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Routing Services – A way to manipulate the choice of transport?

Algorithms are the cogwheels of today’s world - they can be used to develop and build business models that are customer-centric and offer real added value. But the manipulation and handling of algorithms are justifiably a frequent topic of discussion. This topic was also analysed by Andreas Wolf, Andre Klein and Benno Bock, together with Anna Fechner, who presented their results at the 8th Florence Conference on the Regulation of Infrastructures. The main focus: The algorithms of route planners and the related risks for individuals and cities, e.g. due to manipulation either in favour of car transport or to the detriment of public transport.

Their analysis shows that the calculated travel times, which are displayed via data interfaces for identical queries, differ systematically both between individual sub-areas and between modes of transport. The origin of these differences remains unclear. This development is particularly alarming because users no longer subjectively check the offers by route planners beyond a certain level of usage. Therefore, if a routing service provider wanted to systematically influence the choice of transport mode between, for example, motorised private transport and local public transport, this would be possible and almost unnoticeable.

In the context presented, civity compared three of the leading routing API services in public transport – Google, Here and Bing. All offers are available worldwide and sometimes contain real-time information about road traffic and local departure times. The development of the described routing analysis is part of the current “xMND” research project, which is funded by the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure within the framework of the “mFUND” projects.

The analysis comes to the conclusion that policy-makers, municipalities and public transport companies should devote themselves to the effects of algorithms on everyday mobility, not just in future, but already now. Awareness must be developed for this topic and in-depth studies are necessary. The limited scope for action and co-operation vis-à-vis routing service providers should be fully exploited.