what door2door can do to help solve them. For Kirschbaum it was an opportunity to get these people thinking differently about how they work with software developers. “Traditionally in software development you found a company and listed your requirements and got price estimates. The company built the software for you and you used it for 10 years and then restarted the process. Our model is different. You have constant updates and standardized yet customizable set of features.”
To arrive at those standard features, door2door relies on input from existing and would-be clients through events like ‘Lab 4 Mobility Partners Day,’ but getting it right involves an element of prediction (including such massive questions such as the impact of driverless vehicles) and therefore remains a challenge.
The role of data
Data obviously plays a key role in allowing door2door to create its solutions. It is no surprisethat the company favors transparency when it comes to data, including data generated by private mobility services which, for business reasons, are often reluctant to share. For that reason, door2door shares its data with its partners and customers (i.e. cities). One novel use for data that door2door employs is to help it design mobility apps. Instead of a long laundry list of options, smart apps will learn and understand user preferences and adjust according to individual needs, a concept Kirschbaum likens to the Spotify music streaming service, where algorithms learn user preferences and listening patterns to make suggestions. A smart mobility app will be able to filter out untenable options as a user considers how to get from Point A to Point B.
Closing the gaps
For door2door, success means getting more people to choose transit options that are more sustainable than private cars because they are actually the better options. The company tracks and measures ridership rates and capacity utilization (i.e. how many seats are filled what percentage of each ride). It can use this data to help plan or alter routes so that more seats are filled and fewer private cars are on the road.And, by no small coincidence, these are the kinds of indicators of most interest to transit authorities, too.