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Will Columbus’ App Gamble Pay Off for Transit Riders?

Ohio's capital city has launched a new trip-planning app called Pivot. Now in the beta phase, the app is working to connect travelers to a variety of public and private transportation options.

A new mobile trip-planning app that places public transit, rent-to-ride bikes and scooters, and other forms of mobility under one application has launched in Columbus, Ohio.

In its current form, the app known as Pivot is still in beta status, is but a precursor to a version which will allow users to book and then pay for multiple transportation options all on one platform. That feature of Pivot is due out in January.

“We’re working through discussing the agreements with the various mobility providers for that,” said Andrew Wolpert, deputy program manager for Smart Columbus. “The financial aspect is a little difficult proposition, as far as the project goes. Nobody in the U.S., I think, has really developed a system that encompasses the payment aspect of it. So, luckily here in Columbus, we have mobility providers that are eager to be a part of it.

“We’re continually working with them to get those agreements and those terms worked out,” he added. 

The Pivot system is account-based, which means users will create an account and can then link their accounts with other mobility providers — bike-shares, scooters or transportation network companies like Uber or Lyft — to their new Pivot account.

“They only need to pay once and the payment is split between providers on the back end,” explained, Alyssa Chenault, communications project manager for Smart Columbus, the over-arching set of next-generation projects unfolding in Ohio’s capital city.

Smart Columbus was born four years ago when the region was awarded a $50 million Smart City Challenge grant by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), which includes $10 million from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. The projects being pursued explore a list of technologies like connected vehicles, micro-mobility transportation and other approaches to address particular city needs around transportation.

Mobility Providers Already Integrated into the Pivot App Include:

  • COTA — the regional bus ssytem
  • Campus Area Bus Service (CABS) — a free transit service provided by Ohio State University.
  • Smart Circuit — An autonomous shuttle service in downtown Columbus.
  • Yellow Cab
  • CoGo — The city’s docked bike-share program
  • Lime — A dockless scooter-share network.
  • Bird — A dockless scooter-share network.
  • Gohio — Statewide carpooling service run by the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC)
During Pivot’s “soft launch,” officials are primarily reaching out to users of the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) bus system such as students or participants in the city’s “C-Pass” program, which distributes a limited number of free bus passes to downtown office workers to incentivize transit use among commuters, said Chenault.

“Our focus now is having current bus riders to try it out, compare it to other apps they use to navigate, and share feedback so we can improve the app before the full release in January,” she added.

Columbus joins other cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Portland, Ore., in a move to modernize public transit by partnering with private transportation providers like Uber, Lyft, Jump bikes, taxis and others, and placing all of these services under one local transit app.

A single system that incorporates public- and private-sector transportation providers under one roof offers a number of challenges, say organizers, particularly when considering complex agreements related to data-sharing, or the often opaque mechanics of such partnerships.

One tool cities should not overlook in their drive to form these agreements is their unique ability to craft public policy, said Wolpert.

“One of the lessons we learned, too, that was very helpful,” Wolpert remarked, “was when it comes to the permitting process with scooters and bikes — that’s something that the city has permitting authority over — into those permits we wrote that they need to be a part of this system.

“And so I would recommend moving forward for other agencies, cities, that have that control, to write that into their permits,” he added.

So far, eight mobility providers have signed onto the Pivot app, with more to come.

“And then we’ll be working with those providers to get them integrated into the common payment system,” said Wolpert. 

“The biggest challenges we faced was working through the agreements with mobility providers. … It just takes time,” he added. “And every business has their own plan, their own ideas. And so it’s working with them to make sure it can fit within what we’re trying to accomplish in building that transportation ecosystem.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.