Riding smartly with CityMapper: Ethnographic snippets from a Smart Ride journey across Central London

“Get me to Covent Garden”, I ask CityMapper. I choose the Smart Ride option, recently added to the travel menu. A bus-cab hybrid service, Smart Ride is designed to be shared by passengers travelling in a similar direction. It is a bit like a bus, because it has stops and takes multiple passengers. It is also like a cab, because you are guaranteed a seat and a rather luxurious travel experience.

Like a metro system, it operates a network within a specific coverage area. Yet it is also something quite unique in the London transportation scene. Having studied pooled mobility across London, Ahmedabad and São Paulo in the past, I wanted to take a ride and find out for myself what CityMapper had to offer – and how London is responding.


Options, Options

I’m taking a route I am well familiar with; as a frequent visitor of the Royal Opera House I often have to figure out how to get there on time from our office in London Bridge. Typically, I have a few options.

• Sweat on the tube in the delightfully suffocating rush-hour surroundings; the trip involves one change and never a seat at this time of day

• Sweat on a bus for even longer; it will also take ages for the bus to arrive no matter how well I time it

• Get the boat across to Embankment and have a 10 minutes’ walk from there – a wonderfully punctual and pleasant experience if the weather is good, which, this being London, is extremely unlikely. It also comes to a steep £6.50 a ride, not to mention the boat only goes every 25 minutes

• Take an Uber, which would feel both extravagant and stressful as the driver is guaranteed to take the worst possible route

When I first look into Smart Ride, it isn’t clear to me how the green routes within the network operate.

I’m not sure if these are point-to-point routes going in different directions, and if so, how can I get from where I am to where I want to be. Smart Ride is repeatedly positioned as hybrid – and this very hybridity is what confuses me. I’m not sure if I’m looking at bus routes, or a metro network. I have no idea where I can get on or out of the car.

As I request my journey, I am pleasantly surprised to discover that the green routes are a network, and that Smart Ride vans can move across it in any combination. I can go from and to any point within the network. CityMapper directs me to my pick-up point – the driver is just five minutes away, so I have no time to spare. I am not just given a GPS pin, but a helpful direction – “opposite the Food and Wine store”. This brings specificity to the cartographic abstraction and takes away the stress of wondering if you’re at the right place.

Shortly, my Smart Ride arrives. It’s a rather grand Mercedez-Benz Viano – not the sort of vehicle I would expect as I am only spending £3. It’s an eight-seater – a limitation CityMapper had to accept due to TFL regulations. Anything above eight seats is technically a bus, and buses have to have fixed routes, schedules and service frequency. An outdated approach to urban mobility, CityMapper contends, but of course, plays by the rules.

The seats are spacious and comfortable, there is bottled water and multiple phone chargers – a life saviour at any time, and particularly now that I’m snapping away, making sure there is enough photographic evidence for my little ethnographic expedition. I chat to the driver, disappointed by the lack of co-riders, but interested in hearing his story.

“I have been doing this for twenty years. Mostly high-end clients”, he tells me. “A lot of my friends joined Smart Ride when it came along in February, I think it’s really great”.

He won’t go into details of why it’s great for him – I assume the flat rate he is paid by CityMapper must be above and beyond what he previously made. “It’s great for the passenger”, he refers to the car with great pride. “Do you often get to ride in a car like this? I know the roads, I speak English – you won’t get this kind of service anywhere else, and certainly not for the kind of money you’re paying”.

I have to agree with him, and yet I wonder, if we are going to pick up any other passengers – since sharing is at the core of the Smart Ride concept and purpose.

Having been dropped off at Covent Garden within 23 minutes of ordering the vehicle – much faster than all the other options – I hop in and out of other Smart Rides in an attempt to learn more about sharing.

I discover that actual sharing is rather limited due to the passenger-to-vehicle ratio. “There aren’t enough people using us, and we’re quite a big fleet. So there is typically a car available for each passenger”, I am told. Morning and evening rush hour is the only time pooling does happen. Even then, however, only one of the drivers I spoke to had all the seven seats filled – just once since he started in February.

Smart Ride in-car “user manual” – neatly designed and pointedly witty – jokingly instructs that it’s important not to talk to other passengers, not to make eye contact, and not to have fun. Ironically, this is what happens quite literally. “People just want to relax and avoid talking”, one of the drivers tells me. “Everyone always has headphones on”, another says. “These days it’s not about being social, it’s about being on social media. Everyone’s on Instagram and Snapchat, no one is talking”, a third driver opines.

This is very much in line with what we discovered when we studied pooled mobility across London, Sao Paulo and Ahmedabad, over a year ago. Londoners very much lived up to the cliché: socially awkward and introvert to the extreme, they do not enjoy being around other people in a shared vehicle. Younger commuters were more open to the idea of formal pooling; some were indeed attracted by a sense of adventure and serendipity. However, this was most prevalent in the context of night-time journeys: after a few drinks, already in the company of a friend or two.

 As Smart Ride operates between 9am and 9pm, it thus caters to a quintessentially different type of journeys. “It is mostly city boys and city girls commuting”, all drivers agreed. These commuters are clearly not looking for an adventure or to make friends. “Some students too, it’s a cheap way to travel nicely in a group”, another driver told me. But as students already tend to travel in groups, interaction with other passengers is even less frequent, all drivers observed.

As I argued in my EPIC paper on pooled mobility, the success of formal pooling depends on establishing culturally sensitive rules of engagement that all parties – drivers, commuters, public sector policy makers and private sector innovators – are happy to honour. It is a collective project – and a slow one. Shared social grammars take time to emerge – a fact often ignored by the algorithms behind pooling services.

These socio-cultural norms are of course just one of the obstacles CityMapper is facing in London such as TfL regulations, low reach and slow market penetration, current vehicle-to-passenger ratio, limited network coverage… These are amongst many challenges that CityMapper has to overcome for Smart Ride to become a transportation player it deserves to be. I hope it happens, and car sharing becomes as integral a part of London commute as crowded carriages on the Central line and cancelled Southern Rail trains. Until then, I will enjoy having an eight-seater to myself.