Go fast, go green, go public!
In Romania, a country, where travelling on buses and trams is still seen as somewhat degrading, Tudor Iliescu (24) developed a tool to help navigate around the sometimes erratic transport systems – and to raise the image of public transport.
Tudor Iliescu used to drive a car, now he favours public transport. Photo: Transport UrbanWhen he came to Bucharest to study six years ago, Tudor Iliescu got sick and tired of asking and waiting around for erratic buses and trams. With the help of two fellow programmers he embarked on a long journey – building a user-friendly navigation tool dedicated to public transportation. Right now Tudor is 24, their application has just turned one year old, and it successfully saves time for 2000 students and newcomers in seven cities across Romania every day. I have decided to join their ranks, to leave my bike at home this time, and to reach Tudor somewhere near the old center of Bucharest by trolleybus and tram. Not that it was far, their Transport Urban website claimed that it would only take me 23 minutes to reach my cafe of destination, 6,7 kilometers away. 26 minutes later I was already sipping an espresso with Tudor, a slim young man with precise gestures and a disarming politeness vibrating in his every word.
Getting the foot off the brake
At first glance he might appear shy or even modest, but when it comes to facts and figures, Tudor is strong on his feet. “We are past the proof of concept phase in our development; now we try to prove our relevancy on the global market and to scale our product,” he told me just before leaving for the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona (read more on it here). “We can easily implement our solution, mobile and web based, in all the cities that have made the data concerning public transport available in an international format – GTFS. There are over 400 public transportation companies worldwide that are complying with this format. This is our primary target. For cities where the data is not available or missing entirely, we can generate it. This is our major competitive advantage, we are one of the few proactive route planners that can help the transporters generate and synthesize their data. In Romania the interest for this solution was low or inexistent, but we expect this service to generate profit abroad.”
Trolleybuses and other means of public transport are still considered degrading in Romania. Photo: rachel_titiriga, http://www.flickr.com/photos/pocait/2169751682/Talking about Romania, its capital Bucharest is a huge traffic jam, particularly on rainy days. There are over 1,3 millions registered cars fighting for less than 600.000 improvised parking spaces. That’s a lot for an official population of 1,6 million people. Still, public transportation is far from being popular among its inhabitants. Tudor is trying to change this. “Public transportation is still seen as somehow degrading, a sign of professional failure or a low income barometer,” he explains. “Our solution advertises the use of public transportation instead of personal cars or taxis. We try to make public transportation an easier and more convincing alternative by integrating estimated travel times on all the routes. We tested the timings ourselves for a while, and now the time estimations are satisfying. That helps a lot with the traveler’s time management.”.
From oil prospecting to environmental activism
The amount of visitors Transport Urban attracts each month, around 60.000, is still inferior to the number of muscle cars, sports cars, limousines and other status-expressing vehicles in Romania’s capital and its surroundings. Romanians love their cars and try to make the best out of the time they spend in traffic. Tudor was one of them. “I have spent a couple of years in the car, as a driver and later on as an assistant manager in the oil prospecting field”. Although he was facing a promising career as a manager – he is now doing a Master in business – he preferred to go independent and to dedicate his entire energy and attention to this project.
The entrepreneurial spirit was not his only motivation. I had actually met him two years ago, as an environmental activist and a member of an emerging green political movement. The movement failed to gain respect and recognition, we both left, but Tudor never betrayed or neglected his eco agenda. “I was also involved in other long-term green development projects. In my hometown Ploiesti I co-founded an ecological movement that I have lead for a year and a half. As its president, I had to discuss with both the public administrations and the citizens in order to implement projects aimed to make public transport more ecological or to build bicycle lanes. We see urban transport as a key social business; our main purpose was to promote public transport for a cleaner city and a better traffic.”
Good will leads to good fortune
His good intentions came to life with a lot of hard work. “This project was a no-budget one. I started as a data operator. Now I had to step in as a business developer. Transport Urban currently employs two fulltime people, four part-time contributors and three interns. Half of our team is working on the programming and the maintenance; the other half is taking care of the PR and the marketing. We invested all our free time and know-how in it. After one year, we were discovered by a strategic investor. We were not looking for an old-school investment in our venture, some tens of thousands of euros that would have put a great deal of pressure on our development. It was tempting, for sure, but we did not find it sustainable”.
Eventually, a lot of powerful partners were delighted by the social and environmental components of the application. A national chain of bookstores offered free promotion in their shops – without Transport Urban even asking. Their mobile applications were later co-branded by Vodafone. “They saw an opportunity to get in line with their social implication platform in our project. It is not a financial collaboration, so they offered their communication platform to promote us and welcomed us in their mobile portal and their native app packs,” Tudor elaborates. But that was not all. “We have also noticed a great deal of enthusiasm from online influencers and the independent media. A lot of people endorse us voluntarily in social networks. We have gone viral without aiming for that”.
The policy of truth
After an hour of talking, Tudor kept playing with his smartphone, showing me new cool features that they want to implement: reminders for favourite routes, a notification system, and an improved interface. He seemed happy, confident and serene. But, wait we are talking about business? Are there no threats in this line of business? “We are not afraid of the competition or of a possible cloning of our application. Even if that happened it would only be a sign that our services are really needed. We have been alone in this field for the last three years. Some company would be nice, actually,” he smiled bitterly.
“However, the investors avoid this specific field because they don’t see a clear profit in the short run. But that’s also OK. Our major frustration is that some of the state owned public transportation companies are not interested in what we have to offer, although it wouldn’t cost them anything and it would improve their services. The only thing they should participate with is information about the eventual route modifications and the buses timetable.”
This was the “Romanian moment” of the conversation – the meaningful silence that political subjects generate on this side of the Danube. A silence that could mean a lot: corruption, pressure, inertia, a silence that can only be broken with a condescending smile. Let’s translate it: “The decision makers are using a totally different mind frame, a political one; some of them are only aiming for a better public image and for personal profit, instead of trying to improve their companies’ services. This is where we draw the line. Still, even if the companies are owned by the state, some of the managers understand the benefits of our application. The age difference is usually a big gap in the translation; they are in their forties while we are in our early twenties. My prior work experience in a mature company was a big plus in the process of convincing our partners. We are also counting on public pressure. It’s effective! At a press conference, a journalist asked one of thestate companies that initially declined our proposal whether they were planning to collaborate with us; the company representative was too embarrassed to say ‘No’. That’s how we finally got his attention”.
Estimated time to arrival
The Transport Urban team at this year’s Mobile World Congress. Photo: Transport UrbanWe left the future plans for dessert. “We are planning to keep the mobile version of the app ad-free. Anyway, we don’t see this financing solution as valid. In the mobile version we have integrated a ticketing system, for Bucharest and Iasi only. It was made possible by our strategic developer, who is also our investor. We have an income source, but considering the fact that the app prices for tickets are identical to the ticket prices sold traditionally, the turnover is really small and depends on big selling volumes.” I was finishing my cheesecake, but Tudor was not. “Anyway we plan to go international and to promote our solution. We are very interested in the United States, but Europe will probably be our first target: Spain, England and, of course, Budapest”.