Federico Zanetello spent three years living in China, travelling between Guangzhou and Shanghai
Now based in Bangkok he has a smartphone application that aims to help visitors and locals get around not just those two megacities but many other major Asian cities that are fast evolving sprawling metro networks.
What was the inspiration behind your app?
Before moving to Bangkok I lived in China for three years, whilst I was there I spent most of my time between Guangzhou and Shanghai.
Whenever you go somewhere in these cities (and any other top-tier city in China), people will tell you where the closest subway station is and how to reach different places from each station. Nobody asks how you’re going to get there: it’s always just assumed you’ll go by metro.
Both cities have an extensive, constantly evolving subway network: at the start of this year, Guangzhou opened three brand new lines and Shanghai opened two.
Time is money, and everyone just wants to get to their destination as soon as possible, instead of wasting time staring at a huge metro map in the station’s platform, the easiest way to find your way is by using an app on your phone.
From there it’s easy to get addicted to these kinds of apps: they’re super useful, convenient, and help you to save a lot of time all through the day.
Once my next destination, Bangkok, was chosen, one of the first questions that I asked myself was how I was going to get around? Online research told me that, even in Bangkok, the subway is the fastest way to move around.
There was a big hole though: at the time on the App Store there were a few options that were either very limited in terms of features, (such as apps which were just a train timetable) or were outdated (missing the latest line extensions or even whole lines).
Instead of giving up, I took on the task myself. My goal was, and still is, to just help people know how to get from A to B quickly.
Most app businesses focus on keeping the user on the app for as long as possible (think Facebook in Europe/USA, WeChat in China, etc), mine is completely the opposite: I want people to find out what they need and be done with the app as quickly as possible.
Have you been able to achieve that?
I’m proud to say that, thanks to 3D touch and localization services, you can now find the way from your nearest station to any other with just one tap in my app.
You can be done with the app, from launching to closing, in less than ten seconds.
What do you have planned for the future?
Obviously, plotting a journey from A to B is only one of the features of my apps, I’ve been constantly working on these apps for over two years now and I keep adding features and improvements almost daily.
I’m not even half done with these apps: I have a roadmap that spans over two major versions (we are currently at version 2.2) and that will take at the very least two more years.
Beside adding new features, I’m quite keen to collaborate with network operators in order to achieve further integration of my metro apps with their services.
Specifically, I would love to offer my users the possibility to see live information like how long until the next train on a given route arrives or how much credit is left on their transport card.
The possibilities are endless and I’m super excited to see what will happen next.
In your experience how do different cities handle urban transportation?
Every city has its own unique way to deal with the issue of urban transportation.
I quite like the Shanghai approach, where it’s not easy to get a car plate which discourages private car ownership as I believe that private car ownership in top tier Asian cities is dead. But there are other positive elements to Shanghai’s approach, motorcycles are almost non-existent and large trucks are only allowed within the city early in the morning and late in the day.
Bike sharing has surged in popularity ever since the concept was introduced with many stations across the city offering this service, effectively allowing for an entire journey to take place on bike and then by the metro or bus network.
However, something that Shanghai is still missing is the availability of public transportation for the whole day. The very first time I visited Shanghai I had to leave downtown well before 10pm if I wanted to go home by public transportation.
Obviously, taxis (and black taxis, a.k.a. unlicensed taxis) were, and still are, wildly available at any given time.
Last year the Shanghai Municipal Government announced extended operating times on Fridays and Saturdays for the main lines, which certainly helps some, but I’m still excited to see what’s next for Shanghai.
What about other cities that are organised differently?
Kuala Lumpur has good transportation downtown, but it has more work to do on the city’s outskirts.
Seoul is fantastic in terms of both bus and metro, in fact many people there like to say that they have a BMW: Bus, Metro and Walk.
Bangkok, where I currently live, is well behind all the cities mentioned above. Public transportation started quite early with an extensive (at the time) tram network in the very late 1800s, a series of bad decisions and unlucky events brought this network to a complete, definitive halt in the 1960s, the same decade where the first Thai automotive plant opened as well. Following this Thailand invested heavily in car infrastructure for decades.
If you build car infrastructure, more cars will come, and this investment resulted in even more cars in Bangkok, causing exasperating traffic jams, instead of less.
The Bangkok municipality has realised this way too late, and only now we see more investments and projects on the Bangkok public transportation. Not everything is lost, but we will still need several more years before being comparable to other Asian cities.