There’s an app for just about everything imaginable these days. In fact, there are thousands of apps available, ranging from the very useful to the completely absurd. You can download apps to help you keep in shape, spy phone apps to keep your kids out of trouble - there’s even an app to help you keep track of your bowel movements (I’m not kidding).
As one who travels often, I find urban mobile apps (or city apps, as they are sometimes called) to be among the most useful. And it’s a trend that’s really catching on, not only in major cities, but also in smaller ones. A good urban app can make visiting a city a lot more enjoyable, and there are some very practical uses for them as well. Urban apps are also quite useful for residents of cities, too - they’re not just for tourists.
Urban Apps: Tourist Guides and More
More and more cities are realizing the benefits of creating mobile apps that are capable of providing many services to locals and visitors alike. Urban apps can do a lot more than show you the way to the nearest tourist attraction or pizzeria. Many cities are finding novel ways to enhance the experience of visiting or living in a city. If you’re a tourist, an urban app can certainly be helpful in getting around and finding places of interest. But there are other potential applications that can be beneficial to everyone involved.
Case in Point: Mobile Parking Apps
One of the most frustrating things about being in a large city, especially a place like New York City, is simply finding a place to park your car. It has been estimated that almost 30% of all traffic in the US at any given moment is made up of people trying to find a parking space. That sounds like a joke, but it’s not. Someone did a survey in Brooklyn recently, asking drivers at traffic lights where they were going, and it turned out that around half of them were merely trying to park their cars.
In response to the problem, many cities have hired software developers to create apps which will help drivers find nearby parking. This is just one example of how urban apps can be practical and extremely useful for tourists as well as residents in large cities. New York now has several independent firms who have developed, or are in the process of creating, easy-to-use parking apps. Some focus on street parking exclusively, others include garage and private parking facilities.
Two Examples of Cities Who Are Doing it Right
There are a number of cities in the United States and abroad who have developed their own urban apps. Let’s take a look at two cities who have taken the lead in creating well-designed apps that benefit residents, tourists and local businesses, while at the same time helping to enhance the city’s “brand”.
Baltimore, Maryland has launched an app called Visit Baltimore which works with Android, BlackBerry and iPhone. The city’s innovative app utilizes an augmented reality feature that allows users to aim their phone’s camera at a cityscape, street or building to view an overlay containing information about the area or a specific location. When the user clicks on a tag corresponding to a location, additional related information is displayed on the screen. Visitors can also access another Visit Baltimore app designed for iPhones which does not have the augmented reality overlays, but contains a customizable trip-planning feature.
Charlotte, North Carolina is not one of America’s largest cities, but it plays host to thousands of visitors and it has a reputation for progressive thinking, in terms of tourism and sustainability. The MyCharlotte mobile app is more geared to residents than tourists, but it serves both visitors and locals equally as well. MyCharlotte incorporates what is known as the 311 system - a way for residents to interact directly with city services. Users can report to the city regarding issues such as road problems, stray animals or vandalism. The system allows residents to file requests or complaints in a convenient manner and the system saves the city money by eliminating the need for live operators to answer phones. Residents and visitors in Charlotte can also access information about public transportation, air quality, traffic reports and more.
General City Apps
Aside from apps designed for specific cities, there are dozens of apps available that work in more than one city. Urban mobile apps such as CityMapper, which contains guides for London, Paris, Berlin and New York, and Lonely Planet’s travel guides are very popular among tech-minded globetrotters.
mTrip is one of the best city travel guides available these days. It’s free and works with Android, iPhone and iPod Touch - best of all, there are no roaming fees when you use mTrip. The app features augmented reality overlays and helps users customize their travel itineraries in cities worldwide. mTrip contains reviews from travel experts and ordinary travelers who can submit their own reviews and favorite destinations. With mTrip you can access information about the best routes, whether on foot or via public transport, and you can adjust the pace of your itinerary to suit your taste.
AppMyCity! is an annual contest that awards a $5000 cash prize to the best new urban app developers. Sponsored by the New Cities Foundation, AppMyCity! was created to reward “new mobile applications that improve the urban experience, connect people and make cities more fun, fair, vibrant, and sustainable places”. That’s quite a mouthful, but I’m sure you get the idea.
This year marks the third edition of the competition and it will be held in Dallas, Texas during the New Cities Summit in June, 2014. This competition is evidence that city apps are becoming more relevant and it will no doubt help to stimulate development of new ideas in the field. It’s a win-win proposition, both for economic development of cities and for those who live in and visit them.